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Carrying a torch for Eva Cassidy Add to ...

So much about singers is tied to our perception of them as people. Once you learn their story, it's hard to separate it from the music.

Washington-area singer Eva Cassidy's huge success in Britain and mounting sales in North America are undoubtedly a product of her pure and strikingly versatile voice. But while listening to her deftly cross genres, it's also difficult to ignore the story of the singer's sudden death from melanoma seven years ago at the age of 33.

Her death before her career took off seems to have only added an extra impetus to her huge posthumous exposure, first on BBC radio and British television's T op of the Pops 2, then on National Public Radio in the United States and short segments on ABC's Nightline and other news shows.

After years as a part-time singer she was just starting to gain some notice as a solo performer with her one solo live album Live at Blues Alley, released months before she died.

Chris Biondo, her producer for 10 years and lover for four, then spent an emotionally draining nine to 10 months gathering together the few dozen forgotten demos and rehearsal tapes she had recorded. He also finished the album they had been recording together, Eva By Heart. West Coast folk label Blix Street Records also issued a compilation CD combining songs from the other two albums.

Then her fame suddenly took off. BBC Radio 2 DJ Terry Wogan played her cover version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow nationally, and suddenly she was an adult-contemporary superstar.

Her latest release, American Tune was recently released in Canada, but has already hit number one in Britain and is her third number-one album there. It only proves that she could have done so much more had she not died, Biondo said.

"If she had lived, she would have hooked up with a far larger set of opportunities for making the music she wanted to, and would have made records that would have made these look like garbage," Biondo said, noting that he has pretty much finished his work on Cassidy's recordings, although dozens of songs remain and will likely continue to be released as albums.

"I spent the first year after she died finishing this music. And most of the music on this studio record we were working on happened to be about people dying and things not working out. There's a lyric on Eva By Heart that says, 'You left in autumn, the leaves were turning' -- and she died in autumn when the leaves were turning. And there's a song called Time Is A Healer and there's a part where she says she misses you. Every time I'm sitting down to work on this stuff, I'm listening to Eva sing about what has happened to her. So it was really hard for me," he said.

"One thing I tell people is that songs like Somewhere Over The Rainbow, which just bursts people into tears, I'm pretty much immune to. I've already gotten it out of my system. But the song American Tu ne [off the album of the same name]I can't listen to."

Said to have been very strong-willed as well as shy, Cassidy refused to limit herself to one marketable genre.

"I said stuff to her like let's do country, you'd kill in country," Biondo said. "Or how about this: I've got a great idea, something where you have a new jazz thing going on where you're actually singing songs that are more accessible to people because they are more simplified, you know? Or let's try the gospel thing.

"But one thing about Eva, she was pretty stubborn. She approached it the way she did because, really, her style was eclectic, and eclectic's the hardest because you have to be able to do everything," he added.

The lightness of her music also belies a discomfort she had in her relationships. She agreed to live with Biondo, but wouldn't marry him until they had been together for four years. When those four years ended, she left him, although they continued to work professionally and remained close friends.

"Eva's main problem with the world was that she felt that women were looked at as objects. She felt it very important that she was someone who could do the work of a man and carrying her own weight," Biondo said. Her day job was at a plant nursery where she did heavy manual labour with a crew of half a dozen men. "So while she didn't have much of an ego, she did have pride, and that was something that was real important to her.

"I remember once a police officer asked her to move her car and addressed her as Little Missy. She totally, totallydid not like that at all. That was something that pushed all the wrong buttons. She didn't want to be a Little Missy," Biondo said.

None of that comes across in her recordings. Eva's light voice on American Tune sounds at times old-fashioned, with a disregard for effect.It may be due to the fact that most were unadorned studio demos -- basically "live" run-throughs with the tape running.

A stubborn streak may have caused her unwillingness to go to follow-up appointments when an initial patch of melanoma was removed from the back of her neck in the early 1990s. She only got subsequent checks when she had a nagging hip pain a year later, to discover that the cancer had spread throughout her body. Later, during bouts of chemotherapy, radiation and Interferon treatment, she insisted that no one cry when visiting her.

"It wasn't some type of part she was playing. She just didn't want people talking about it. It just reminded her she was sick and made her mad," Biondo said.

But as she fought various struggles she didn't use her singing to become someone bigger than she felt she was, Biondo added. "She didn't think she was a great singer. She thought she was okay. And you really need confidence to stare people down on stage, work the room, do interviews and walk the walk. Eva didn't walk the walk. She just sang, and she thought everything else was just something other people did."

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