How Terry Wogan launched the career of tragic singer Eva Cassidy

Credit: Getty
Credit: Getty

By 1998, and after years in obscurity, the American singer-songwriter Eva Cassidy had become a huge star, with national radio play and an album at the top of the album charts. ‘Songbird’ would go on to sell well over one million copies in the UK alone, achieving platinum status, and many more around the world.

It was thanks in no small measure to a pair of cover versions; ‘Over The Rainbow’, first immortalised by Judy Garland in ‘The Wizard of Oz’, and ‘Fields of Gold’, penned by Sting just a few years earlier.

The tragedy of the matter, however, is that she never saw the fruits of her success. She died of skin cancer in 1996. She was just 33.

Credit: Getty
Credit: Getty

Though it was her preternatural talent that ultimately brought her voice to a wider audience, it was also thanks to the legendary broadcaster Terry Wogan, who also died following a short battle with cancer in January this year, at the age of 77.

A small record label based in Brighton called Hot Records, owned by Tony Bramwell, had picked up on her version of Curtis Mayfield’s ‘People Get Ready’, and released it as a single in the UK. On the b-side was her cover version of ‘Over The Rainbow’, recorded at the Blues Alley jazz club in Washington, D.C.

Bramwell introduced her material to a friend, Paul ‘Paulie’ Walters. Walters happened to be the producer of Terry Wogan’s Radio 2 breakfast show, ‘Wake Up To Wogan’, which also happened to be the most listened-to radio show in the UK. “Dear Paul, I know you are a busy man, but you should really pay attention to this particular record. Cheers, Tony,” he wrote in a message that would change the profile of Cassidy’s work forever.

Walters said he was instantly ‘stunned’ by Cassidy’s voice, and put ‘Over The Rainbow’ on Wogan’s playlist for the very next day. The Irishman was also immediately smitten, as were fellow Radio 2 jocks Paul Jones, Bob Harris and Mike Harding, who had also supported her music, but didn’t have the same vast reach as Wogan.

“This is one Paul brought this morning by a lady called Eva Cassidy. Hope you like it,” said Wogan in introduction, and as it faded out added: “That was Eva Cassidy, who it seems is tragically no longer with us.”

The results were immediate. “The e-mails, phone calls and faxes flooded in,” he said at the time. People told how they had pulled over in their cars and wept at the song, jamming the phone lines into the station.

Cassidy’s music was soon flying off the shelves, selling 100,000 copies in the weeks following her Wogan debut. Grainy video filmed on a camcorder by her friend Bryan McCulley at the Blues Alley of her singing ‘Over The Rainbow’ was played on ‘Top Of The Pops 2’. That also helped ‘Songbird’ climb steadily up the charts, three years after its release. Paul McCartney and Eric Clapton announced themselves as fans too.

owever, she would never know of her success. It was during a promotional event for the ‘Live At Blues Alley’ album in 1996 that she noticed an ache in her hips. It emerged that cancer had spread to her lungs and bones following the removal of a malignant mole three years before.

Despite aggressive treatment, she died at her family’s home in Bowie, Maryland, on November 2, 1996.

In all, her posthumous recordings have sold over 10 million copies worldwide, including three number ones in the UK, and top 10 placings in Sweden, Australia and Germany.

In a fitting tribute to Terry, who also succumbed to cancer, ‘Over The Rainbow’ was the first song played in a special Radio 2 broadcast following his death.

Image credits: PA/Rex Features