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When Chuck Met Eva

By Jefferson Morley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 8, 1998

   


    Eva Cassidy By January 1996, sure she could make music her livelihood, Cassidy had taken her own apartment in Annapolis. (Photograph by Matthew Dols)
While the rest of the musicians wanted to call it a night, Chuck Brown and Chris Biondo did not. Chuck and his band, the Soul Searchers, were finishing up "Hoochie-Coochie Man," a song that would end up on the seventh album of his career. Biondo was the sound engineer and owner of the studio, which was in the basement of a house on a cul-de-sac in Rockville. As the last of the Soul Searchers left, Biondo nodded at a bottle of vodka Chuck had been lugging around, a gift from a fan, and offered to mix some martinis.

Chuck Brown wasn't one to say no to a sensible proposition like a vodka martini at 1 in the morning. They broke out plastic cups, opened the bottle and kicked back with the ease of men who don't want to go home and don't have to.

Chuck didn't know Biondo all that much but liked him well enough. And Biondo suspected that they were natural-born collaborators despite their differences. He was 34, the son of a Wheaton lawyer, a sound engineer and bass player with an Italian American Afro and a sarcastic sense of humor. He'd built a reputation as an ace in the studio, recording every kind of music from country to reggae to rock to rap. Charles Moody Brown, the fiftysomething son of a North Carolina tobacco picker, was the king of go-go, the indigenous beat of Washington. A growly baritone given to wearing a cowboy hat and an Indian-style ponytail, he was also a rock-hard veteran of 30 years in the music business, having started playing in a cell at Lorton and gone on to stages in Hollywood, New York, Paris and Tokyo.

Once they had their feet up in the small cubby behind the mixing board, Biondo held up a digital audiocassette.

"This," he said, "is the best thing I've ever heard." He did not mention that he was falling in love with the woman singing on the tape. He was certain that romance in no way distorted his professional judgment.

"Yeah, sure," Chuck answered. But he was willing to indulge his new friend.

Biondo slipped the cassette into the tape deck and said, "Her name's Eva Cassidy."

"She any good?"

"Just listen," Biondo said, pushing the play button. From the massive speakers in the corners of the studio, a clear and brilliant voice started to flow:

They call it stormy Monday

But Tuesday's just as bad.

The song, right out of the blues canon, was the kind of number that bar bands do all the time. It was being sung with great power and knowing restraint by a singer who found her way straight to its emotional core. The two men sipped as the tape rolled on to another song:

When my soul was in the lost and found

You came along to claim it.

Aretha Franklin had recorded the definitive version of "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" a quarter-century earlier.

I didn't know just what was wrong with me

Until your kiss helped me name it.

Even without the lush strings in Aretha's arrangement, this woman conveyed the same majestic, enveloping sense of reawakening.

After a few songs -- "God Bless the Child," "Bridge Over Troubled Water," a folk tune called "You Take My Breath Away" -- the singer was taking Chuck back, back to a song he'd heard on the radio on the wintry mornings when he was getting ready to walk to Fairmont Heights Elementary School: "Baby, It's Cold Outside." He'd spent his career as a self-described "noisemaker" revving up crowds of kids for all-night parties, but he'd always longed to sing that kind of music, sophisticated, nuanced, adult. He'd also never told anyone, for fear they'd laugh out loud. But when Chuck Brown heard Eva Cassidy that night in 1991, he started thinking maybe he could sing those songs -- with her.

Which had been Biondo's idea in the first place.

In the dimness of the studio, the two men drank and listened some more. Soon Chuck was analyzing and interpreting and asking Biondo to rewind the tape. Gradually he started fantasizing about all the possibilities in this woman's voice. By the time Biondo shooed Chuck out the door, it was into the light of a new morning.

Eva Cassidy had that effect on more than a few people. She had a voice that could silence a barroom and get the pool players to lay down their cues. A voice that could prompt casual listeners to round up their co-workers for a night out dancing. A voice that could invest all kinds of American popular music with a true portion of herself. Pop singer Roberta Flack called her "a master of her craft." Rock drummer Mick Fleetwood longed to record with her. Jazz singer Shirley Horn simply said, "What a voice."

She also had a manner that drew people to her -- blunt, insecure, innocent and edgy in some interesting places. She lived, and sang, in ways that dispelled the obesssions -- race, politics, careerism -- that pervade the place where she was born. She was indifferent to conventional notions of achievement. She didn't open a checking account until she was in her late twenties. She had several close female friends, but her mother was the closest. For all the insight she brought to torch songs, intimate relationships with men gave her fits. She craved long walks, bike rides, sleepy old towns and junk food.

