remembering Eva Cassidy, 25 years after her death

‘One of the best singers ever’: remembering Eva Cassidy, 25 years after her death

The singer died at 33 of cancer before the world got to hear her sing. Those who knew and worked with her look back on an unusual talent

Jim Farber

Tue 2 Nov 2021 01.27 EDT

Last modified on Tue 2 Nov 2021 01.29 EDT

On a late May day in 1996, the singer Eva Cassidy and her bandmate Chris Biondo drove to a remote factory in rural Virginia to collect copies of the recording that turned out to be the last she would ever make. “We picked up a total of about 1,100 cassettes and CDs,” Biondo recalled. “When we got in the car, Eva cracked open a box and started getting very worried. She felt she wasn’t going to be able to sell them all. I’ll never forget her comment: ‘When I’m dead and they find me, there’s going to be boxes of these in my basement,’ she said. Her expectations for the record could not have been more minimal.”

After all, Cassidy had been performing for nearly a decade by then in relative obscurity and, while she had a number of meetings with record company executives in that time, they never went beyond the talking stage. Worse, by the summer of 96, the 33-year-old was facing something dire. Over the course of the next few months, she would receive increasingly grim diagnoses of a cancer that had already begun to make quickening race through her body, robbing her of any chance of making a mark during her time on earth. Given that, who could have foreseen that Cassidy’s music would one day generate a sustained catalogue that would sell in the multi-millions, creating chart hits all over the world? “At the time, we just hoped to make enough money to buy a PA system,” Biondo said.

This week will mark 25 years since Cassidy died of melanoma cancer, just 10 months after recording the live album she and Biondo had driven out to pick up that day. The story that emerged later – of a talent barely recognized in her lifetime, who went on to achieve rapturous posthumous acclaim – has become one of the most dramatic bad news/good news tales in pop history. But it never would have happened without the stalwart efforts of some dedicated supporters, as well as several connections that brought her songs to the attention of more media gatekeepers than normally receive credit in the tale.

The small label that set things in motion, Blix Street Records, seemed an unlikely engine to power such a success. Before making a deal with Eva’s estate, the imprint had achieved modest sales with recordings by jazz instrumental bands and Celtic singers, the best-selling of whom was Mary Black. It was another singer on the label, Grace Griffith, a friend of Cassidy’s from the Washington DC club scene, who introduced her music to Blix Street chief Bill Straw. “We have this wonderful nightingale,’” Griffith told him, Straw recalled. “I’m afraid we’re going to lose her.”

“As soon as her vocal came on, I felt it was extraordinary,” he said. “By the time I finished the album, I came to the conclusion that this was one of the best singers ever.”

Though many have come to similar conclusions since, Biondo was one of the first to do so. He met Cassidy in the winter of 1986 when, on the recommendation of a mutual friend, she came to visit him at his small home recording studio. “She was afraid to come inside because she had not done any recording like this before,” Biondo said.

Once she began to sing, however, he was instantly taken with her natural skill. “A lot of people take lessons to learn music theory and how to do harmonies,” he said. “She could just do it. I watched her come up with three- or four-part harmonies out of nowhere. She would hear it in her head and then sing anything she heard.”

Biondo believes that skill is what freed her to bring so much emotion to the songs. “There are a lot of components to someone trying to pull off a tune,” he said. “They have to think about the technical parts, about what the next note is and what the phrasing will be. But because those things were so natural to Eva, it allowed her to go right to the next level, which was to go inside the song and feel the lyrics.”

Her skill also meant she could improvise the tunes at will, as well as bend the notes with a sculptor’s care. “She could change the melody to something the band had not heard before on a gig-by-gig basis,” Biondo said.

Then there was the sheer sound of her soprano, graced by a tone as plush as fleece. “It’s the purity of the tone that struck me,” said Rob Burley, who wrote the book Songbird, about Cassidy’s life. “The unadorned quality of it shines through.”

At times, however, the subtlety of her approach, and the quiet intensity of it, could fly over the heads of some audiences. “We never played loud which was a problem for us,” Biondo said. “One time, we played this club in southern Maryland and we were doing ballads, country tunes and the clientele was into Lynyrd Skynyrd, so people were leaving. The guy who had hired us to play said, ‘How about I pay you and you guys go home?’ It’s never a good thing when someone pays you to leave.”

On the other hand, Biondo said Cassidy “thought that was kinda cool,” an attitude that underscores her focus on the performance rather than its reception. “She just liked to go out and sing,” he said. “She didn’t want anybody to jump up and down.”

