Joe Cassidy, Chicago musician, songwriter, producer, dead at 51

The Humboldt Park resident ‘was a creative and generous producer,’ said legendary composer Jimmy Webb, who wrote songs including ‘Up, Up and Away,’ ‘Wichita Lineman’ and ‘MacArthur Park.’

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Musician Joe Cassidy in a Chicago recording studio with Assassins in 2005.

Musician Joe Cassidy in a Chicago recording studio with the band Assassins in 2005.

Jim Newberry

Joe Cassidy was welcome on stages and in recording studios from London to Los Angeles to Chicago.

With his musical talent and gentle Irish greeting of “Hey, lovely fella,” the Belfast native made other performers believe in themselves.

“Working in the studio with Joe Cassidy was a very positive experience — he was a creative and generous producer,” said legendary composer Jimmy Webb, who wrote “Up, Up and Away,” “Wichita Lineman,” “MacArthur Park” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” “But, more importantly, he was a creative and generous friend.”

A musician, singer, producer, manager and prolific composer of ethereal songs infused with longing, Mr. Cassidy died of congestive heart failure July 15 at Saints Mary and Elizabeth Medical Center in Chicago, according to his family. The Humboldt Park resident was 51.

Joe Cassidy playing at Tommy Nevin’s Pub in Evanston in 2001 when Butterfly Child opened for John Cale, a founding member of Velvet Underground.

Joe Cassidy playing at Tommy Nevin’s Pub in Evanston in 2001 when Butterfly Child opened for John Cale, a founding member of Velvet Underground.

Bob Black/Sun-Times

“He had a beautiful, pure, bell-like singing voice, with a gorgeous lilt and an ache to it that would rip your heart out,” said musician Jonny Polonsky. “His music was always emotional, romantic and cathartic; never, ever saccharine, trite or contrived.”

Mr. Cassidy — who played guitar and keyboards — was frontman and lead songwriter for the band Assassins, which got signed by Antonio “L.A.” Reid at Arista Records. He also founded the one-man project Butterfly Child, in which he invited collaborators to make music.

As his career shifted to producing and managing others, “He would lend parts or help mix or do string arrangements. He did so much more than manage an artist,” said Assassins co-founder Aaron Miller. “It is a giant, irreplaceable loss to have lost this ‘mind palace’ of his.”

“The amount of stuff he is credited on is just a small amount of the work he actually did because he was recklessly generous,” said Justin Webb, a son of Jimmy Webb and member of the Webb Brothers band, which backed Mr. Cassidy on his song “Holding On.” “He was just constantly helping people — ‘In case of emergency, call Joe.’”

Mr. Cassidy managed drummer-producer Cal Campbell, who played on “Holding On,” and singer-songwriter Ashley Campbell, children of the singer Glen Campbell. On Instagram, Ashley Campbell mourned, “My bold, wonderful, kind, passionate friend and manager.”

“I’d never seen a man so committed to service — the service of others,” said Michael McDermott, another singer-songwriter he managed. McDermott wrote liner notes for Mr. Cassidy describing him as a “Belfast Byron” — “cool, handsome, brilliant, talented, respected, dreamy and kind.”

“So many artists benefited from his production skills, his songwriting . . . his wise advice on how to navigate the music industry,” said Metro owner Joe Shanahan, who loves the Butterfly Child song “Drunk on Beauty.” “He connected people. If he knew you were looking for a publishing deal, he might know someone. . . .he could listen to a song and say ‘Oh, you’ve got something there.”

“He would work very quick and very spartan, although his sound would end up being massively layered, Brian Wilson–type work,” said Brian Liesegang, a former member of Nine Inch Nails and co-founder of Filter.

He played at Metro, Schubas Tavern, Debonair Social Club and Lollapalooza. With Assassins, he opened for Muse at the Double Door. In 2006 they opened for Duran Duran at the old Sears Centre Arena. At Shanahan’s suggestion, New Order booked Assassins as their opener at the Aragon Ballroom in 2005.

Mr. Cassidy had loved the band as a teen, so “opening for New Order was kind of a high point,” Miller said.

Young Joe grew up in Belfast, the son of civil servants Anne and Michael Cassidy. “There was always music in the house,” said his brother, also named Michael.

He listened to My Bloody Valentine and the Police, especially the guitar of Andy Summers. The Troubles were at their height so he immersed himself in sports, idolizing John McEnroe and playing tennis and making music.

After hearing his recordings, the Manchester, England, band BFG recruited him to perform on their 1987 release “Western Sky,” said his friend, Sarah Marmor.

The duo A.R. Kane, who helped create the hit “Pump Up the Volume,” later signed Butterfly Child, which received ravishing reviews over the years. Neil Kulkarni wrote in Melody Maker in 1995 that Butterfly Child’s “Honeymoon Suite” LP was the “record the term ‘perfect pop’ should have been invented for.”

Mr. Cassidy moved to London in the “Cool Brittania” era of the ’90s and hung out with Oasis, Blur and Pulp. For a time he lived in a flat with Alexander McQueen. Mr. Cassidy answered the phone when David Bowie called for the fashion designer. He didn’t believe it was Bowie and hung up, according to Marmor.

“He had this kind of soft swagger,” said his sister Frances Macklin. “He had this walk and he had this way of standing in a room, it wasn’t like anybody else.”

After moving to the U.S., a stranger approached him on a New York City street and invited him to a party at his home. When Mr. Cassidy arrived, he realized the stranger was Beat poet Allen Ginsberg and the other guests included Jeff Buckley, Debbie Harry and Patti Smith.

Later in life, he was a successful commercial composer for Hidden Valley Ranch, Lexus, McDonald’s and State Farm, said his former girlfriend Merritt Lear, a member of Assassins and collaborator with Butterfly Child.

Mr. Cassidy also worked on music for TV’s “Grey’s Anatomy.”

He collaborated with NØISE, a musical project with Lear, John Goff and artist Shepard Fairey, creator of the Barack Obama “Hope” poster.

And the Vienna Symphony Orchestra recently recorded one of Mr. Cassidy’s compositions.

Mr. Cassidy said on his website, “I usually work with people who have a very open mind about what they are looking to achieve with a song, an arrangement or the type of production necessary. Artists or clients who are not ‘boxed in’ to a genre are the ones I usually find knocking at my door.”

He loved animals and they loved him. When Mr. Cassidy visited a friend’s garden, Marmor said, a crow flew down and rested on his shoulder.

He once rescued a dove that somebody left inside a storage closet filled with film props. “He walked by and heard the ‘coo-coo,’ ’’ Lear said. He called his new pet Dovey, and “Dovey ended up happy and loved. The dove would come when Joe called.”

If Mr. Cassidy saw a bug in his house, “He would insist on picking it up and putting it outside and wishing it well on its journeys,” she said.

His rescue dog, Fozzy, made an appearance at the end of Coldplay’s “Strawberry Swing” video.

Joe Cassidy and a wild crow that came to rest on him.

Joe Cassidy and a wild crow that came to rest on him.

Jamie Golitko

Mr. Cassidy collected Star Wars figurines and enjoyed hunting at yard sales for midcentury modern treasures.

In addition to his parents, sister and brother, he is survived by a nephew, William Macklin. A July 31 funeral is planned in Belfast.

“He was the person who taught me the religion of making music,” Miller said. “You have to work on it every day, and sometimes it winds up in the trash or winning a Grammy or ending up in a commercial on TV.”

“What he brought was beauty to our world,” Shanahan said.

After he died, the sign at Metro was changed to reflect what Mr. Cassidy used to say in greeting.

“You lovely fella.”


Kelly Wey

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