On perceived matters of principle, she would not compromise. About her talents, she was insecure to a debilitating degree. She was a blonde of Irish and German heritage. More than one music professional (Chuck included) assumed from hearing her tape that she was black. For all its evocative power, her singing was technically perfect. She had to be taught how to snap her fingers onstage. She was a feminist, with a particular loathing for the sexual exploitation of women. She was, for a while, dependent on the men who produced, managed and collaborated with her.

Performing scared her. Singing sustained her. Reconciling that conflict gave shape to her artistic life.

Eva died on November 2, 1996, at the age of 33. Yet hers was not the shooting-star glory of a young woman who never had the chance to fulfill her potential. She had already founded a career on a constellation of polished performances, both live and in the studio. While she was alive she released two critically acclaimed CDs of jazz, blues and folk standards: "The Other Side" (1992), recorded with Chuck Brown, and "Live at Blues Alley" (1996), a solo album. A posthumous CD, "Eva by Heart," which includes a duet with Brown, was released last fall, and another compilation, "Songbird," will be released nationally at the end of this month. Several major record labels had expressed interest in her, but they wanted her to narrow her musical identity so they could figure out how to market her. It was a concession she could not make.

"She was, for sure," wrote Richard Harrington in The Washington Post after she died, "a diamond no longer in the rough but not yet in the proper setting that would showcase a voice so pure, so strong, so passionate that it should have found a home just about anywhere."

In all likelihood her voice would have, given enough time. That Eva Cassidy had so little time is an abiding sadness to those who knew her, but they also see in her life an inspiration. Her character, her talent and her circumstances took her far out of the usual trajectory of the star-maker machinery. And ultimately, she did come to terms with the burden of her gifts. She did set about finding her way to where she belonged. It was a road she started down the day she hooked up with Chuck.

When Eva was born, on February 2, 1963, Chuck was a bricklayer in Capitol Heights. He'd grown up in the working-class suburbs east of Washington, singing in his mother's church as a boy, running the streets as a young man. He'd gone to Lorton on a manslaughter conviction; while he was there, he taught himself to play a guitar made by a friendly con in the wood shop. When he got out, he took a day job and started performing on the side.

By 1966 he'd hustled up a band, the Soul Searchers, and a job driving furniture trucks up and down the East Coast. All the while he was soaking up the rock and soul sounds of the '60s and '70s, writing songs in his head, pounding out the rhythms on the steering wheel. Back home in Washington, he'd park his truck outside Crampton Auditorium and go straight to the stage to rock the Howard University homecoming crowd.

Eva was growing up in Oxon Hill. Her father, Hugh, taught retarded children at a public school in Upper Marlboro and played music professionally on weekends; her mother, Barbara, raised Eva and her three siblings.

When Eva was 9 years old, the Cassidys moved to a lovely, secluded section of Bowie, not far from Exit 22 of the Capital Beltway. Hugh made sure his kids learned to identify flowers and trees. Barbara took a job at Behnke's Nursery in Beltsville and continued to devote herself to her children. The house was full of music: Bob Dylan, Buffy St. Marie and Pete Seeger were on the hi-fi as doors flew open and banged shut with kids coming and going.

Eva was sensitive, artistically precocious. Even at 9, she could sketch a face convincingly, and she could sing the folk and jazz standards that her father taught her. Her favorite album was Buffy St. Marie's "I'm Gonna Be a Country Girl Again," especially the melancholy tune "Tall Trees in Georgia." Eva would put the needle down in the groove and go off into her own world.

The sweetest love I ever had,

I left aside

Because I did not want to be

Any man's bride.

When her father gave her a nylon-stringed Harmony guitar and taught her to play, she caught on quickly. Hugh assembled a family band at one point. Eva played guitar and sang, her brother, Danny, played the fiddle, and Hugh played the bass. Eva and Danny performed at weddings and at Wild World, the old amusement park near Bowie. One time, Eva dropped her microphone and it rolled off the stage and she burst into tears. The family band did not play much more after that.

Eva's idyllic girlhood was giving way to an adolescence of alienation and indirection. Unlike some of her peers, she had no interest in clothes or sports or -- after court-ordered busing began in the Prince George's schools -- hating. At Goddard Junior High she grew close to the Murphy girls, Ruth and Celia, who had just moved from India and, like Eva, didn't fit in with any clique.

"She wasn't outgoing," says Ruth Murphy, who now teaches elementary school in Montgomery County. "She felt like a loner, sometimes got caught up in the wrong crowd. She was sensitive to discrimination against other races. She didn't have the desire to flirt or wear certain clothes, and it caused a lot of anxiety. She had bouts of depression." Her dream, Ruth recalls, was to sing backup for Stevie Wonder.