Cassidy remained equally cool when it came to meetings with record companies. “Maybe half a dozen companies came down to talk to her,” Biondo said. “But she never did the kinds of things the people who think they’re going to get a contract do, which is to act all giddy and make fast friends with the A&R people. I don’t think they were too impressed with her enthusiasm level.”

Cassidy’s low-key response had two sources: her introverted character, and her concern that the industry might try to squeeze her omnivorous musical taste into a box. When one company executive asked Cassidy what kind of music she wanted to record, she told him, “anything but that pop crap,” Burley said. When the prestigious Blue Note Records gave Cassidy’s band a budget of $3,500 to cut six songs, she covered six different genres. “You could see that the business sense and who the artist is was going to collide,” Biondo said.

At one point, Blue Note tried pairing her with a smooth jazz band on the label, Pieces of a Dream, for a few songs but the singer despised the result. A more pleasing proposal came from Apollo Records, run by civil rights activist Percy Sutton, a label connected to the vaunted Harlem-based theater. “They sent her a contract which meant she could have quit her day job (in a plant nursery) and gotten a yearly salary,” Biondi said. “That was a dream come true.”

Unfortunately, before Cassidy could sign, the company folded. That’s the whole reason Cassidy and her band cut the Live at Blues Alley album. It was essentially a hail-Mary pass to get attention and earn some badly needed cash. Sadly, around the same time a mysterious mole on Cassidy’s back began to raise concerns. Because she hadn’t seen a doctor in years, Biondo insisted she go to his. But she delayed for six months. When she finally went, it instigated a procedure that became far more invasive that was first assumed. The doctor had to take the skin from the back of her neck all the way down her spine in a three-inch-wide swath. While the surgeon thought he caught all the cancer, it came back with a vengeance. “It was bad news after bad news,” Biondo said. “She had cancer in her lungs, her brain, her arm, her back.”

Several months of heavy chemotherapy followed, to no avail. In her dying days, Cassidy’s music was brought once again to various labels. And they still turned her down. “The thing that pisses me off is that there wasn’t anybody smart enough to realize what was there,” said Biondo. “When they heard Eva, they should have known.”

Bill Straw had heard Cassidy’s music by then; he was invited by Griffith to meet her at a benefit held for the singer two months before her death. But he felt it would be ghoulish for him to attend. Six months after she died, however, he met with her parents. Straw had the advantage of understanding the kind of specialized audience he assumed she could reach at that point. It helped that there were no other serious bidders. Though Cassidy had self-released just three albums in her lifetime – including a collaboration with DC go-go pioneer Chuck Brown, a solo work, and the live Blues Alley album – she had some 127 recordings in the can. From that deep trove, Blix Street fashioned an ideal set titled Songbird, which they issued in 1998. A myth has arisen that the album sold nothing until it was picked up by BBC Radio 2 two years later, but, according to Straw, the American press jumped on it quickly, with rave reviews in publications as mainstream as People magazine. Once the label convinced a Boston radio station to play her music, “we sold 10,000 CDs in that city in two weeks. We kept having these little explosions,” Straw said.

The Mount Vesuvius moment, however, came when Blix Street’s associated label in the UK, Hot Records, hired Tony Bramwell, a record promo guy from the 60s who had worked with the Beatles, to promote the music. He took it to the producer of Terry Wogan’s huge morning show on Radio 2. “They listened because of Tony Bramwell’s lineage,” Burley said. The result instantly resonated with British listeners, generating snowballing sales. Just before Christmas 2000, after Top of the Pops 2 played a blurry video of Cassidy singing Over the Rainbow, the album soared to the top of the UK chart.

In the years since, the demand for her music has encouraged the release of no fewer than 12 subsequent albums, consisting of either previously unheard or repackaged performances. This December will see the release of yet another – a 25th anniversary edition of Live at Blues Alley. Biondo, who is credited as producer on most of her recordings, doesn’t believe that all of that music deserves to be heard. “I don’t think Eva would want it all out,” he said. “She didn’t get the chance to censor her own stuff and I don’t think that’s fair, especially since she had such strong feelings about people not hearing her at her best.”

Even Straw believes one release shouldn’t have happened – the Nightbird set from 2018. Still, he said, pressure from the public dictated that release. As to what Cassidy herself would have made of the sheer scale of the attention she has received, Biondo said, “she would have been scared shitless.”

He believes she would have preferred a more measured, and controllable, degree of attention. “I have this day dream about Eva every once in a while,” Biondo mused. “In the dream, she isn’t dead and she’s as loved as she is now. I see her singing in this little restaurant that’s behind my house. Maybe 40 people can fit in there and she plays there every night and people pay a lot of money to see her. And they’re quiet and they really listen. To her, that would be heaven.”

