19 April 2013

Special Guest Post - Behind the Rainbow, the tragic life of Eva Cassidy by Johan Bakker


Returning home from my holidays in 2001 I found an envelope on the doormat containing a CD and a letter requesting I review it. Looking at Songbird’s brown cover design framing a photograph that was unintentionally out of focus, my expectations were far from high. But as soon as Eva Cassidy started to sing the opening lines of ‘Fields Of Gold’ I was nailed to the ground. This unknown singer enchanted me for 45 minutes until the closing notes of the final song ‘Over The Rainbow’.

The letter told me that Eva had died at the tragically young age of 33 in 1996. Listening to the album a second time it was not only Eva’s voice that struck me, but her song selection as well. All possible scepticism disappeared immediately when Eva sang: ‘I’m going there to meet my Father, in that bright land of which I go’. Her interpretation of the lines: ‘The dreams that you dare to dream really do come true’ convinced me of the fact that Eva believed them. From that moment on I needed to know more about this remarkable woman.

Eva Cassidy’s albums were distributed in my native country the Netherlands by the same label that provided Katie Melua with a home. After the release of The Katie Melua Collection in 2008 I was given the chance to interview the Irish-British-Armenian singer in Grand Hotel Amrath in Amsterdam: “I grew up in a time of hip-hop and R&B,” Katie told me, “The show-element, the slick presentation and the uniformity of these musical styles began to pall on me. Then I discovered the amateur-like filmed performance of Eva Cassidy. The pictures were static and sometimes even colourless, but Eva and her band did exactly what they had to do – perform beautiful, often vulnerable songs. Eva didn’t care about the glitter and the glamour of a musician’s life, but she sang so convincingly that she gave all other singers the go-by. When I heard her sing I knew that this was what I wanted.”

After the interview with Katie Melua I spoke to DaniĆ«lle and Alice of Dramatico about the surprising notion that so many people were fascinated by the voice of Eva Cassidy, and yet we knew so little about her. Wouldn’t it be a good idea to write a book? The A&R agents agreed that this might be interesting, especially since the bottom of Eva’s song reservoir was coming into sight. A biography would certainly keep the flame alive. We agreed that I would look into anything that could be found about Eva’s life and that I would inform them about my progress.

The Cassidy Family produced their own authorised book. Songbird gave the impression that family, friends and band members commemorated Eva Cassidy seemingly in harmony with one another. Many urgent questions remain unanswered, though. Why did a singer of her caliber remain unknown for such a long time? Why was she so popular in the UK and other European countries, while Americans passed her by with indifference? What about the visual art that she created, has it been displayed in a museum? Did she compose songs herself? Why did she still live with her parents at the age of 33? Could it have been possible to prevent her early death from the effects of skin cancer? Why did she sing so many gospel songs? High time to start my own investigation!

The two most important people in Eva’s life were producer, band member and friend Chris Biondo and her mother Barbara. “It’s as if I lived in one house with Picasso without realising it,” said Biondo about Eva Cassidy. After the release of Eva’s albums Songbird (1998), Time after Time (2000) and American Tune (2003) he made several journeys to Europe, where he was interviewed on radio and television. Yes, he is Eva Cassidy’s ambassador. “It’s as if I have to protect her from the evil outside world,” Chris explained. “Eva was a vulnerable person during her life. She is no longer with us and suddenly she has reached stardom and that is something that doesn’t bring back the best in other people.” Chris revealed that the stay-behinds treat each other in a less harmonic way than the Songbird book suggested.

I discovered a website about Eva’s art owned by Eva’s sister Margret and half-sister Anette. It was possible to order replicas of paintings, drawings and beads that Eva created on their site. In an email I introduced my investigation into the life and work of Eva Cassidy, and that I would like to contact people who had known Eva personally. This email hit target. Hugh Cassidy, Eva’s father himself, replied. We started an interesting email exchange – the queries and answers flew back and forth. Hugh answered dozens of emails in a rather candid manner. Barbara, who was born in Germany and experienced World War II there, wrote personal letters about that dark period.

