Twenty-five years after the untimely death of singer Eva Cassidy, a re-mastered version of her last recording, “Live at Blues Alley,” has been released.
In the winter of 2000-2001 I was commuting about three times a week, fifty miles and twelve busy English roundabouts, from Berkshire west to Andover in Hampshire (the hometown of the British Invasion band The Troggs). The several British Broadcasting Corporation radio channels each broadcast in a narrow range of FM frequencies, and so British car radios automatically switch to the local transmitter signal with the better strength for your selected channel on these commutes.
Paul Walters, the producer of the popular Terry Wogan morning show on BBC2 (the “adult contemporary” channel) had become enamored with the music of a young American singer, Eva Cassidy, who had tragically died four years earlier of melanoma at the age of 33. He began playing some of her songs which had been collected into an album called Songbird. A grainy but evocative video of Cassidy accompanying herself on guitar while singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” was featured on the long-running BBC television show Top of the Pops. Cassidy’s songs became the sound of my morning commute, along with other Walters’ favorites in heavy rotation, such as Scottish singer Eddi Reader’s song Perfect, a great tune that never made it onto the charts in the U.S.
The standard story of Eva Cassidy’s lack of American success during her lifetime, beyond a loyal following around her home in Washington, DC, is that her personal shyness and refusal to be put into a musical box frustrated record labels, such as Blue Note Records, who invested money in her. Live at Blues Alley mostly showcases the “blues belter” Cassidy, featuring her amazing vocal range, but she also liked to record and perform jazz and folk standards, such as “Blue Skies,” and “Oh, Had I a Golden Thread” here. She may be best remembered, however, for her very intimate covers of songs like Christine McVie’s “Songbird” and Sting’s “Fields of Gold.” Her versions of these two songs have become more iconic for me than the originals.
In the re-mastered version of Live at Blues Alley, recorded in a Georgetown club, the audience noise and reaction have been minimized, which takes away some of the “live” feel, but does better showcase her voice and her band. Most of the songs have shown up in other studio collections, but this live set demonstrates what fantastic performers she and her band were.
Here is that breakthrough Top of the Pops video of Eva Cassidy singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” accompanying herself on the guitar. Her jazz guitar skills were impressive, allowing her to pull off a riveting solo performance like this one.
By the way, one of the best weekly radio “oldies programmes” is found on BBC Radio 2’s website. Sounds of the 60s is currently hosted by Tony Blackburn, one of the original Radio Caroline “pirate ship” disk jockeys, who were trying to break the BBC’s stranglehold on what music could be broadcast in the 1960’s United Kingdom. He likes to contrast what was popular in the U.K. and the U.S. at the same point in time, so you often hear unfamiliar songs from familiar 1960’s artists from both sides of the pond.