The Musical Story Of Eva Cassidy - Nightline Profile 2001

Eva Cassidy: Timeless Voice

Mick Fleetwood talking about Eva Cassidy

Eva Cassidy's 'Live at Blues Alley' 25th Anniversary Remastered Edition Will Be ReleasedThe newly remastered album will be released December 3.

The newly remastered album will be released December Michael Major Oct. 13, 2021  

The remastered album follows the release of the documentary "Eva Cassidy - One Night That Changed Everything," which details the events of January 2 and 3, 1996 via interviews with her band members in the Blues Alley venue while viewing footage from the original concert.Live at Blues Alley", the only solo album released during the late singer Eva Cassidy's short lifetime, will be released on December 3, 2021 as a specially remastered 25th Anniversary Edition from Blix Street Records via its new distribution agreement with ADA.

It will be available in CD and digital formats as well as a 180g 45rpm double LP set created to fully showcase the recordings' phenomenal sound. This will mark the recording's first appearance on vinyl.

Eva Cassidy's now legendary concert at Washington DC's Blues Alley nightclub on January 3, 1996 was in some ways a happy accident. Although Eva had spent years in the studio with producer Chris Biondo creating an eclectic body of work, the pair decided that a live album was the quickest way to achieve their immediate goal of creating a CD to sell at live shows.

Eva cashed in a small pension from her day job at a local nursery, her Aunt Claire contributed toward the venture, the Blues Alley venue booked them during their slowest time of the year (just after the New Year's Eve blow-out), as was a live recording truck with a goal of generating enough profit to purchase a proper PA system for future shows.

The result was "Live at Blues Alley", released locally a scant few months before Cassidy's untimely passing from melanoma at the age of 33. Her first studio album, EVA BY HEART, was in the works at that time, but would not be completed until after her death.

25 years after its release in the summer of 1996, "Live at Blues Alley" is known the world over, becoming the cornerstone of a posthumous career. To celebrate this milestone, the original album recordings have been carefully re-mastered by Robert Vosgien, who mastered the original album, from the "first generation" unprocessed mixes. Vosgien elected to master in the digital domain to preserve the clarity and dynamics of Eva's incredible vocals, which now, more than ever, transport the listener back to the time and place.

A heavyweight 45rpm double vinyl LP is also being released to showcase the sound along with CD and 24bit digital formats. It will mark the first time the album has been available on vinyl. Pre-orders are now available in time for holiday delivery.

Eva Cassidy - One Night That Changed Everything (documentary)

Six Definitive Songs: The ultimate beginner's guide to Eva Cassidy

Mick McStarkey

TUE 2ND NOV 2021 11.00 GMT

Eva Cassidy is one of the most revered names in all of music. In a way, you could compare her to Jeff Buckley; unrivalled in terms of unique vocal sound and ability, not as respected artistically in life as she should have been, but then raised to a mythic level after her tragic and premature death. Her songs are so emotionally cutting, and her powerful, soprano voice will have you desperately searching for the nearest box of tissues.

It’s a very strange experience listening to Eva Cassidy. Her songs always carried an incredibly emotional edge, but given that you as the listener know that her life was cut tragically short when she passed away from cancer in 1998, this makes the experience all the more different. This knowledge instils her music with a heartbreaking essence that is unmatched.

In 1992, Cassidy released her first album, The Other Side. It featured duets with famed go-go musician Chuck Brown, and although not critically lauded when released, when revisiting the material, there are many captivating points. A mix of soul, jazz and blues, there’s a bit of everything for everyone on the record.

A gentle soul, her recording engineer, friend and bass player, Chris Biondo recalled: “She was an angel, very humble and shy. She would listen more than talk… I remember lots of times, we were playing and it was just empty and dead. She seemed to like those nights, because there wasn’t as much pressure. In fact, she’d be more relieved when hardly anybody was out there”.

The live album, Live at Blues Alley, was the last record Cassidy would release in her lifetime. Released in March 1996, it showed just how much of a marvellous performer she was, and how eclectic her tastes as an artist were. Featuring blues, soul, jazz and folk covers, in a way, Cassidy was the ultimate cover artist, more so than The Byrds and any industry made pop band.

It was after her death that she became truly a mammoth artist, a strange phenomenon as Jeff Buckley even found a certain degree of mainstream success before his tragic death in 1997. Two years after she passed away, her music was brought to the attention of British audiences when her covers of ‘Fields of Gold’ and ‘Over the Rainbow’ were played by DJ’s Mike Harding and Terry Wogan on BBC Radio 2.

The songs were lapped up by the British public, and duly, a camcorder recording of ‘Over the Rainbow’ taken at Blues Alley in Washington, by her friend Bryan McCulley was shown on Top of the Pops 2. Quickly after the mesmerising video was aired, the compilation record, Songbird, reached the top spot on the UK Albums Chart, nearly three years after being first released.

