- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 10, 2002

Greek mythology tells of a brilliantly plumed bird with a warble so beautiful that the sun god Helios stops to listen. The songbird, known as a phoenix, possesses a unique life cycle: Fate demands that it be consumed by flames before a new creature can arise from its ashes, more glorious than before.

Although there have been a few artists whose careers have been phoenix-like, few come as close as singer Eva Cassidy's.

During her lifetime, Miss Cassidy made only two recordings of her work. Her second and only solo effort was titled "Live at Blues Alley." After its release by a small, local label, she sold it mostly out of the trunk of her car. After her tragic death in 1996 at the age of 33, a third album, "Eva by Heart," was distributed by Liaison Records the following year in the Washington area.

Bill Straw, founder of another small label, Blix Street Records, was captivated by Miss Cassidy's music. After her death, he was determined to bring her numerous unreleased recordings to the public's attention. It was Blix Street's 1998 release of "Songbird" that began her ascent from obscurity into an internationally beloved star.

"Songbird," boosted by radio airtime, spent two weeks at the top of Irish and British charts. Its U.S. sales also enabled it to capture the No. 1 slot in Billboard's pop chart for nine consecutive weeks. Currently, "Songbird" is nearing platinum status in the United States and is triple platinum in the United Kingdom.

Miss Cassidy's three posthumous albums (Blix Street reissued "Eva by Heart" in 1998; "Time After Time" was released in 2000) have sold at least 3 million copies, according to a rough estimate by Blix Street Records. Re-released alongside "Eva by Heart, "Live at Blues Alley" has garnered an additional 600,000 sales.

Almost overnight, a painfully shy, simple woman gifted with an angelic voice became a full-fledged legend, a marked contrast from her withdrawn life.

Born in Washington on Feb. 2, 1963, Miss Cassidy grew up in Bowie in a musical family. As a child, she managed to tolerate school, but often preferred to be alone with her music and artwork.

In 1986, she was asked to draw the cover art for a friend's album but ended up contributing her vocal talents as well. When producer Chris Biondo heard it, he encouraged her to pursue her singing career.

Although she was never formally trained, Miss Cassidy's voice soon grabbed the attention of producers and artists alike. Her extraordinary musical talent enabled her to sing four-part harmonies flawlessly; once she recorded all the parts of a full choir by herself.

Despite her amazing gifts, Miss Cassidy had to be persuaded to perform. Never pushy with her musical career, she was content to play at local clubs and sing backup for other artists, while working at a plant nursery on the side.

She sang backup for numerous bands before teaming up with Chuck Brown, a D.C. singer known as the "king of go-go," to produce her first album, "The Other Side," in 1992. She and Mr. Brown began performing live together the next year.

In 1994, Miss Cassidy toured with another band but decided she liked smaller appearances better. Eventually, she recorded and released her second album, "Live at Blues Alley," in January 1996.

That summer, X-rays revealed that she had a hip fracture. Further tests resulted in a diagnosis of advanced melanoma, and Miss Cassidy was told she had only three months to live.

Her last appearance was at Blues Alley, where other musicians organized a tribute. At its end, bald and weakened from chemotherapy, Miss Cassidy nevertheless managed to perform "What a Wonderful World" to a grieving audience.

In November 1996, four months following her diagnosis, Eva Cassidy died. After a beautiful memorial service, her ashes were scattered at her favorite spot on the Chesapeake Bay.

Following the sensational release of "Songbird," the name "Eva Cassidy" seemed to pop up everywhere. Her phenomenal success was chronicled by People Magazine, "ABC News Tonight" and many other news outlets. Figure skater Michelle Kwan skated to Miss Cassidy's "Fields of Gold" in numerous performances, including the 2002 Winter Olympics. Her best-known cover, a version of Judy Garland's "Over the Rainbow," is a huge favorite overseas. Countless Web sites have been devoted to her life and music, and her songs have been featured in many popular TV shows.

Mr. Straw believes Miss Cassidy's musical diversity explains her enormous audience. "It was said that Eva could not get a recording contract with a major label because her choice of material was too varied," he said, adding that he found her "perceived weakness was in reality her strength. [Her work] transcends all other genres of music."

Miss Cassidy sang from pure love of music, with little attention to the promises of success or stardom. She pursued her own preferences and feelings, a refreshing change from most pop sounds, formulaic teeny-bopper songs and the like.

"She was accomplished in many genres and different types of music," her father, Hugh Cassidy, said. "The songs that she does generally are about love and loss and the human condition, and most folks can relate to that. Because of her superb phrasing of the lyrics, they become more telling and carry more weight."

Miss Cassidy's international recognition is expected to soar still further with the Aug. 20 release of "Imagine," a collection of 10 more previously unreleased recordings. It is featured on the Amazon.com "Hot Future Releases" list and was at the top of the "Future Bestsellers" list on July 19. Currently, it is No. 2.

Mr. Cassidy's favorite track, "It Doesn't Matter Anymore," is a sterling example of her sensitive reinterpretations. "She took a song which [Buddy Holly] did very well," he said, "and put a different slant on it. That seems to grab the listener right off, and it certainly grabbed me."

He is pleased that many of the songs feature Eva "with just her guitar, which I think is where she shines best."

Eva Cassidy's life is a bittersweet tale, almost as riveting as her achingly beautiful voice. Never fully appreciated during her lifetime, her career has finally taken wings, revealing a songbird enthralling enough to take the whole world captive.

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