Medical Minute – The Death of a Songbird

If you have never heard of singer Eva Cassidy, you are not alone.  However, if you listen to her version of “Somewhere over the Rainbow,” you will ask yourself why you have not heard her before.  Eva started playing the guitar at the age of 9.  She was by all accounts introverted and painfully shy, and not at all comfortable in front of crowds.  She also had a firm belief that a song had to move or speak to her for her to be interested, much less perform it; and her musical tastes crossed many genres of music.  These two characteristics resulted in a collision between her artistic side and the business side of record producers. 

She was more interested in maintaining her artistic freedom and love of music than being forced to compromise her music for record sales.  She was approached by several record companies, but instead of being elated and becoming fast friends with the label, remained cautious and aloof.  She was approached by Blue Note Records, a top jazz label, and given $3,500 to cut six songs.  With this, she cut songs from six different genres from jazz standards to gospel.  Furthermore, these were not original, but rather covers of songs written by others.  None of this made it easy for a jazz label to produce a jazz album, and she did not want to release an album of jazz standards.  She did receive a contract from Apollo records, connected to the Apollo theater, which would give her a yearly salary and was a dream come true, but the company folded before she could sign.

What kept the labels interested, and people coming back to see her was her silky soprano voice, effortless range, perfect pitch, and a gift for phrasing that would make you hear an old favorite song with new ears and wondering why it wasn’t sung that way in the first place.

She had recorded a solo work and worked with Chuck Brown in the past but struggled to get recognized beyond the Washington D.C. area.  In 1996, she opted to record a live album on her own, and performed at the Washington D.C. club, Blues Alley.  This was essentially what she played at various nightclubs.  She funded this herself and sold CDs out of the trunk of her car. 

By now you are asking yourself, what this has to do with the medical minute?

In 1996, Eva Cassidy was diagnosed with malignant melanoma, about the same time she finished recording her live album.  She had noticed a mysterious mole on her back but did not go to the doctor.  She delayed for about six months.  When she finally went and had surgery to remove this, they thought they got it all, but it came back with a vengeance, spreading to her lungs, brain, and back.  She had to walk with a cane due to pain in her hip.  In her final, emotional farewell benefit concert, organized by her friends, she took to the stage with difficulty.  Having significant pain, and requiring heavy pain medication, she sang one song, “What a Wonderful World.”  That speaks volumes about her character.  She died in November 1996, in relative obscurity. 

After her death, her bassist and friend released an LP of the work they had been doing before her death, but it was an area producer who took an interest after hearing Eva for the first time near the end of her life.  He was able to take about 127 recordings she had made and put together the album “Songbird”, released in 1998.  This had moderate interest locally, but it was through a series of events that it was played to an audience across the ocean.  In 2000, it was played by star BBC radio host Terry Wogan, at the insistence of a friend, on-air one morning.  After which the switchboard lit up.  Even Mr. Wogan, who was hearing it for the first time, was stunned, saying “isn’t that the most amazing thing you’ve ever heard.”  Since then, it has gained widespread popularity in the US, UK, and around the world.  Her version of Somewhere over the Rainbow remains the most requested song in BBC history. 

Mr. Wogan is not alone.  Many songwriters whose music Eva Cassidy sang, were amazed at how she made their songs her own.   Singers like Elton John, Sting, Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, Mick Fleetwood, Michael Bolton, Amy Grant, Charlotte Church, Katie Melua, and many others have all been moved, if not influenced by Eva Cassidy.    

Since her death, there have been 10 albums released of Eva Cassidy’s recordings, selling tens of millions of copies.  For the 25th Anniversary of her death last November, there has been a resurgence of interest, stories, and broadcasts, many of which are available on YouTube, and I have included the links below.

For me, the Eva Cassidy story is a poignant, bittersweet reminder.  I am so grateful for her music and have been a fan for over 20 years, yet I cannot help but wonder what could have been if she did not wait to have that mysterious mole checked when she first noticed it change.  Next week, I will return with more specifics about Melanoma, as May is Melanoma Awareness month. But for now, I invite you to discover or listen to your favorite Eva Cassidy song.

Dr. James Lee serves as the Coroner of Winn Parish. He is a General Surgeon and Surgical Oncologist who has been practicing in Winnfield for over ten years. Dr. Lee attended the University of Colorado for his medical degree. He completed his residency in Surgery at the University of Oklahoma before completing a fellowship in Surgical Oncology and Endoscopy at Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, NY. Dr. Lee and his wife Scarlett live in Winnfield with their son and are active in the community.


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