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Earth Angel

Five years after her death, the music of Eva Cassidy is spreading.

11:01 PM, Jan 20, 2002 • By MATT LABASH
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AT THE END of a long driveway that snakes under a canopy of trees, an angel sits in the Bowie, Maryland, backyard of Hugh and Barbara Cassidy. She is guarded by Easter-Island masks built by metal sculptor Hugh, while former nursery-worker Barbara has fashioned a shade-covered ivy grotto. From a distance, the angel looks like the ultimate in lawn-ornament baroque. But with chiseled facial features, copper hair strands, and saw-blade wings, the painstaking creation represents something else entirely.

"That's the angel I made for Eva," says Hugh, of the 33-year-old daughter he and Barbara lost to bone cancer. "I told her when she was sick I was making it for her. She never saw it." Hugh can be forgiven for mistaking his daughter for a celestial being. It's a conclusion people often reach after hearing Eva Cassidy sing.

Cassidy covered every genre from country to folk to gospel shouts. She was capable of performing the scale-flailing pyrotechnics practiced by most of today's overproduced divas. But to cast Cassidy's otherworldly talents into words is to risk doing them a disservice. For as an arranger, a guitarist, and a singer with a voice touched by God, Cassidy quietly distilled the essence of songs like "Over the Rainbow," damaged from years of pulmonary abuse by "Star Search" hopefuls, allowing them to breathe again. The sweet melancholy of any ballad she covered--from Johnny Mercer's "Autumn Leaves" to Sting's "Fields of Gold"--is capable of leaving listeners with a physical ache. For Cassidy didn't merely interpret songs, she inhabited them.

At the time of her death on November 2, 1996, Cassidy didn't have a record deal. But she did leave behind two self-released albums, a duets collection of standards with go-go impresario Chuck Brown, and a trove of demo tracks and live recordings. Over the last several years, her catalog has been released by the boutique label Blix Street Records. Label founder Bill Straw was turned onto Cassidy after Grace Griffith, a D.C.-area singer, slipped him a tape a month before Cassidy died. "Grace just said, 'We have this wonderful nightingale I'm afraid we're gonna lose and you have to hear her,'" says Straw. "I went through what everybody else goes through, which is to discover this incredible talent, and lose her at the same time."

Straw's epiphany has, over the next five years, repeated itself endlessly. In the United States, where Cassidy gets next to no airplay, hardened critics have championed her music. Her devout fans, who include the likes of Mick Fleetwood and Roberta Flack, resemble a missionary sect. In December of 2000, after National Public Radio ran a feature on Cassidy, her albums captured four of the top five best-seller positions on In Great Britain, where she enjoys radio exposure, she's sold over one million albums, and BBC listeners named her version of "Over the Rainbow" one of the 100 most important songs of the century.

For those closest to Cassidy, her posthumous success has proven bittersweet. "It's like she left in the middle of a conversation," says childhood friend Celia Murphy. "She didn't want it, and she got it anyway--she was that good," echoes Chris Biondo, her bass player, some-time boyfriend, and producer, who first roped the self-doubting Cassidy into recording.

Her success is all the more remarkable since Cassidy, a stubbornly eclectic perfectionist, insisted on only singing songs that appealed to her. Blue Note Records's Bruce Lundvall expresses the frustration of many A&R types who didn't know what to do with her. "She was brilliant, but she sang the telephone book," he says. "I wish I had signed her. It was very simply, a bad mistake. I can't think of another example where it hit me that hard in the gut."

Such near misses, however, didn't faze Cassidy. "She felt like it was a load off her shoulders," says her duet partner Chuck Brown. "There was just not enough freedom there. She never dreamed of becoming a big star, she just wanted to do what she loved doing, and do it in different ways."

Cassidy's love of music was instilled in her as a child. By the time she was nine, her father, a retired school teacher who plays bass and cello, had taught his daughter guitar and had Eva and her siblings singing in a family band that eventually played the local Wild World amusement park. "We had them doing four-part harmony as toddlers," explains Hugh. "We could hold a note and make it blend. They found joy in this, and I did too."