It was great to see Eartha Kitt back on our TV screens at the weekend, performing live on Jools Holland’s show. At the age of 81 she appeared very sprightly, and in considerably better nick than yours truly!
Like most people around my age, I guess the first time I really became aware of her was as Catwoman in the 70’s reruns of Batman. My father informed me at the time that she was a singer, but I don't think I heard any of her songs until the early 80’s. Unfortunately, her 80’s output was not a true reflection of her work -- as this was the time of a bizarre effort to reinvent Ms Kitt as a disco/Hi NRG act! Almost 60 at the time, I doubt she was particularly comfortable about being marketed as the next Divine, Hazel Dean or Dead or Alive, but she gave it her best shot and even had a couple of hit singles on the trendy Hi-NRG label Record Shack (‘Where Is My Man’ and ‘I Love Men’). There was even an odd collaboration with Bronski Beat (Cha Cha Heels) a little while later…man, the 80s has a lot to answer for…
I knew Eartha had been a big influence on some of the artists I enjoyed, particularly Marc Almond, so I picked up a greatest hits, which on the face of it, seem to do the trick… and that was it for 10 years or so! Then a few years back, while driving to Dorset on holiday late one Friday night, we found ourselves struggling for something to listen to. The CD player was broken, and there was nothing on the radio (how come radio is so bad on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings anyway?!). In desperation we went with BBC Radio 2 and their cheese-fest ‘Friday Night Is Music Night’! This was followed by a documentary on Eartha Kitt, which was nothing short of riveting. What a life this lady has led..
Born in South Carolina in 1927, and abandoned soon after, she was brought up by neighbours, who at the age of six had her cleaning, cooking, gardening, cotton picking, tending cows and many other chores. A chance meeting with a dancer (who had stopped Kitt to ask for directions!) Led her to auditioning for a dance school, and by the age of 16 she was touring the world with them. Sheer determination saw her branch and out to become a singer in the late 1940s. She was dogged by racism throughout the 40s, 50s and 60s, and unbelievably, even her first record label (RCA) tried to scupper her career by making her release the song 'Uska Dara’ as a single. In true Mel Brooks ‘Producers’ style, they were convinced this song, sung completely in Turkish, would be a surefire flop, giving them an ideal excuse to fire her from the label. Delightfully the single was a surprise hit, and RCA were forced to see out their contract.
Unlike the tedious WAGs, models and dullards who just seemed to be famous for being famous, for whom releasing an autobiography is a yearly affair, Eartha Kitt is one of the few who actually warrants the three autobiographies she has written. I have them all, and can highly recommend them if you can track them down.
Anyway I digress, back to that radio show… Interspersed with her story and interview, a number of lesser-known tracks were played (lesser known to me that is! All that really means is they weren't on that greatest hits CD I bought!). These tracks were simply stunning, and much more interesting than many of the 'safer' tracks chosen for the best of album. Even to me in the 21st century, these songs sounded exotic and worldly -- what must they had seemed like 50 years ago? How incredibly exciting these songs must have sounded back then, in comparison with her contempories such as Doris Day, Connie Francis and Rosemary Clooney.
I decided that I must pick up some of her albums, but much like my attempt to catch up on Barry Ryan, nothing was available. Just like Ryan, you get pages of CDs when you search, but they are all different ‘Best Ofs’ and ‘Greatest Hits’, containing pretty much the same tracks.
Over Christmas I read a couple of reviews in the Sunday supplements praising the CD release of Eartha’s second album ‘That Bad Eartha’ (still no sign of her first album though!). A quick scoot round the web informed me that in the USA, this release also had her third album ‘Down To Eartha’ squeezed on, so no prizes for guessing which version I went for!
On its arrival I played little else, completely mesmerised by the cosmopolitan feel, with songs sung in English, French, Turkish and Swahili. Both albums sound remarkably fresh, the arrangements are beautiful and there is an exotic, over the top feel throughout. Add to this her genuinely unique vocal sound, and it is easy to see just how Marc Almond must have been influenced by her work.
Still performing at the age of 81 (how I would have loved to go to one of her shows in London last week, but the £95 price tag rather put the kybosh on that one), Eartha Kitt is one of the last true larger-than-life legends. Yet criminally, unlike many of her counterparts, her place as an immortal music legend is far from sealed. With so little of her material available to buy, there must be a real danger that in 10 or 20 years time, she could be all but forgotten as an important singer, largely responsibly for changing the attitudes of record companies and buyers alike back in less enlightened times... I sincerely hope I am proved wrong.
Listen to Uska Dara from 'That Bad Eartha' here:
Listen to 'The Heel' from 'Down to Eartha' here (Marc Almond did a cover of this track some 30 years later):
Here is Eartha performing I Want To Be Evil (also from That Bad Eartha):
And finally, Eartha performing 'Aint Misbehavin' with Jools Holland last week: