By Wayne Allensworth
Eva Cassidy may be the best singer many of you have never heard of, and she may become the best singer you have ever heard. She died too soon in 1996 at age 33 of melanoma.
I was living in the DC area at the time, and Eva frequently performed in clubs around town, but I learned of her too late, after she had passed away. She had just begun to attract attention, and her posthumously released recordings have attracted a large and devoted following at home and abroad.
The song is “Autumn Leaves,” written in 1945 as “Les Feuilles Mortes” (“The Dead Leaves”) by Joesph Kosma with lyrics in French by Jacques Prévert. The English version was written by one of the luminaries of American popular music, Johnny Mercer, who gave the song the title we know it by. It’s one of those songs like “Georgia on my Mind” or “Blue Skies” that became a “standard,” a beloved tune recorded countless times by well-known popular singers. In the case of “Autumn Leaves,” it was recorded by the likes of Nat “King” Cole, Jo Stafford, and Bob Dylan among many others.
As is often the case with Eva, her version of the song is, I think, the best. She had a way of taking a familiar tune and transforming it so that it was if you were hearing it for the first time. Thereafter it is forever her song most of all. Her voice expressed the bittersweetness, the longing, and the lovely memory of “Autumn Leaves” perfectly. Eva experienced the songs she sang, creating a sense in the audience that no one else could feel the lyrics as she did.
This recording was made at a venerable DC jazz club, Blues Alley, and an album of songs she performed that night was released in 1996: