On very rare occasions you hear a voice that stops you dead in your tracks. For some it’s the lungpower of a diva or the technique of an opera singer that impresses, but for me it’s all to do with the performer speaking directly to me.
I had received a very special request to play Danny Boy on Celtic Crush, my SiriusXM radio show; in an effort to find a less than hackneyed interpretation I stumbled upon Eva Cassidy’s version.
Like many musicians I was familiar with the Eva story but, oddly enough, had never heard her sing. Within seconds I was captivated, as was the Celtic Crush audience for I received many emails wishing to know more about the singer.
Fearing a fluke I downloaded her version of Autumn Leaves, one of my favorite standards. Again I was struck by her performance. It wasn’t just the command in her voice or the all-pervading sense of loss she evoked; no, it was as if she was singing to me alone and reopening matters that I’d long since set aside.
Eva Marie Cassidy was born in 1963 to an Irish father and German mother in Washington, DC. From an early age she showed talent as a singer and musician, and by her teens she was already performing professionally in a number of bands.
Although she suffered from shyness she stretched herself from the start, experimenting with various kinds of music from Folk through Jazz to Go-Go - DC’s own R&B dance music. Perhaps, this love of diversity was the reason she found little but local success – she was hard to categorize, although everyone who heard Eva live appears to have been mesmerized by her voice and performance.
She was hard on herself too – harping on flaws, real and imagined, where others heard only perfection. Take a listen to her version of Sting’s Fields of Gold. I’ve always felt it is one of his best songs but Eva takes this delicate slice of memory to a different plane by fusing Sting’s sense of melancholia with an almost existential sense of loss. And yet that loss is cool and austere – there’s not even a trace of self-pity in her rendition.
Perhaps she knew whereof she spoke, for Eva died from Melanoma in 1996, at the age of 33. Her family, friends and many admirers on the DC scene were stunned. It seemed only a matter of time until the outside world would discover her almost feral talent. Her circle continued to listen to a live recording she made at Georgetown’s Blues Alley – ever the perfectionist Eva felt her performance on that night suffered because of the effects of a cold.
And there the matter would have rested except that her version of Fields of Gold along with a standout rendition of Somewhere Over The Rainbow were played by Irish DJ, Terry Wogan, on BBC Radio four years after her passing.
The audience reaction was electric. Who was this singer, where had she come from, and how come no one knew of her? An enterprising producer from BBC’s Top of the Pops procured a live video of Somewhere Over The Rainbow. Within months, Songbird, a compilation CD was top of the English charts and Eva has since gone on to sell over 10 million albums worldwide, with only a small percentage racked up in the US.
You have to wonder why? Is radio so fragmented, commercialized, and market driven that most Americans just haven’t heard Eva? Or do those who have experienced her perfection prefer to keep their secret under wraps?
It’s hard to fathom. But I do know that practically any song I play by her on Celtic Crush is a revelation to the nationwide and Canadian audiences. She’s had a similar effect on me; for when I listen to Eva I’m reminded that I haven’t heard it all, haven’t become jaded, that all I need is a voice that speaks to directly to me, a voice that can cut through the everyday chatter of life, and I’m stopped dead in my tracks once again. Thanks, Eva.