KITT, Eartha: C'est Si Bon

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Original 1952-1954 Recordings

That highly overused epithet,'sex kitten'somehow seems fresh again when it's applied toEartha Kitt, whose voice you're about to hear intwenty splendidly seductive selections.

Not only is there something decidedly felinein the image she's always presented (Hear thatpurr! Watch those claws!), but she's actuallyplayed cats at several points in her career, mostnotably Mehitabel in Shinbone Alley andCatwoman in the TV series of Batman.

As of this writing, she's 77 years old and stillappearing in cabarets and clubs around theworld. But this collection of songs was recordedover fifty years ago, when she was still near thestart of what has proved to be a very durablecareer.

None of this seemed likely when she wasborn Eartha May Kitt into a life of extreme povertyon 26 January 1928 in the town of North, in thestate of South Carolina. For many years, Kittwasn't really sure of the place or date of her birthuntil the 1970s when some students at BenedictCollege finally found the relevant documents.

She was illegitimate and her family were poorsharecroppers who told her that her name was atribute to the earth, because the harvest had beengood in the months just before she was born.

Kitt's mother was black and her father wasmixed white and Cherokee. This made her analmost total outcast in the America of the 1930s,with no race willing to claim her. When herparents broke up and her mother remarried, herstepfather refused to accept her and she went tolive with her aunt in Harlem.

Despite poverty so severe that she oftenexisted only on apples, Kitt made her way intothe N.Y. School of Performing Arts. At the age ofsixteen, she was discovered by the famous choreographerKatherine Dunham who took her underher wing and made her a part of her company.

Soon, Kitt was touring around the world withDunham's troupe. When she arrived in Paris inthe late 1940s, she decided to stay there andsoon carved out a name for herself. In 1950, shebecame romantically involved with Orson Welles,who cast her as Helen of Troy in his reworking ofthe Faust legend, called Time Runs. He openedit in Paris, then toured it around Europe.

But Kitt was finally homesick for the U.S.A.

She returned to Manhattan in 1951 and hit thecabaret scene, with record-breaking runs at theBlue Angel and the Village Vanguard.

It was while she was there that she wasdiscovered by producer Leonard Sillman. He wascasting the fourth in his series of seven legendaryBroadway revues called New Faces of ... Withthe date of the year they were performedfinishing the title.

Eartha Kitt was to prove the star of NewFaces of 1952 when it opened on 16 May. Youcan hear two of the numbers that made herfamous: the charming Bal Petit Bal, which sheshared with Robert Clary (later to star in Hogan'sHeroes) and her showstopper,Monotonous, aslinky exercise in sensual ennui,written for herby the popular special-material team of ArthurSiegel and June Carroll (who was Sillman's sister).

RCA Victor instantly capitalized on her fame,by releasing a series of singles. All of themconcentrated on her 'smoldering' image, but theycleverly played two angles.

Many of them featured foreign languagenumbers like African Lullaby (sung in Swahili),Angelitos Negros (sung in Spanish), Uska Dara(sung in Turkish) and Avril au Portugal (sung inFrench).

But they also included more exotic Englishlanguage material like Mountain High, ValleyLow and the haunting art song Lilac Wine,written by James Shelton.

RCA Victor obviously decided they weregoing to play up Kitt The Seductress in 1953,because they released more singles as well as herfirst album. These included such exercises inslinkiness as I Want To Be Evil, Annie Doesn'tLive Here Anymore and - most infamously -the first 'R' rated Christmas carol, Santa Baby.

The strategy worked and Kitt enjoyed sixsingles that sold over 600,000 copies each in theyears ahead.

She also returned to Broadway in a 'play withmusic' called Mrs Patterson, which enjoyed a101-performance run starting 1 December 1954.

Kitt played the fifteen-year-old Teddy Hicks, apoor black girl who longed to live the elegant lifeenjoyed by her mother's employer, the MrsPatterson of the title.

Although not officially a musical the showfeatured a half dozen songs written by thedistinctive James Shelton. Two of them arefeatured here: Tea In Chicago and My DaddyIs A Dandy.

Kitt's career was to continue in a variety ofdirections, with Broadway shows like ShinboneAlley and Timbuktu,movies like Anna Lucastaand St Louis Blues and appearances on TV showslike Mission Impossible and Batman.

But she never really surpassed the buzz sheachieved in those early years of the 1950s. Heroutspoken behaviour and strong political stanceagainst the War In Vietnam resulted in her beingvirtually blacklisted by the entertainment industryuntil the late 1970s.

She has written three exceptionally candidbiographies (Thursday's Child, Alone With Meand I'm Still Here: Confessions of a Sex Kittenand has appeared on Broadway as recently as2000, when she earned a Tony nomination for herturn in The Wild Party and 2003 when shereplaced Chita Rivera in the revival of Nine.

Still, it's on these first recordings that theessence of Kitt comes through most clearly. Hervoice is a strange mixture of tremulous vibrato onthe held notes and silky smooth phrasing duringthe more legato phrases.

Whether she's singing in English, French,Spanish,Swahili or Turkish, the message comesthrough loud and clear.

She sounds naughty, she sounds enticing, shesounds ... well, like Eartha Kitt.

Richard Ouzounian
Disc: 1
Under The Bridges Of Paris
1 C'est Si Bon
2 Uska Dara - A Turkish Tale
3 Bal Petit Bal
4 Monotonous
5 I Want To Be Evil
6 Angelitos Negros
7 Avril au Portugal (The Whisp'ring Serenade)
8 Lilac Wine
9 African Lullaby
10 Mountain High, Valley Low
11 Annie Doesn't Live Here Anymore
12 Santa Baby
13 My Heart Belongs To Daddy
14 Let's Do It
15 Somebody Bad Stole De Wedding Bell
16 Mink Schmink
17 Tea In Chicago
18 My Daddy Is A Dandy
19 This Year's Santa Baby
20 Under The Bridges Of Paris
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