He’d recognize that voice anywhere.
Eva Cassidy was a Washington singer just beginning to share her voice with the wider world when she died of cancer in 1996 at age 33.
Chris was Eva’s collaborator — her bass player and producer — and, for a while, her boyfriend. He has worked as much as anyone to help keep her music alive. Twenty-five years after Eva’s death, she’s the subject of a documentary just released on YouTube, and there’s a new album out.
And her version of the 1983 Cyndi Lauper hit is in that Kay commercial.
Every few years a new group of fans discovers Eva Cassidy and learns her heartbreaking/heartwarming story. She grew up in Bowie, Md., in an artistic and musical family. She could sing anything but was drawn to an assortment of genres: folk songs, jazz standards, the American songbook.
She worked at Behnke Nurseries in Beltsville and thought she could maybe earn some money doing backing vocals in local recording studios. She met Chris. They recorded together in his studio. She collaborated with go-go pioneer Chuck Brown. She perplexed record labels that weren’t sure what category to put her in.
With her band, Eva played two nights at Blues Alley in January 1996, recording the gig for a live album. She died that November.
Shortly before Eva’s death, Washington singer Grace Griffith sent a cassette to Bill Straw, who runs a music label called Blix Street Records in Gig Harbor, Wash. The tape was cued to Eva singing Sting’s “Fields of Gold.”
“When I heard it, I knew she was one of the best singers ever,” Bill told me.
Bill said he knew Eva was going to be famous and that she wasn’t going to live to enjoy that fame.
Not that Eva necessarily would have wanted it. She was famously averse to the demands and expectations that come with celebrity, and to the perks it allows. She liked it when the audience was sparse, Chris said.
It was the English who first embraced Eva’s music. A wobbly, black-and-white video of her singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” was played on a BBC music program, lighting up the switchboards with viewers wanting to know what they’d seen.
“I went to England a couple of times to do radio and television interviews [after Eva’s death],” Chris said. “I would have people come up to me in the street and just start crying. They couldn’t talk. They were so emotional about how much Eva meant to them.”
Blix Street Records has regularly tapped the finite body of Eva’s work. Bill had planned to release songs Eva recorded with a fiddle player and that had a western swing feel. Then Kay called. The company wanted to do a national campaign with “Time After Time.” Eva had sung it during a gig at the Maryland Inn in Annapolis, accompanying herself on guitar.
Bill postponed the western swing album and released “Acoustic,” a collection of 20 acoustic songs by Eva. And he posted on YouTube the documentary “Eva Cassidy: One Night That Changed Everything.” In it, the members of Eva’s band — Chris, drummer Raice McLeod, pianist Lenny Williams and guitarist Keith Grimes — watch a recording of the Blues Alley gig and reminisce.
The 50-minute documentary was shot in 2014. Bill wasn’t sure whether to put it out there — he’s still hoping for a more all-encompassing Eva Cassidy film, suitable for PBS — but “One Night That Changed Everything” has already had nearly 500,000 views.
If you’ve never heard — or heard of — Eva Cassidy, it can be hard to understand the effect she has on some people. Her voice is clear and bell-like, but there’s something else: Knowing Eva’s story tinges it with a quality that perhaps wouldn’t be there if she were still alive.
“I don’t think there is anybody on the planet that can sing like she does,” said Chris. “And the reason why she connects with people is that most people that sing have egos and their agenda is to impress people and to feel good about themselves, to make videos, to look out at a crowd.
“Eva wasn’t like that. She sang because she enjoyed singing. When she sang, it was not intended to impress anybody. I think people can pick that up. That’s what makes her the greatest singer I ever heard in my life.”
I asked Chris what it’s like to hear that singer today, all these years later.
“It is really hard,” he said. “ ‘Time After Time’ is just like a knife in the heart for me sometimes. I’ve got to take little doses of it.”
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.