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When Chuck Met Eva



    Crhis Biondo and Chuck Brown Collaborators Chris Biondo, bass player and sound engineer, and Chuck Brown, the king of go-go, outside Biondo's studio. (By Claudio Vazquez/The Washington Post)
It was time to take the show on the road, and in January 1993 Biondo went for one of the best places in town: He booked Chuck and Eva and the band for a night at Blues Alley in Georgetown. Eva had sung a lot at Christmas parties and in front of musicians in the studio, but never at a venue of such size or prestige.

"I'm so scared," she moaned to Lenny Williams backstage that night. "I'm so scared."

"Look, Eva, they want to like you," he said. "Otherwise they wouldn't be here. As soon as you open your mouth they're going to be looking for reasons to like you."

Eva, not mollified, went to Chuck.

"I'm scared," Eva declared.

"Me too," he said brightly.

Dale and others had convinced Eva that it would not be a compromise of principle to wear a dress onstage. She had also gotten lessons in snapping her fingers and swaying to the beat. Once the band got going, all Eva had to do was stand aside and watch Chuck work. He danced, swooned, joked with the crowd and set up her solos.

They were becoming what Chuck had dreamed of, an urbane duo so musically intimate they sounded like former lovers and future best friends. The mutuality of their friendship made it easy. He took the glare of the spotlight off her, allowing her to get comfortable and focus on her singing. She relieved him of the burden of carrying the whole show and allowed him to take chances he wouldn't have dared alone.

The playlist consisted of all the things they'd been doing in the studio -- "Fever," "You Don't Know Me," "You've Changed," "Dark End of the Street" -- and that night's "Drown in My Own Tears" transcended what they'd put down on tape. When Eva hit the first line of the last verse -- Why don't you -- she tried something new, holding the you for a couple of bars, shaping it to hold all the joy and wretchedness of love's travails. Ralph Camilli, the owner of Blues Alley, said it was the single best note he'd ever heard in his club.

After the exhilaration of that night, Chuck and Eva and the band did shows all over town. At first, many people came to see Chuck, hometown hero from their high school days. Soon enough, they got to know the name of the white girl up there with him. Chuck and Eva could share a stage with anyone. They played the Columbia Arts Festival. They opened for veteran soul star Al Green at the Stone Soul Picnic, which drew 20,000 people in Northeast. They opened for the Neville Brothers at Wolf Trap.

Backstage afterward, Eva was still insecure. "There's so many singers out there who've paid their dues," she said once to Lenny Williams, "who've been out there for years, who've done so much more than me."

In September 1993, Eva went to the doctor for a checkup. After one look at a small but ugly mole on her back, the doctor ordered her to have outpatient surgery that day. Biondo took her to Doctors Hospital in Prince George's County, where a surgeon took a three-inch-wide strip of skin from the nape of her neck to the base of her spine. He wanted to be sure he removed all of the malignancy.

Afterword, she showed the scar to Biondo and the guys in the band and joked about her "cancerous lesion." Other than that, she didn't talk about it. When it came time for follow-up appointments, she didn't go.

In October she broke up with Biondo, though he remained her producer, engineer and friend. "She needed to provide for herself," he says, "and be in control of her living situation." She moved back in with her parents and then into a farmhouse in Annapolis with a friend named Jackie Fletcher. She kept saving her Sunday afternoons for her mother.

About six months later, an actual record deal came through. In the spring of 1994, executives at Blue Note, a well-known jazz label, decided to pair Eva with Pieces of a Dream, a Philadelphia pop-jazz band with several records to its credit. Dale thought it was a good idea; Biondo had his doubts.

He and Eva drove up to Philadelphia to cut a single. The music had already been recorded, so she wound up sitting alone in a booth singing a song about New York City, a place that she didn't really know much about. That summer, Eva toured the country with Pieces of a Dream. She liked the guys in the band well enough, but had no musical chemistry with them. When the single, "Goodbye, Manhattan," came out she told Biondo, "I sound like one of those contestants in the Miss America pageant singing in the talent show -- one of the really bad ones."

Eva came back home determined to depend on others a little less, and it wasn't always easy for her. One night she played at Pearl's, a dark little restaurant in a strip mall in Annapolis, across the street from a cemetery. Still wearing her uniform from Behnke's Nursery, she gripped her big guitar and squinted into the single spotlight. "Is anybody out there still awake?" she joked nervously.

There was a bit of applause from the shadows. Her roommate, Fletcher, was there, and so were some other girlfriends. An old boyfriend from high school, an impossibly quiet, terminally shy guy, was there still carrying a torch for her. Eva worked through some old favorites of hers -- John Lennon's "Imagine" and Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready" -- wringing a measure of consolation from a screwed-up summer.

In November, she attended the Wammies, the annual awards banquet of the Washington Area Music Association, in the Washington Hilton ballroom. She had been named a winner for traditional jazz vocals, and she had also been selected to sing. With 1,500 people listening, she dedicated her song to Quentin "Footz" Davidson, a drummer for the go-go group Rare Essence, who had been murdered that September, and Danny Gatton, a guitar virtuoso who had committed suicide that October. She didn't know Davidson, but she was friendly with other members of the group; with Gatton, she'd taken guitar lessons and recorded two songs. Ron Holloway, a saxophonist who had also received an award, was getting ready to leave when she started "Over the Rainbow."

"I stopped dead in my tracks, transfixed," he recalls. "For someone to dig so deep emotionally and at the same time be so technically perfect . . . And there was nothing pretentious about it."

Chuck still played occasional gigs with Eva and the band, but he shared her hope that she'd make a record of her own. Slowly, she was making her own way.