This success led to her gaining worldwide attention. Posthumously, she’s had three number one albums and one number one single in the UK, shipping over 10 million records worldwide. Loved by everyone from Paul McCartney to Eric Clapton, her voice remains unmatched. Join us then, as we list Eva Cassidy’s six definitive works.

Eva Cassidy’s six definitive songs:


One of the best covers in existence, you’d be forgiven for not knowing that it is not an original. That’s the remarkable point of Cassidy’s musical career, the majority of her recorded output were covers. Her voice was that powerful that she remade the songs in her own image, as was the case with this Fleetwood Mac cover. Soft and relaxed, it’s one of the most poignant in her whole back catalogue.

The original first appeared on Fleetwood Mac’s classic album Rumours in 1977 and was originally written by heroine Christine McVie. Heartbreaking to the utmost, Cassidy took the lovesick spirit of the original and augmented it via some very ’90s production, and her unique, siren-like voice.

‘Kathy’s Song’

Making a strong claim to be better than Paul Simon‘s 1966 original, this version of ‘Kathy’s Song’ also happens to be very faithful to the original.

There’s the beautiful guitar line carried off to a tee, and Simon’s ode to his then-girlfriend is turned outwards and made universal by Cassidy’s understanding of the tormented sentiment behind the track. Short and sweet, like the man who wrote it, you’re sure to have it on repeat.

‘Fields of Gold’

It seems Cassidy had a penchant for making the already depressing song, into something so dour it’s somewhat perplexing how she did it, but we’ll save ourselves from speculative efforts at delving into Cassidy’s psyche.

Written by ex-Police frontman Sting, and released in 1993, this is another one that’s just as well known as the original. Just this time, there’s an absence of Sting’s ego, so that’s pretty good. After she passed away, he said: “There is something about her voice – a quality – that you really can’t put into words. It’s a magical quality.”

‘What a Wonderful World’

A chilled out take on Louis Armstrong‘s 1967 classic, it’s typically downbeat musically, but in terms of Cassidy’s voice, we get to see her really reach different heights on this number. She goes high and she goes low, and at the end, you’re left reeling from the spectacular audio delight you’ve just heard.

Save from the lyrics, this cover really sounds nothing like the unmistakable original. Again, musically, there are a few dynamic similarities to be drawn between Cassidy and Jeff Buckley. It makes you feel as if you’re in some smoky jazz club watching an artist you know will one day make it big.

‘Over the Rainbow’

Written for the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg, and etched into popular culture forever when sung by Judy Garland in the film, it’s again remarkable that Cassidy managed to make a strong claim for releasing the best version of the song, particularly when you compare it to the gargantuan original.

An acoustic number, with some delicate, roomy reverb carrying Cassidy’s voice, this jazz inflicted take on the original remains as refreshing as it was when it first captivated audiences in the late ’90s. Spacey, minimalist and serene, it’s like Cassidy is singing you a bedtime lullaby. The production places her voice front and centre, and what an incredible voice it was.

‘Ain’t No Sunshine’

Changing Bill Withers‘ original pronoun ‘she’ to ‘he’, Cassidy is true to the original, just this time, it’s from her perspective. Another minimalist and roomy track, the acoustic guitar sounds luscious, as does Cassidy’s voice. There’s also an incredible jazz piano solo which helps to give the song an edge that many of Cassidy’s tracks didn’t, finally some dynamic flair.

Sultry, self-aware and powerful, in it you’ve got flecks of Tracey Chapman and Joan Armatrading. The late pop icon treats us to another versatile vocal workout, that has all of us laymen wondering just how she did it, and if she was of this earth at all.

A few more comments...

These new articles mark the anniversary of Eva’s death on Nov 2, 1996 at the age of thirty three.

Of particular note is the 25th anniv re-issue of her landmark live album, Live At Blues Alley, on vinyl. Official release date in U.S. is first week of December (approx). I believe it is already released in the U.K. The quality of all of Eva’s recording on vinyl to date has been VERY good.

The Far Out article by Mick McStarkey omitted one the the most fascinating aspects of Eva’s arrangement of Over The Rainbow and that was she largely composed it while still in high school. She played it for a friend who immediately recognized it as beyond what anyone in high school would normally create. I’d call it a musical lightning strike.

Curious about other aspects of Eva’s life? Join the discussion at
FYI: I've been an Eva Cassidy fan for many years and own several of her CDs as well as LPs. I just purchased "The Best Of Eva Cassidy" CD and it is very well recorded and dynamic...sounds great on my system and I recommend it to you.