Even then her mother was her best friend, but her father was disappointed by her unwillingness to do household chores, her mediocre grades and what seemed to be her lack of ambition. Craving his approval, she received his scolding. Absorbing his perfectionism, she set her own standards very high.

In 1981, with high school mercifully done with, she began working as a plant tender at Behnke's, just like her mother. She lived at home and hung with a crowd of musically inclined free spirits who described themselves as "collective hermits." She liked to sing but did not assert herself. She sang harmonies in a boyfriend's rock band, but otherwise was drifting.

Chuck, meanwhile, was living large. Early in 1979, he had released a funky dance number called "Bustin' Loose." The song went to No. 1 on the national soul charts and stayed there for four weeks that February and March. He never saw much money out of it -- he'd signed a contract in the back seat of a record executive's white Rolls without reading the fine print -- but still, for a middle-aged musician it announced him like a skyrocket across a summer night.

He counted his losses and kept on playing. Soon there were other go-go bands playing around D.C., and bigger crowds, and more reporters, and more sweet-talking record executives coming around. Maybe, they were saying, go-go was going to be the Next Big Thing.

Eva didn't know from go-go. She had turned to painting, taking art courses at Prince George's Community College and developing her talent and desire to the point where she wanted to go to art school full time. She was accepted at the California Institute of the Arts but couldn't put together the tuition, about $13,000 a year.

She stuck with her circle of Bowie friends, pursuing her own little projects. She made a beautiful silk-screen from a portrait of Miles Davis and sold a few T-shirts with it. "She hated dealing with money," Ruth Murphy recalls. "If she had it, she would give it away. She worked to live. She liked to ride bikes, take long walks, go to old towns and look at their antique stores, collect rocks." She loved rituals, and one of the most important of them was spending time every Sunday with her mother.

At home, she went upstairs to her room, closed the door and practiced her singing. She still aspired to sing with Stevie Wonder.

She had a succession of boyfriends with whom she found little emotional satisfaction. "She partied a lot at that time," says Ruth Murphy. "But she wasn't having fun." She didn't think her relationships with men had been very successful. "Sex ruins everything," she complained to her mother. "As soon as you sleep together, they think they own you."

She continued to sing occasionally with various rock bands assembled by friends in Annapolis and Bowie, but here, too, she found little satisfaction. The music didn't suit her tastes. She liked Ella Fitzgerald and, though it wasn't cool to admit it, Linda Ronstadt.

On the streets of D.C., crack cocaine and gunplay were overrunning whole neighborhoods. Some of the shootings took place outside the clubs where go-go was played, and the music became associated with the violence. The crowds kept coming, and the bands kept playing, but by 1988, Chuck found himself recording with other go-go stars an anti-violence anthem titled "D.C. Don't Stand for Dodge City." The record executives stopped dropping around. It was pretty clear that go-go wasn't going to be the Next Big Thing.

One day in the winter of 1986,

Eva found herself headed for a recording studio. Her friend Dave Lourim, a guitarist fronting an alternative rock band called Method Actor, had asked her to sing the lead vocals on the band's first album. They were going to record it at a studio in Rockville with an engineer named Chris Biondo, and he set up a date for them to meet at the studio. Eva even did the art for the album cover but she didn't really like the songs. "I can't believe I'm doing this [expletive]," she told Ruth Murphy.

At the appointed hour Lourim walked in alone. Biondo was a little confused. "She's outside," Lourim said. "She's too scared to come in."

Biondo poked his head out the door. Eva was in a cloth coat, huddled against the wall. She said nothing.

"Get in here," Biondo said. That, plus his casual profanities, did little to initiate a warm and fuzzy artist-and-engineer relationship, but at that point Biondo figured she probably had little talent anyway. He shepherded her into the studio, hooked up a microphone and told her to start. Eva sang so loud she almost wrecked his sound equipment.

"But the thing that blew me away wasn't her lead vocals," Biondo says. "It was her harmonies. She did these really weird, neat harmonies right on the spot, without practicing them or anything. It was amazing."

After a few recording sessions, Eva pulled him aside. "I think I want to make a demo record on my own," she said. "Maybe I could get work singing backup vocals."

Biondo knew she was making something like $180 a week at Behnke's and couldn't afford to pay for studio time. He was also completely taken with her voice. "Draw me a picture of my dog," he said, "and I'll help you make a record."

Eva started coming by the studio every Monday. Biondo invited musician friends like Lourim and pianist Lenny Williams and drummer Juju House to play. Eva sang. Biondo critiqued and recorded. One night a talent manager named Al Dale dropped by and heard Eva's tape. Soon he adopted her career as a cause, and started working to get her a recording contract.