By this time, even Dale's patience with the record companies was thinning. Among his many frustrations was a deal with Apollo Records, which fell through when the label folded. He and Biondo came up with another plan: Eva would record a live album and they would release it on their own, as they did with "The Other Side." Dale booked what was by then called the Eva Cassidy Band into Blues Alley for two nights in January 1996.

Eva's parents came, as did Ruth and Celia Murphy. Chuck and his second wife, Jocelyn, were there, too. The house was, in fact, packed. Someone had persuaded Eva to wear high heels. As soon as she came onstage, she kicked them off. "That's the last time I wear high heels," she declared and sang the whole show, from "Cheek to Cheek" to "Take Me to the River," in stocking feet. She closed with an old favorite.

"I'd like to dedicate this song to my mom and my dad," she said, her voice getting girlish and singsongy. "They're here tonight." Hugh Cassidy hadn't been to a show of hers in a while, feeling he wasn't always welcome. But after so many years of edginess, Eva's relationship with her father was mellowing. "Dad taught me to play guitar," she told the crowd proudly.

She began caressing the strings with the lightest of touches. As the melody to "What a Wonderful World" took shape, Eva began to sing in a crystalline soprano:

I see trees that are green

Red roses too.

Then she downshifted effortlessly into a gentle, almost spoken aside:

I watch them bloom

For me and you.

And then, from within that innocence, a greater knowledge:

And I think

To myself

What a wonderful world.

When Eva heard the tapes from the two shows, she refused to let Biondo and Dale put them on a CD -- she could hear too many mistakes. Biondo and Dale argued with her for hours. She relented only when they agreed to add a song she'd recorded in the studio. It was "Golden Thread," a traditional song paying homage to the abiding healing power of mothers, children and art.

Eva was starting to assert herself in other ways, too. She moved again, this time into her own apartment in Annapolis, into a neighborhood where rents were low and prostitutes and crackheads occasionally sat on the back steps. Jackie Fletcher, her former roommate, took it as a measure of her growing confidence. "When she got her own apartment she quit her job at the nursery," she says, "because she wanted to be a professional, to make music her livelihood, and she knew she was good enough to do it." Other friends of Eva's wondered whether she would ever realize the true extent of her talent.

To earn some money and stay connected to her talent for painting, Eva took a job as an assistant to Maggie Haven, an Annapolis artist who had a contract to do murals in local elementary schools. Eva spent her days atop a stepladder painting gigantic, colorful underwater and jungle scenes.

One Sunday that May -- around the time that "Live at Blues Alley" was released on CD -- she took a walk with her mother through the dappled woods in the old neighborhood in Bowie, along the paths they knew by heart. Their conversation meandered, not uncomfortably, toward the subject of death. Barbara Cassidy recalls saying, "Well, I feel I've lived a pretty full life." And Eva replying, "So do I."

In June, she went with Jackie Fletcher to see Odetta, who was performing in Baltimore. "This is what I want to do," Eva told her friend, gesturing to the venerable folk singer onstage. "A woman getting older and better, playing her guitar in haunts and clubs and quiet auditoriums, places where people really listen."

Around the same time, she also had a persistent pain in her hip. A few days later, she and Chuck were back at Blues Alley for a show. "I asked her what was the matter," he says, "and she said she'd spent too much time up on a stepladder painting. I told her to have a doctor check it out." She did. The doctor prescribed painkillers, which didn't help.

She was hurting about Biondo, too, she told one of her girlfriends that night. She hadn't wanted to be any man's possession, but now that he'd fallen in love with another woman, she was having some regrets. Her favorite song in girlhood, "Tall Trees in Georgia," had become the story of her life.

The problems with her hip didn't go away. When Dale took Eva to a solo gig in late June at a hotel brunch and she could barely lift her amplifier, he insisted she get X-rays. Eva went to a doctor, who told her she had a broken hip and ordered more exams. In early July she went to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore for a round of tests. They showed that she had melanoma. The doctors gave her three to five months to live. It turned out to be four months to the day.

Her friends reeled, then rallied; Biondo remained close, as did Chuck. (He would dedicate his next album, "Timeless," due out next month, to her.) "She had a week of tests, and each test was worse than the last," says Fletcher. "I talked to her and she said, 'I'm not going to think about it right now.' "

First Eva had hip replacement surgery, then chemotherapy -- for her mother's sake, her friends say. They believe it gave Barbara a measure of hope where otherwise there was none. Eva became protective of her mother like that. At one point she told her, "Mom, I have a feeling there is a female presence around me that is watching over me. I never wake up in the middle of the night and freak out, 'Oh, I have cancer.' Somebody is there watching out for me."

In September 1996, Jackie Fletcher, Al Dale and Jeff Muller, a longtime musician friend, organized a tribute concert for Eva at the Bayou in Georgetown. It was not an easy night for her. She'd already lost her hair to chemotherapy, and she was feeling wiped out after a blood transfusion that day. She had to be carried from the car into the club.

The house was packed with friends and fans and musicians with whom she had shared a stage over the years. Eva, wearing a beanie to cover her scalp, was carried onstage and settled on a stool. As Chuck and Biondo and the rest of the band took their places behind her, applause washed over her in waves.

When the crowd fell silent, Eva asked for a handkerchief. She wiped her nose. "It's snot, you know," she cracked. "It's not like you haven't seen it before. It's just part of the whole package."

Everybody laughed and fell silent again. Eva, gazing into the white lights, started singing:

I've seen trees that are green

Red roses too.

It was her last performance of "What a Wonderful World," and it was stunning in its sureness.

The pretty colors of the rainbow

In the sky

Are also on the the faces

Of the people passing by.

As Eva sang, Chuck started tearing up. He laid down his guitar and left the stage. This time, Eva sailed on without him.

I see friends shaking hands

Saying, "How do you do?"

But what they're really saying is

I love you.

   
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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