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Eva Cassidy didn’t play by the rulesand neither did the authors of Songbird, the first biography of the D.C.-area singer, who died of cancer in 1996.
After frequent airplay in England, a documentary on England’s Granada Television, and a full-hour episode of Nightline pushed the singer’s work into the spotlight, the executors of her estate were besieged by pitches for “the definitive biography.”
“We kept saying to people, ‘The story’s not over yet,’” says Elana Rhodes Byrd, the Cassidy-family lawyer. But Rob Burley and Jonathan Maitland, who had made the Granada documentary, offered an unusual approach, says co-author Byrd”a book that scatters the pictures and tells the story.”
Songbirdpublished in Britain by Orion Books in 2001 and now available here in a revised Gotham Books editionturns out to be as sentimental, idiosyncratic, and multifaceted as its subject. Part coffee-table book, part oral history, it recounts Cassidy’s short life and artistic and personal impact from many points of view, and its conveys a cozy intimacy with informal snapshots along with sketches and other artwork by Cassidya gifted visual artist as well as singer.
Byrd didn’t know her subject”I’m the age of her parents”but her path crossed Cassidy’s a few times on the regional music circuit; her husband, Joe Byrd, was a member of the Charlie Byrd Trio. Her involvement with the Cassidy family came largely after Eva’s death, when Byrd became involved in negotiating the rights to the singer’s work. And her closeness to Hugh and Barbara Cassidy comes in part through her acquaintance with grief: She lost her own son early in 1996, the same year the Cassidys lost their daughter.
But you don’t get to be a lawyer by succumbing to sentiment. “Eva’s parents, when they walked in the door to settle her estate, didn’t even have any idea of what it could be worth,” says Byrd, who nonetheless makes it clear that the point of releasing “new” work by Cassidy is “to memorialize her through her music.” The question she asks herself: “Can I help Eva achieve the goal she wanted?”
Cassidy’s musical tastes, like those of many children of the ’60s and ’70s, were shaped by her parents’ record collection, her school music classes, and her friends’ bands as much as by radio. And the D.C.-area radio she did consume was a hodgepodge of styles, with playlists determined, in that pre-deregulation era, by local DJs and their listener bases. That range of influences meant that the mix of music Cassidy liked to performcovers of songs by Sting, Sandy Denny, and John Lennon; jazz collaborations with Chuck Brown; gospel, rock, and torch songsleft the recording industry baffled.
But after her death, her refusal to pick a genre and stick with it paid off for her in England, where, Byrd says, “at any given time, Eva could be heard on three stations out of five.”
Byrd and crew are now overwhelmed with opportunities to keep Cassidy singing. Her take on Christine McVie’s “Songbird” appears in the just-released film Love Actually, and plans are in the works for a biopic. Byrd is confident that the more people hear of Cassidy, the more they’ll want to hear: “Eva’s her own best salesman.” Pamela Murray Winters