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'Songbird' couldn't be pigeonholed


In Maryland and Washington, where the singer Eva Cassidy lived and performed, her reputation has reached almost mythical proportions. The same is true in Britain, where Songbird, one of several posthumously released Cassidy albums, was No. 1 for a time last year. That four-year-old CD has since achieved gold-seller status in this country, too.

There are Web sites devoted to Cassidy's memory, a coffee-table biography by two British writers (not yet published in the United States), and talk of a movie based on her life. The small West Coast folk music label Blix Street Records has just released another album, Imagine, which for several weeks had been at or near the top of's pre-ordered list. This for an artist who toiled, as they say, in relative obscurity and whose recordings have gotten minimal radio play on this side of the Atlantic.

In some ways, the explanation for Eva Cassidy's popularity - all told, her records have sold about 4 million copies, according to Bill Straw, the president of Blix Street - is simple: She possessed a silken soprano voice with a wide and seemingly effortless range, unerring pitch and a gift for phrasing that at times was heart-stoppingly eloquent.

In an industry where not much is simple, however, Cassidy's celebrity and the success of her records qualify as aberrations.

For starters, Cassidy, who died of melanoma at 33 in late 1996, was by most accounts shy and acutely self-critical. She appeared in front of an audience with reluctance. "It embarrassed her if one of her friends asked her to sing at a party," said her father, Hugh Cassidy.

But if she waffled about taking the spotlight, Cassidy was firm about what she would and would not sing, insisting on performing only material that meant something to her. The result was an eclectic mix of standards, blues, rhythm and blues, folk, rock, country, jazz and gospel that in these days of musical pigeonholing almost guarantees a lack of serious interest from major record labels.

She lived to see just one of her solo albums released, a live session at the Washington club Blues Alley that she underwrote herself and sold locally from the trunk of her car. Typically, friends recall, she was at first reluctant to put it out.

Her final appearance was at an emotional farewell concert organized by her friends at a club in Georgetown. She was carried on stage and sang one song, "Wonderful World." Less than two months later, she died.

Bill Straw never met Eva Cassidy, never heard her sing until near the end of her life when Grace Griffith, a Washington-area singer who recorded for Straw's label, sent him a tape of Cassidy's Blues Alley session.

With a stable consisting mostly of folk artists who specialize in Celtic music, Blix Street is not exactly a music-industry giant. But Straw, a former entertainment lawyer who has worked for Warner Brothers and MCA Records, sensed that the singer from Bowie was something special. "It didn't take a genius to figure it out," he said. "The moment I listened to that tape, I knew this was one of the best singers I'd ever heard."

Griffith later arranged a meeting between Straw and Hugh Cassidy and his wife, Barbara, and in April 1998 Blix Street put out Songbird, the first nationally distributed Eva Cassidy album, a mixture of songs selected by Straw from Live at Blues Alley and Eva by Heart. It also included her version of "Over the Rainbow," from the collaboration with Chuck Brown.

The album quickly picked up steam in Britain, then began to attract notice in Scandinavia, Germany and several other European countries. Late in the year attention started to spike in the United States, too, as word of Songbird's success crossed the ocean.

Just before Christmas 2000, NPR's Morning Edition broadcast a report on Cassidy that included an interview with her mother, Barbara. ABC's Nightline devoted a program to Cassidy the following May, and the response was so strong that it was repeated six weeks later. There were articles in Billboard, Rolling Stone, People and Entertainment Weekly.

But Cassidy still did not get much airplay in the United States. Such sporadic exposure perhaps explains why Cassidy's name can still draw a blank even among people who consider themselves knowledgeable about popular music.

It has now been six years since Cassidy's death, and her output was not large to begin with. There are no arty videos available - though visual recordings of her Blues Alley performance exist that are so low-tech that they might now qualify as cutting edge - and, obviously, there is no artist available for interviews.

Straw assembled Imagine, the fifth Cassidy album on his label (there are several "unauthorized" albums in circulation) after combing through tapes of live performances, studio demos and a vocal resume she used to audition for club bookings.

Imagine is being released now, Straw said, "because we need it to keep her story alive."

He added that there was enough material for more Eva Cassidy albums in the future. "There's still a lot to sort through, and new recordings of her performances keep turning up," he said. "Obviously, we don't want to go below a certain quality. And we want to go slow, because once it's gone, it's gone."

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