The Brief, Brilliant, Tragic Life of Eva Cassidy

Previously unreleased recordings shed new light on D.C.-based talent

Eva Cassidy
Eva Cassidy, circa 1990. Photo courtesy of Blix Street Records

It’s difficult to remember how little known the singer and guitarist Eva Cassidy was at the beginning of 1996, just five years before her Songbird album topped the charts in England and Ireland (and the reissue chart in the U.S.). Even in her hometown of Washington, D.C., she was little more than a rumor to most people. Although she had released a duet album with go-go pioneer Chuck Brown in 1992, The Other Side, she still hadn’t finished her first solo studio album by the end of 1995.

The lucky few who had heard her infrequent gigs, though, were clamoring for recordings. So Cassidy, 32, cashed in a small pension from her day job at a plant nursery to rent Washington’s most prominent jazz club, Blues Alley, for the first Monday and Tuesday of 1996. She paid for a live-recording truck to park outside the small brick building on a literal alley in D.C.’s tony Georgetown neighborhood, and begged her friends to fill the candlelit tables inside.

The tape from the first night was unusable for technical reasons, but the two sets on Jan. 3 impressed everyone but the notoriously self-critical vocalist. Twelve songs from that night (plus one track from the ongoing sessions for her first solo studio album) were released on Eva Records in May of 1996 as Live at Blues Alley. It was the only solo album Cassidy would release in her lifetime, but it staggered everyone who heard it. It began the groundswell that crested two years later.

Now, on the 20th anniversary of those sessions, Blix Street Records is releasing Nightbird, a double-CD package (with DVD in the U.K.) that includes all 31 songs recorded during the Jan. 3 sets. The 12 tunes on Live at Blues Alley and the seven other songs included on various Blix Street compilations are joined by 12 previously unreleased performances, including eight songs never released by Cassidy in any version. The high standards of the 1996 album hold up over the breadth of this expanded version.

Though she wasn’t a purely jazz singer, jazz informed everything she did. Those 31 songs included jazz standards by Irving Berlin, Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington as well as rock, folk, blues and soul numbers. Cassidy brought a folk-music confessionalism to a standard like Johnny Mercer’s “Autumn Leaves” and a swinging elegance to an R&B tune like Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine.”

Cassidy was no diva; she didn’t overload the songs with vocal gymnastics and stratospheric notes. Quite the opposite, she detached the songs from their genre associations, so that each one became a kind of folk-blues-jazz hybrid. She pared them down to their emotional core and glided into that essence with effortless confidence. As important as her calm, unfussy phrasing was the tone of her mezzo voice-so glowing and disarming that she seemed to be confiding in each individual listener.

Even a song done as often as Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” sounded new in Cassidy’s throat. She was able to capture the gospel majesty of the song without ever coming off as self-aggrandizing. She didn’t sound like a preacher evangelizing to a congregation but like a nurse soothing a patient. Huddled around the flickering red hurricane lamp on each table at Blues Alley, each patron felt as if this woman, her blonde hair falling on a black turtleneck and the strap of a guitar, were his or her personal caretaker.

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Cassidy could be considered one of Simon’s best interpreters; her posthumous albums also featured “American Tune” and “Kathy’s Song.” But it wasn’t until this new edition of Nightbird that we’ve heard her do Simon’s uptempo pop-reggae number, “Late in the Evening.” The band (bassist Chris Biondo, guitarist Keith Grimes, pianist Lenny Williams and drummer Raice McLeod) plays with brisk, jittery syncopation, but Cassidy sounds untroubled, in fact buoyed by the lyrics about a memorable night. She is in such control, in fact, that when she shifts up a gear and cries, “It was late in the evening, and I blew that room away,” her contagious joy signals not just the climax of the song but also the triumph of that January night.

Biondo and Cassidy were romantically involved, and he devoted himself to recording her as much as possible (an invaluable endeavor in retrospect) and in helping her overcome her lifelong self-doubt. He also introduced Cassidy to her manager, Al Dale, and to her duet partner Chuck Brown.

Dale pitched her to record companies in New York and L.A. All of them loved her voice, but none knew how to market a woman who shrugged off every genre ever applied to her. “I made a very bad mistake,” Blue Note Records president Bruce Lundvall told a reporter in 1997. “I should have signed her.” Cassidy, Lundvall added, “had the most extraordinary and singular voice, not only because of its power but also because of its timbre when she sang quietly. It was so very mysterious-it would just freeze me.” Having learned from his error, Lundvall signed a similar singer in 2001: Norah Jones.

Despairing of landing a major-label deal, Cassidy and Biondo self-financed the recording at Blues Alley. Their gamble paid off when the album was released in May and began to attract more and more attention. But in July, Cassidy noticed a pain in her hip, and when she was finally convinced to see a doctor, a fatal melanoma cancer was discovered in her bones. In October, she needed a walker to do her last show, and on Nov. 2, 1996, exactly 10 months after the first night at Blues Alley, she died. Her first solo studio album, Eva by Heart, was released by Liaison 10 months later.

One of Cassidy’s best friends, the fine folk singer Grace Griffith, was already signed to Blix Street, and Griffith urged the company to release something by her dying friend. The label was eventually persuaded to assemble the 10-track Songbird compilation from the three previous albums. It was a global, multi-platinum smash, and Blix Street began digging further and further into her released and unreleased recordings to issue Time After Time, Imagine, American Tune, Wonderful World, Somewhere, Simply Eva, The Best of Eva Cassidy and now Nightbird.

“She was never up on becoming famous,” Brown told me in 2001. “She enjoyed what she was doing and the way she was doing it. Her music is being heard more now; they never knew the lady till after she left us. I just wish it had happened while she was still with us, but I’m happy that it did happen.”

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