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Saturday, 3 March, 2001, 09:58 GMT
Eva Cassidy: Bitter-sweet songbird
Eva Cassidy graphic
Almost unknown when she died of skin cancer in 1996, singer Eva Cassidy is taking the charts by storm. Chris Jones, of the BBC's News Profiles Unit, examines the posthumous success of a singer whose talent triumphed over the odds.

The discovery of Eva Cassidy's voice is one that everyone wants to share, so that others, too, can become willing captives of her spell.

Now an international audience of millions has become aware of her magic.

After topping the Amazon CD chart in the US, her album, "Songbird", is number three in the British top 10 and this week's sales have turned it platinum. Yet it is possible that Eva Cassidy's voice might never have travelled beyond the club circuit in Washington DC.

Eva Cassidy
Cassidy's childhood was not a happy one
Eva Cassidy grew up in a musical family in Maryland on the outskirts of the US capital, learning to play the guitar and blessed with a talent for harmony.

But performing with the family band at a local amusement park lost its appeal when Eva dropped her microphone, saw it roll off the stage and burst into tears. "She was very, very shy," her father said.

Nor was high school a joyful experience. Eva loved art and making jewellery, but cared little for sport, fashion or flirting and was sickened by the racial hostility of many white pupils toward the black students arriving on buses under a court order.

She had rebellious confrontations with her father, who thought she showed too little ambition, but was always close to her mother, Barbara.

Lover of rituals

"She would be just so sad. I was her friend. The rituals helped her most; all her life she would come home to me so we could bake cookies," her mother said.

Eva Cassidy
Her voice eventually made it to record
Eva developed strong feminist views, partly through a series of loveless relationships with boyfriends. But without one of her lovers, Chris Biondo, the world might still be unaware of her talent.

Eva Cassidy was singing in clubs to a small band of followers when she was persuaded to contribute backing vocals at a little studio owned by Biondo. "I knew after two notes how good she was", he said.

Her album Live at Blues Alley brought an encouraging critical response, but did not persuade the major record labels that Cassidy was a marketable commodity.

Cassidy sang anything from folk to jazz, gospel and standards, all in her intimate, wistful style. But she was never interested in singing for money and would not perform "that commercial crap".

Dying of cancer

While the big companies were unable to abandon their fixation with the need to categorise Eva Cassidy, she was dying of skin cancer - the heavy price she was paying for her love of nature and the outdoor life.

Songbird
Songbird has charted in the US and UK
She made a final public performance at a Washington DC club, with everyone but Cassidy in tears as she picked up her guitar and sang "What a Wonderful World".

Among the visitors before she died on 2 November, 1996, was Bruce Lindvall, the head of the prestigious Blue Note jazz label, who told her he had made a terrible mistake: "She said 'God bless you'. She never harboured resentment," he recalled.

But fame has arrived, posthumously, since the release of Songbird, a CD compilation, in April, 1998, by the Blix Street label in Los Angeles.

A radio hit

When radio stations heard Eva Cassidy breathing new life into "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" and Sting's "Fields of Gold", the calls started flooding in.

It is an experience that was echoed in Britain when Tony Bramwell, of Hot Records in Brighton, introduced a friend to Eva Cassidy.

Terry Wogan
Listeners to Terry Wogan loved her voice
The friend was "Pauly" Walters, producer of BBC Radio 2's Wake up to Wogan, who, "stunned" by her voice, put "Over the Rainbow" on Terry Wogan's playlist the next day.

"The e-mails, phone calls and faxes flooded in", said Walters. Subsequent plays brought the same response; people told how they had to stop their cars because they were in tears.

And Eva Cassidy's star soared to new heights when early this year BBC Television's "Top of the Pops 2" played a video of Eva Cassidy.

If her death has added poignancy to the experience, her mother is not alone in believing it is not the reason why people feel they must buy her records.

Mrs Cassidy said: "There was a sense of vulnerability about Eva when she sang. I think that's what touches people's hearts".


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