A few months later Eva’s brother Dan Cassidy wrote, completely out of the blue, that he would like to meet me. We found a suitable date: 23rd November 2009. Thanks to Dan’s mediation, I managed to organize a personal meeting with Hugh and Barbara Cassidy. Dan was staying at his parents’ home and he invited me to visit him there, so that he could show me where Eva grew up. A journey like that needed to be prepared in advance, and I arranged meetings with as many of the characters in this story as possible: friends, relatives and band members.

In the summer of 2010 I started writing my Dutch biography. A friend suggested to publish an English edition as well. When I finished my book I sent an email to the largest publisher of music related books in the world Omnibus Press. Senior editor Chris Charlesworth responded within thirty seconds:

“I am very familiar with Eva Cassidy, her music and her short life. Music Sales, Omnibus Press’ parent company, publishes her songbooks, that is songbooks containing the music for the songs she recorded (even though they were written by others) with the pictures from her CDs on the front covers, licensed through her estate which is controlled by her family. I am aware of the difficult relationship between her family and the musicians she worked with, and the probable reasons for this. I would certainly like to see your book with a view to obtain English language rights.”

February 2012 my Eva Cassidy biography Behind the Rainbow was published. I focused on Eva’s artistic life (music and visual art), her friendships and her spiritual views.  Any interview with a member of Eva’s close friends or family began with a question about her stature as a singer. But very quickly the tone changed to one of frustration over everything that has occurred since Eva’s death. In the aftermath of her all too short life came recognition. Here was an unknown artist and gifted singer finally receiving the acknowledgement she deserved when she was alive.

Chris Biondo and Eva’s mother Barbara would get together every year at The Steamboat Landing, Eva’s favourite restaurant in Annapolis, to celebrate her life. Everyone felt good about discovering jewel after jewel in the tapes of Larry Melton, Lenny Williams and Biondo. Finally Eva’s unique voice would be heard by the whole world. But those celebrations didn’t last. The life of Eva Cassidy has become a study in contrasts: unchecked admiration for a unique talent against a sad and rather shocking soap-opera that has seen former friends become bitter enemies. Maybe Eva, knowing who she was dealing with, foresaw this when she hesitated to sign a record contract. She was often heard to say, “When it comes to money, people show their true colours.” 

Is Chris Biondo right in asserting that Eva was the best singer in the world? Yes and no. There have been more mature jazz singers than Eva, purer folk singers, more convincing gospel singers and tighter R&B singers, but no one singer mastered all these genres as well as Eva Cassidy. It’s about time that those concerned decided to bury the hatchet. 

In May 2012 Behind the Rainbow won the People’s Book Prize, a British competition aimed at finding, supporting and promoting new works. Becoming a finalist of this prize was more than I’d expected. Winning it was simply beyond my imagination. Behind the Rainbow was written as a tribute to a woman who conquered misery by creating beauty. I hope that reading this biography will help people to understand and to appreciate Eva’s music. It’s about time that the world will honour Eva Cassidy as one of the most versatile, authentic and gifted singers the world has ever seen. Not because it is politically correct to say so, but because it is the truth.

Johan Bakker


Dutch music journalist Johan Bakker (1961) studied English linguistics and literature, and submerged himself in the study of Art history. His focus shifted from making music to writing about music. Johan published hundreds of concert and CD reviews, as well as interviews, and broadened his perspective to include literary fiction, film and the visual arts. Eventually, his love of art in general, and music in particular, culminated in a thorough study of the life and work of the American singer-guitarist, and artist, Eva Cassidy (1963 – 1996). The biography Behind the Rainbow is the crowning achievement on Johan Bakker’s work – for the time being.


Visit Johan's website www.johanbakker.org and follow @EvaCassidyBio and @JohanBakker14 on twitter

Preview Behind the Rainbow

on Amazon US and Amazon UK 

1 comment:

  1. I absolutely love Eva Cassidy's voice and listen to her album over and over. Her voice is totally captivating. Thanks for posting this article.

    ReplyDelete