There are countless American artists who did not gain fame, notoriety, or recognition until after their deaths: think Herman Melville, Henry David Thoreau, Edgar Allen Poe. Even in more recent years, artists have gone unnoticed until after their untimely passing. One such artist, musician Eva Cassidy, was propelled from relative anonymity to international acclaim a mere four years after her death. During life, Cassidy always shucked definition or designation. She sang and played jazz, blues, folk, gospel, country, rock, and pop music, all with equal ability and passion. She refused to resign herself to a single genre or sound, a stubborn streak that would deny her record deals during life and gain her notoriety after it.
Eva Cassidy, born and raised in the Washington, D.C., area, was a student of music throughout her short life. At the young age of nine, Cassidy’s father, a musician himself, began teaching his daughter the guitar. By the time Cassidy was eleven she was performing at small events and family gatherings and spent her teenage years in various local bands. Despite her natural-born stage fright and shyness, Cassidy formed and served as the icon for the Eva Cassidy Band in 1990. The band went on to perform frequently throughout the city, eventually catching the eye—or more appropriately, ear—of legendary go-go musician Chuck Brown. In 1992 Cassidy and Brown recorded her first album together, a series of duets, including Cassidy’s signature song, “Over the Rainbow.”
Cassidy’s reluctance to pigeon-hole her sound into a particular genre put her at odds with producers. Upon hearing her angelic voice, producers would scramble to sign record deals, then sulk away when Cassidy refused to limit herself to their narrow definitions. Finally, in 1996 Cassidy released her first solo album, a compilation of live songs recorded at D.C.’s famous Blues Alley. Cassidy, in her timid fashion, was reluctant to record or release the album, fearing rejection or imperfection. Instead, the album was locally praised by critics and the public alike. The Washington Post said of Cassidy, “She could sing anything—folk, blues, pop, jazz, R&B, gospel—and make it sound like it was the only music that mattered.” With the seed of public approval planted, Cassidy began working on her first studio album.
But before Cassidy had a chance to finish it, tragedy struck. In 1993 Cassidy had a malignant mole removed from her back; when her hips began aching in early 1996, she made no connection between the two events. When the aches persisted, Cassidy visited a doctor and discovered the melanoma had spread to her lungs and bones. She chose to undergo aggressive treatment, but to no avail. In the fall of 1996, Cassidy’s friends hosted a benefit concert at the Bayou in D.C.—it was Cassidy’s final public performance.
Cross continents and time to Britain in 2000. Terry Wogan, host of BBC Radio 2’s popular Wake up to Wogan show, played two songs, “Fields of Gold” and “Over the Rainbow,” from Cassidy’s post-mortem compilation record, Songbird. British audiences were instantly entranced and enamored. Following the popularity of its radio release, BBC’s Top of the Pops 2 aired a live recording of Cassidy performing “Over the Rainbow” taken at Blues Alley: it became the most-requested video in the show’s history. In a reverse Beatle-mania, Great Britain went Cassidy-crazy, propelling her three-year-old Songbird album to the top of the U.K. Albums Charts a full four years after her death. The rest of the world caught the Cassidy bug, her album topping charts throughout Europe and America in the early 2000’s. From NPR to Nightline, Cassidy’s surge in fame knows no bounds, and her music still frequently appears in pop culture today, from singing competitions to TV dramas.
Unlike many of her artistic counterparts whose fame eluded them during life, Cassidy’s post-mortem popularity was appropriately suited to her personality. Throughout her career, she basked in the warm shadows cast by the spotlight, as opposed to the hot beam itself; the worldwide, top-charting popularity that she earned after her death would have most likely made the artist cringe in life. Although Cassidy’s early death was certainly tragic and undoubtedly premature, many of her friends and family believe her posthumous recognition to be ironically congruous. Cassidy’s name will assuredly remain in the cultural spotlight, but Cassidy herself, wherever she may be, can continue to thrive in its shadows.