Sweet voice lifts singer to top of charts after death

This Just In...

April 09, 2001|By Dan Rodricks

THE THING TO remember, as the story of Bowie native Eva Cassidy goes global and becomes part of musical lore, is that the voice -- and not the tragedy -- is what first grips people. It's an absolutely arresting voice with the rare power to make old songs seem like new releases.

When Cassidy reshapes "Over The Rainbow," the impossible happens: I forget about Judy Garland. When she sweetens Sting's "Fields of Gold," it's as if I never heard the original, and I easily imagine Cassidy walking through the barley and letting her hair down. Same with "Songbird." Fleetwood Who?

I believe that I would feel this way, even if Cassidy had not died in 1996 -- even if we still could have the pleasure of hearing her perform at a club in Washington or Annapolis or, say, at the Columbia Festival for the Arts, where she appeared a few months before doctors at Johns Hopkins told her she had cancer.

I can't say for sure, of course, because one of her old friends, the gifted singer-songwriter Niki Lee, told me the whole sad story before slipping Cassidy's best-selling-in-Britain "Songbird" album into a CD player and punching up a track called "I Know You By Heart."

Knowing that the singer had died -- at 33 -- does affect the listener in a profound way. But it's not tragedy that hits you in the heart; it's the purity, uniqueness and gentle power of the voice.

"I Know You By Heart" reminds us of a lover distant but vivid in memory, or of a long- absent friend; there's some mysterious feeling of loss and longing in Cassidy's singing of it. I find the song as transfixing to the ear as a fire to the eye on a cool autumn night.

Others must have these feelings about this singer. I don't think sympathy, guilt or fascination with tragedy is what made "Songbird" a No. 1 selling album in the United Kingdom and put her other albums at the top of Amazon.com's charts. It's the talent, the sound of hope and love in that voice.

"She could sing anything -- folk, blues, pop, jazz, R & B, gospel -- and make it sound like it was the only music that mattered," wrote Richard Harrington in the Washington Post. "She was a secret slowly exposed by word of mouth from those who stumbled into her world and emerged forever fans. It explains why so many musicians sought Eva Cassidy out. Everybody felt like she was a part of their mix."

I've listened to the cuts many times, often while driving through some of the saddest neighborhoods in Baltimore and sometimes while contemplating life's simmering problems and lingering regrets, and felt lifted by Cassidy's spirit.

Still, it's hard not to think of the unfairness of the Eva Cassidy story. She never got a record contract while she was alive. She was painfully shy, a backup vocalist reluctant to come out front, dismissed or ignored as a "local singer." In life, she never got an ounce of the recognition she's getting now. It breaks your heart.

For Niki Lee, it's even harder because she is one of many from the Washington musical world who knew Cassidy. Lee was raised in Potomac, Cassidy in Bowie, and their musical lives intersected frequently in Maryland and D.C.

Lee, who has performed around Baltimore for a decade and lives in Catonsville, wrote an elegiac song called "November" several years ago and recorded it with Cassidy and two other women. It's an a cappella recording, with Lee in the lead and Cassidy coming through, like the pentimento of an old oil painting, at a place where the song soars into the spiritual.

Few people know of the existence of "November," and Lee, who speaks of Cassidy with reverence, awe and sadness, is trying to decide what to do with it. Though Cassidy's voice is for the most part blended with the others, it's likely there would be interest in Lee's recording because Cassidy's music has been nothing short of a phenomenon during the last year, with big sales of her CDs and, more recently, national publicity on television and major magazines. The posthumous appreciation started, oddly enough, in England last spring, after the BBC broadcast Cassidy's "Over The Rainbow," and it has spread to Canada and to the United States.

There's a lesson in the legacy of Eva Cassidy -- that we make the effort to appreciate what's right in front of us instead of what's distant, what's instinctually attractive but not widely acclaimed. Sometimes the greatest talent and the most enduring beauty lives where we do. Sometimes the best things in life exist just down the road, and not in lofty places. Sometimes, when you're not looking at what's before you, you miss out.

The name game

Now that stock in PSINet Inc. is trading at less than the cost of first-class postage, maybe we can get on to the business of selecting a new name for the taxpayer-financed football stadium where your world-champion Baltimore Ravens play.("What do you mean, `We,' newspaper boy? The Ravens own the naming rights.")

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