Only the hardest heart, even knowing nothing of the singer, could hear Eva Cassidy sing “What A Wonderful World” and not be moved. If you are aware of the story of her short life, a history that defines “untimely death,” only the most desensitized could hear her music without being affected, even beyond her considerable interpretive skill.
The capsule version of Eva Cassidy’s life and career: born in 1963; grew up in a musical family; recorded 1992 album of pop standards with Washington, D.C. “king of go-go,” Chuck Brown; overcomes insecurity just enough to become a performer, many of whose shows were recorded; became a victim of cancer on November 2, 1996, age 33. She took guitar lessons from and recorded with Danny Gatton, “the world’s greatest guitar player,” who took his own life in 1994.
However often we encounter the tragedy of a “promising career cut short,” rarely has it been so true, in its promise and its brevity, as with Eva Cassidy. Like Nick Drake, Chris Bell, and innumerable others, Cassidy’s talent gained widespread recognition only posthumously.
At the time of her death, only the Live at Blues Alley album had been released; her only solo studio album, Eva by Heart, was issued the following year; neither were significantly successful until several years later. Her first successful album, Songbird, a compilation of tracks from the previous two releases, released two years after her death, only took off after its “Over the Rainbow” aired on the BBC. Once people had the chance to hear Eva Cassidy, they loved what they heard: Songbird topped both the U.S. and U.K. charts, in addition to charting in several other European countries, and has since sold more than one million copies.
Although her studio album, Somewhere, did include two of her own songs, Cassidy is known and revered as an interpreter of others’ songwriting. She sang blues, pop, soul, jazz, rock, with finesse and conviction, and each song as if it was her own. The selections here demonstrate many of Eva Cassidy’s strengths, as well as shedding light on her exception taste in selecting music that both seemed to hold meaning for her and served to showcase her abilities. Not only possessed of a remarkably expressive voice, she had the empathy to plumb the emotional depth of each song she chose.
In Bill Withers’ original rendition of “Ain’t No Sunshine,” for instance, the heartache at his lover’s absence seems like a temporary situation: yes, she’s gone now, but like the dawn, she’ll be back to brighten up his day. The lack of sunshine, in Cassidy’s version, sounds like a more indefinite condition.
Not to suggest that Eva Cassidy’s music is intrinsically depressing or morose. Her performances realize depths of longing and regret in material that otherwise may have worn out its welcome or that have seemingly been done definitively by other artists. With songs such as “Imagine” and “Over the Rainbow,” which have suffered at the pipes of innumerable hacks, Cassidy’s voice conjures the despair that has left her yearning for a peaceful place that exists only in her imagination, or in some mystical, unattainable utopia. The need for another version of “Autumn Leaves” vanished at least as long ago as Edith Piaf and Nat King Cole recorded it, yet Cassidy’s resignation at the nearness of “old winter’s song” and the utter abandonment by her love makes the song sound not only as if it was written for her, but like it was from her own experience.
But any moderate talent can conjure up a moving rendition of “Autumn Leaves” or “Over the Rainbow.” The true test of a song interpreter is making a lesser song sound as if it belongs in the same repertoire as the venerable classic. While it remains to be seen if Sting’s “Fields of Gold,” Christine McVie’s “Songbird,” and Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” have what it takes to be regarded as standards 50 years from now, they seem to lack the timeless qualities to last. It is to Eva Cassidy’s enormous credit that she invests a song as slight as “True Colors” with enough substance to fit among her time-tested classics. She even manages to render “Danny Boy” palatable, which is quite a feat in itself.
For the most part, Best of Eva Cassidy lives up to its designation, although including any number of Cassidy’s other interpretations—“Stormy Monday,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and “Take Me To the River”—could have made the album a more definitive overview. It may be that Blix Street Records chose representative tracks that maintained the contemplative mood that characterized most of Cassidy’s work, at the expense of showing her soulful, bluesy sides. Any of the three aforementioned tracks, or her take on “Chain of Fools,” would have been a welcome departure from a collection that doesn’t fully do justice to the singer’s power and versatility.
Regardless of that minor failing, Best of Eva Cassidy will serve as a respectable introduction to a singer who had the makings of a standard bearer. No less than the head of the esteemed Blue Note jazz record label, Bruce Lundvall, regretted failing to sign her, saying: “Eva Cassidy had the most extraordinary and singular voice I had heard in a very, very long time.”
And despite her short life, Eva Cassidy is receiving exposure beyond anything she, or her long-time fans could have imagined. Wikipedia users will find that the reference sample on its page for the song “Autumn Leaves” is not from notable renditions by Cole, Piaf, or even Sinatra, but from Live at Blues Alley, Eva Cassidy’s solo debut album. Quite an endorsement, and a fitting tribute to a remarkable singer.Powered by Sidelines