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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 Amazon.com. 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."

Throughout childhood, Cassidy displayed a compulsion to create (an accomplished painter, young Eva cut her teeth sitting in front of her parents' television, drawing likenesses of Nipsey Russell). While her father describes her as a "happy, happy kid," the introspection that haunts her music was always evident. Barbara recalls that when Eva first saw Ray Charles perform, she asked her mother why he was wearing dark glasses. After Barbara explained that Charles was blind, Eva began crying. "How's he going to get home now?" she wanted to know.

Cassidy's sensitivity wasn't blunted by age. Her parents say she often swerved her pick-up truck to avoid running over caterpillars, and when she would see a worm on the scalding concrete, she'd deposit it in the grass before it shriveled and died. "Eva was a person who felt things stronger than the rest of us," says Margaret Haven, who helped Cassidy eke out a living by employing her to paint middle-school murals when Eva wasn't playing club dates or working with her mother as a plant-propagator at Behnke's nursery. "She could find peace in the simplest things."

What gave Cassidy the greatest peace were her frequent sojourns in the sun-kissed marshes and waterways of Southern Maryland. In death, it's where her ashes are scattered. In life, it's where she went on twilight walks with her mother, who Eva often referred to as her soul mate. "She had a sense of wonder about her," says Barbara Cassidy. "Spring was her favorite season. Her birthday's on the second of February, and I'd buy her a cake with sugar roses on top. She'd save one, stick it in the freezer and on the first day of spring, she broke it out like it was a celebration. Like right now," her mother says, her throat tightening as she peers out the window at a perfect April day. "She would say, 'I wish I could just hold the time still and have it be spring.'"

All around the Cassidy home, remnants of Eva linger. Her red-haired cat lolls on the floor, while the hallway features her sun-and-moon mural. In a back room, her father keeps his cello, which he occasionally plays along to his daughter's music. It's the same room where a steady procession of friends and family that Eva called her "angel brigade" maintained a vigil over her bed until her last breath was drawn. The living room, where I interview her parents, is where she sang one final time with Grace Griffith and her brother Dan, a fiddler who lives in Iceland. Weakened from the cancer that spread after a melanoma was misdiagnosed some years earlier, Cassidy managed to softly sing a German version of "Silent Night," perhaps as an early present to her mother, since she wouldn't make it to Christmas.

As her father permits a videotaped viewing of Cassidy's last public performance, a benefit held for Cassidy at a Georgetown club two months before she died, her mother, unable to watch, goes outside to spy the wild violets that were Eva's favorite, now blooming through acidic soil. On tape, Eva enters the club with a walker and takes the stage, her hair ravaged from chemotherapy, her nose seeping from the morphine. After Chris Biondo grabs her around the midriff and hoists her to a stool, she lets go with a version of "A Wonderful World" that could make you forget Louis Armstrong ever sang it. As she reaches the last word of the song, "I think to myself what a wonderful . . .", she takes a five-second rest. Her face is open and intent, as if she is trying to freeze time by etching the faces of those assembled into a permanent snapshot. "The tears wouldn't stop, man," says Chuck Brown, who grew so emotional he left the stage in mid-song. "She loved life. She loved this wonderful world."

The tape concluded, her father dries his eyes on his shirt sleeves, and shows me his daughter's artwork. Many of her paintings, which contain an ethereal serenity, also bear a curious motif--a bubble, the size of a translucent beach ball. Her parents don't know what it means, nor do her friends. But Grace Griffith has a theory: "Bubbles are beautiful, transient things. We come and we go, and we don't know where we come from or where we're going. But we have beauty with us, and it doesn't last forever."

Matt Labash is senior writer at The Weekly Standard.