April 20, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

In the annals of unlikely pop stars, Eva Cassidy may go down as one of the unlikeliest. To paraphrase the famous Rolling Stone cover line about Jim Morrison: She’s hot, she’s sexy, and she’s shining in another firmament now. Never mind that she was completely unknown outside the Washington, D.C., folk/jazz club circuit during her lifetime: Five years after succumbing to cancer at 33, she’s the singing sensation of England, landing the No. 1 spot on the album chart above such U.K. favorites as Dido and David Gray. America has been slower to join the wake, but Cassidy has become at least a cult sensation here, her primarily posthumous releases frequently commanding several of the five top sales slots at Amazon.com.

Viva Eva, indeed. So does this prove the maxim that passing away isn’t always the worst career move? Or is England’s Eva-mania — and impendingly, perhaps, America’s — surprising evidence that talent, like love, is even stronger than death?

”In terms of music, the only [precedent] I can think of is Nick Drake,” says Bill Straw, president of the small L.A.-based Blix Street label, which issued four of six Cassidy albums on the market. ”But I would say the closest thing, in a way, is James Dean. The first movie I saw was Rebel Without a Cause. Dean died in September 1955, but the movie didn’t make it out to the hinterlands till later; I didn’t know he was dead when I saw it.”

The peculiarity of Cassidy’s completely posthumous success may be outweighed by the oddity of such gentle sounds creating an international stir. Her U.K. ”hits” are folky covers of ”Over the Rainbow” and Sting’s ”Fields of Gold,” sung yearningly in a pitch-perfect voice full of melancholy confidence. BBC Radio 2’s Paul Walters first played Cassidy in 1999, after an American pal passed along her 1998 anthology Songbird. ”I put on ‘Over the Rainbow’ in the office,” Walters says, ”and after doing this job 20 years, that’s the first time something made me stop what I was doing. You think nobody could take that away from Judy Garland, but Eva sang songs that ‘belong to other people’ in such a way that it destroys that myth. That moment was something very special for me, and I’m a hardened cynic.” Listener reaction was overwhelming, though Cassidy didn’t become ubiquitous there until December, when a BBC TV airing of a crude video of Cassidy performing ”Rainbow” helped send record sales over the million mark.

U.S. radio gates are harder to crash, but Cassidy’s albums have enjoyed huge sales spikes after recent NPR and Today show pieces. Increasingly, her songs are being licensed for shows like Dawson’s Creek and Judging Amy. That’s some bittersweet vindication for the belle who was too early for the ball.

Drummer Mick Fleetwood got to know the shy, stubborn singer — whose interpretive gifts he likens to Joe Cocker’s — in 1994, when she played at a D.C. club he owned. He laughs recalling how poorly his record-deal advice went over. ”I’m a musician, but a businessman as well. Eva and I had these conversations where I’m going ‘Maybe you can listen to these A&R guys and play their game, just to get through the door.’ Quickly I realized this was not a conversation to have with her, because she said, ‘You know what, Mick? I just want someone to get me.’ She was not a gameplayer. No doubt hers is a sad story — but in a way not so, it’s so spunky and charming.”

Cassidy’s father, Hugh, promoting the music from the family’s Maryland home, agrees that “bittersweet” is the word, but adds, “It’s been five years. My wife still feels the loss keenly, as do I. But as they say, time heals, and we’re at work here. I get so many letters from folks in Britain telling me how Eva’s music has gotten them through rough spots. Some are quite angry that she’s no longer with us, and others relate to how hard it is to lose a loved one. That’s another reason everybody’s able to plug into Eva’s stuff: There’s a tender, loving ache with that kind of singing that strikes you in the heart as nothing else can.”

Cassidy senior still chuckles to recall his little girl spending hours trying to learn Joan Baez’s vibrato. The individual voice she eventually found wasn’t stilled even by the ravages of chemotherapy: In September 1996, while battling the relapse of a malignant melanoma removed three years earlier, the notoriously skittish Eva wowed a crowd by belting out a tune at her own tribute concert. In just over a month she was gone. Grace Griffith, a Celtic folk-singer who was among Eva’s heroes, got a request to sing for the ailing woman at home. “The Cassidys had Christmas in October. Her brother was visiting from Iceland, where he’s a fiddler. Eva had lost her hair and was thin and sick, but when we sang, she would come in and add a harmony. I thought, ‘Wow, that woman can really sing, if she can sing now.'”

Griffith, a Blix Street artist, passed a tape to her label chief, insisting death be no obstacle to “this nightingale” finding her audience. It hasn’t been. Music fans weary of money talking may be eager to rally around someone whose iconoclasm and beauty are frozen in amber, who hated being the center of attention, who never would—or, needless to say, could—turn up on MTV to reinvent herself. “I think Eva unknowingly struck a blow for the artistic community,” says Straw, “because it’s shown what we all suspected could happen if you could get by the gatekeepers.” Agrees Walters: “It restores my faith, having worked in the business since the ’60s, that there is still an audience out there that would like to hear a good tune well sung.”

Or, as they’ll no doubt refer to it in the record industry, a complete and utter fluke.

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