To get her more experience, Biondo arranged for her to sing with all kinds of acts passing through his studio. When Experience Unlimited, one of the city's premier go-go and rhythm and blues acts, needed the sound of a choir on its album "Living Large," Eva did it by herself. When Ali Malek, producer of a California rapper called E-40, needed a female to testify to the glories of "pimps, players and hustlers," she pulled it off with ghetto style. The song, "I Wanna Thank You," helped E-40's album go gold.

In the spring of 1991, Biondo began working with Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers. Almost immediately, it occurred to him that he had met a match for Eva. He now had about 15 of her songs on tape, and he decided that a duet with Chuck would be a natural next step, a good way to display and define her talent. It was on Chuck's third visit to the studio that he and Biondo had the night of the vodka martinis.

About a week later, Chuck returned to mix some vocal tracks. He parked his white Lincoln in the driveway and was heading in when a woman coming out of the studio stopped him.

"Hi," she said. "I'm Eva."

"Excuse me," Chuck said, not quite understanding.

"I'm Eva Cassidy. Chris played my tape for you. You're Chuck Brown; I've heard so much about you."

Chuck stared at her, trying to connect the name and the voice.

"Wait a minute," he said. "Come with me." He took her back into the studio, looking for Biondo.

"Chris," he called out. "This young lady just told me -- "

Biondo was trying not to smile.

"The lady singing on the tape. This is that same person?"

Biondo acknowledged that it was.

Chuck turned to Eva and extended his hand: "I'm so glad to meet you."

Soon Chuck and Eva were coming to the studio every week to record. He was drawn by her craftsmanship, her sly sense of humor, her lack of pretension and, most of all, by the sense of possibility that she'd lit in him. "My fright was gone," is how he would describe it later.

As for Eva, she had found a fellow singer who wanted to do the classic American songs she loved and who might actually meet the impossibly high standards to which she held herself. That this singer had already won some renown didn't hurt, either. "The fact that someone like Chuck wanted to sing with her was great for her self-esteem," Biondo says. "She thought he was a singer of the caliber of Ray Charles. And Eva was real big on Ray Charles."

For both of them, the studio was a refuge. Chuck had seen a 25-year marriage end in divorce, and one of his sons -- his namesake, Chuck Jr. -- had died in a car wreck in 1990. He'd remarried and started a new family, but his sense of loss remained. And though he was making a good living playing his "noise," there were times when the go-go groove could feel like a rut.

The music of some of the younger players was sounding shallow and inexpert. The question of when go-go would go national -- a question reporters were still asking -- started to annoy him. "Don't ask me," he'd snap. "My go-go has gone national. And international. My go-go has gone intergalactic. It's other people's go-go that hasn't gone national. Ask them." And in February 1992, as Chuck and the Soul Searchers were playing before a full house at a club in Adams-Morgan, someone shot a 20-year-old man dead not 25 feet from the stage.

Eva's anxieties, on the other hand, arose from within. She started a romance with Biondo and, after agonizing over it, moved in with him in a house in Upper Marlboro in the fall of 1991. That her mother approved made the step easier, but no less scary.

She had trouble with another commitment, too: She refused to settle on a musical identity, and it was beginning to complicate whatever it was she was going to do with her music.

The plan was to include Chuck and Eva's duet "You've Changed" on Chuck's next album, "Going Hard," but Dale had been circulating a tape of Eva's to some big record companies. Sensing Eva might get a contract, Dale held the song off Chuck's record. Some record executives were getting interested in her tape, but before they were going to put money on the table, they wanted answers to some questions. Yes, Eva's range was awesome, they'd say, but she had to make some choices so their marketing people could figure out how to sell the product. Did she want to be a blue-eyed soul diva? A folkie? A rock-and-roll belter? A cabaret singer?

"Just don't make me sing that pop crap," was about as helpful as Eva got. No contract materialized.

In the spring of 1992, Biondo decided that they shouldn't wait for a recording deal to come through, that Chuck and Eva should do a record of their own. They loved the idea, so Biondo assembled the best musicians he knew: Lenny Williams and Kent Wood on piano, guitarist Keith Grimes, and drummer Raice McLeod. Biondo played bass. At the center of them all was Eva.

"Eva was the calmest person there," Williams says of the sessions. "You wouldn't even have known she was there, she was so quiet. I think she was so happy just to be singing in the studio. Live performance scared the [expletive] out of her. The studio was perfect, because she was such a perfectionist."

The album that resulted from those sessions was "The Other Side," released as a compact disc in November 1992. Lenny Williams's lush, precise arrangements were the perfect backdrop for Chuck and Eva's voices. The opening cut was "Let the Good Times Roll." And roll they did.

Go to the rest of the story.

   
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