But for me, this resurgence of interest in the King of Rock-and-Roll takes a backseat to the more intriguing and gratifying interest in another singer whose voice refuses to be stilled by death: Eva Cassidy. Compared to Presley, this Washington, D.C.-based vocalist represents the greater tragedy, for she never lived long enough to see success. On Nov. 2, 1996, she succumbed to melanoma. She was just 33 years old.
There are at least nine albums that feature the singing of Eva Cassidy. Two came out before her passing: “The Other Side” (Cbd. Music, 1992), made with D.C. go-go performer Chuck Brown, and “Live at Blues Alley” (self-issued in 1996, reissued by Blix Street in 1998). The other recordings were all released posthumously: “Songbird” (Blix Street, 1998), “Eva by Heart” (Blix Street, 1998), “Time After Time” (Blix Street, 2000), “No Boundaries” (Renata, 2000), Pieces of a Dream’s “Sensual Embrace: the Soul Ballads” (two songs by Eva; Blue Note, 2001), “Method Actor” (BLP, 2002), and “Imagine” (Blix Street, 2002).
Aside from the new “Imagine” album, the four CDs issued by Blix Street, an independent label based in Gig Harbor, Wash., have sold more than 4 million copies worldwide. “Songbird,” the compilation that has been a portal to Cassidy’s music, is nearing platinum in the United States and has already gone triple platinum in England, platinum in Ireland, and gold in Australia.
Why this extraordinary spurt of global interest in the singing of Eva Cassidy, whose great-great-great grandfather left County Fermanagh around 1860 for central Pennsylvania? “She had a unique gift for phrasing, which is at the heart of her singing,” Hugh Cassidy, her father, explained from his home in Bowie, Md. “But above that, there’s something in her voice unlike any other you’ve ever heard, a distinct presence and resonance that attract people. There’s dirge and delight in her voice, often at the same time.”
Bruce Lundvall, president of Blue Note Records, a highly respected jazz label, heard those same qualities in her singing. “She had a voice that would just freeze me,” he said. What stopped him from signing her was Cassidy’s insistence on singing different kinds of music she loved, not just jazz.
Close to the end, when she was in bed with a lot of pain, Lundvall phoned her. “I told her I made a terrible mistake,” he said, “and she told me I was fine with her and not to worry about it. I was in tears. Eva had that spirituality about her that all the great ones have.”
Two songs capturing this spiritual side of Cassidy’s singing at its most transfixing are Sting’s “Fields of Gold” and E.Y. Harburg and Harold Arlen’s “Over the Rainbow,” both found on the “Songbird” compilation. No one I know who heard those songs for the first time came away unmoved. Dublin-born singer Mary Black confessed to me she was so concerned about her studio version of “Fields of Gold” being compared to Cassidy’s stunning live rendition that she made it a “bonus track” on her 1999 album, “Speaking With the Angel.”
If you have not heard Eva Cassidy’s singing yet, an incredible treat awaits you. All the Blix Street CD’s are recommended, particularly “Live at Blues Alley” (her finest vocals, with “Stormy Monday” a scorcher, though the backing band is unexceptional, except for pianist Lenny Williams), “Songbird” (excellent introductory sampler), and “Imagine” (Eva’s interpretation of “You’ve Changed” will make you understand why Lundvall is so regretful).
Unlike Mariah, Celine, and Cher, Cassidy was no diva. There was no flash, hype, or compromise. She sang what she loved — rock, pop, folk, jazz, soul, standards — and commerce be damned. Now commerce comes to Cassidy, after death, her choices unchanged, her terms intact.
TOO MANY HOLES IN
A new, two-CD retrospective of Dick Gaughan’s work over three decades, “Prentice Piece” (Greentrax), features 21 tracks culled from albums the singer/guitarist — he’s Scottish, but his paternal grandfather came from Mayo — released for Topic, Wundert