Lenny Williams never thought he’d be doing interviews about a new Eva Cassidy album in 2023.
And yet 27 years after the Bowie native died of cancer at 33, Williams found himself reminiscing about his former bandmate and remarking how pristine her voice sounds backed by the London Symphony Orchestra.
To coincide with what would have been the former Annapolis resident’s 60th birthday, Blix Street Records has released a new recording that pairs Cassidy’s voice with one of the world’s finest orchestras. Although music director Sir Simon Rattle was not at the podium himself, hiring the London Symphony Orchestra added gravitas to the project.
“They always find creative ways to keep Eva’s name in people’s consciousness,” Williams said. He supported the special 25th anniversary edition of “Live at Blues Alley,” the lone album Cassidy saw released during her lifetime, with williams behind the keyboard at the venerable Georgetown club, recorded over two nights in January 1996. The idea of superimposing Eva’s vocals over an orchestra though? That raised his eyebrows.
“I’m not naturally a fan of doing this kind of resetting, but I think this turned out really well,” Williams said.
“I Can Only Be Me,” features nine songs Eva was known to sing in DMV clubs from Annapolis to Alexandria, with new arrangements for strings, brass, wind and percussion, and occasional hints of the original keyboards and guitar. It’s a project Bill Straw, president of Blix Street, says would never have been possible a few years ago, but thankfully “Blues Alley” was recorded with Eva’s voice as an isolated vocal track.
Music technology is now so advanced the record sounds as if Cassidy was onstage with an orchestra behind her. Strings swell as her voice grows bolder on the title track, and quietly trail off with a shimmer of violin at the end. A listener’s mind fills in the applause.
Had Cassidy lived to see her albums become global bestsellers, including No. 1 in the United Kingdom, the singer could well have headlined symphonic concerts at Maryland Hall, The Meyerhoff or even The Barbican Centre, the London Symphony’s home. Instead, Cassidy is making her symphonic debut posthumously, just as she’s marked so many other milestones, including being honored with a West Street mural in Annapolis.
“I’ve been thinking about an orchestral arrangement from the very beginning, ever since I first heard ‘Over the Rainbow’ which has an orchestral arrangement that Eva did on a synthesizer,” Straw said.
The Seattle-based producer was introduced to Cassidy’s music a month before she died in November 1996, when Grace Griffith, a local folk and Celtic singer already on the label, sent Straw a copy of “Blues Alley.” A year later, he cut a deal with Cassidy’s parents, Hugh and Barbara, who still live in Shady Side. The trio has been safeguarding her legacy since. Blix Street owns the rights to the recordings, and Straw says he’s tried to walk the line between overexposing the limited catalog of Cassidy’s recordings and keeping her name in the public consciousness. He’s even got TikTok promotional videos ready to go.
“It’s been an absolute privilege,” Straw said.
In 2017, he authorized the use of Cassidy’s famed “Fields of Gold” vocals for use on a Michael Bolton duet album.
“I didn’t think that was the best idea in the world, but it turned out good,” Straw said.
Three years later, he got a call from producer William Ross, who among many other prestigious gigs, has served as music director for Barbra Streisand. (His other A-list vocalists include Andrea Bocelli, Celine Dion and Josh Groban.) Some producers on Ross’s team had also worked on the Bolton project, and “fell in love” with Cassidy, Straw said. They’d created three spec tracks setting Cassidy’s voice to an orchestra. Did he want to listen? Of course.
“That broke the ice and it kinda took my breath away,” Straw said. “They are extremely talented guys.”
A year later, in December 2021, Straw, who is 83, watched the London recording session on Zoom, listening as London Symphony Orchestra musicians record in a deconsecrated church for two days. The Cassidys were also dialed in from Shady Side. Chris Willis, a young English composer specializing in adapting melodies for larger ensembles, wrote the arrangements, toggling back and forth between rearranging Cassidy’s signature songs and working on the Apple TV hit, “Schmiggadoon.”
“He did a great job,” Williams said of the arrangements. “I wouldn’t want to have to do it.”
The final product is a careful balance of supporting strings and input from other sections of the orchestra. For example, an amped-up brass section for the spiritual “People Get Ready,” piano cadences peaking through on Cassidy’s slowed-down cover of Cyndi Lauper’s hit “Time After Time,” and haunting flutes that make “Tall Trees in Georgia” a bit more ethereal.
The Morning Sun
“It’s a tightrope walk, isn’t it?” Williams said. “How much do you gild the lily, you know?”
The Kensington resident, 61, spent nearly a decade playing with Cassidy after Chris Biondo, her recording engineer and sometimes romantic partner, called him in to serve as a session musician. Williams and remain business partners, overseeing a library of music for film and television producers.
But back in the late 1980s when they met, Williams was transitioning from Peabody Institute composition graduate to keyboard player for hire. He realized it was easier to make a living playing other people’s music than his own, and thankfully, he didn’t mind.
“I wasn’t one of those classical guys who needed to stay in a certain lane to feel fulfilled,” Williams said. And working with Cassidy was fulfilling.
“She had some kind of gift. She could reinvent something you’ve heard a million times in a completely original way,” Williams said. “There’s a feeling that the keyboard player was some sort of de facto music director. That was absolutely not the case. She was the genius behind all of it.”
The new LSO album might have been produced without Cassidy’s vision, but it still has her voice, phrasing familiar songs in unfamiliar ways. And it’s her voice that will inspire listeners to discover her music either for the first time, or all over again with the new symphonic album.
“Eva was extraordinary,” Williams said. “She’s an all-time voice, you know? People will buy her records long after I’m dead, because there’s just certain voices that are timeless, and she’s one of those voices.”