Eartha Kitt goes shining

December 31, 2008

The Divine Miss Kitt went shining on 25 December 2008. I first heard her music on an album my sister had. I made a tape of it and it’s been a staple of my collection ever since.

Apart from the songs themselves, what really blew me away was Kitt’s method of delivery. Check out her “Easy Does It” at Rhapsody (click on link 15). She sings not just with delicacy of tone (the volume never goes above mezzo piano), but she caresses each consonant and rolls the vowels in her mouth as if they’re caramel.

The real kicker is the “I’m in heaven/It’s sublime” passage, where the obvious choice would be to sing with a big crescendo and (à la the great Judy Garland) beg the lover for ease and gentleness. Instead, Kitt gets even quieter, making the top of the vocal arc literally sublime. Pure genius.

Then we go to to the opposite end of the spectrum with the classic “I Want To Be Evil” (the dream of many a Good Little Girl, I tell ya). The version I’m familiar with is on the ever-reliable YouTube; for a fascinating comparison, see her live version done years later.

Here she bills and coos through the opening recitative before pulling out all the stops. She belts out the bits that should be belted and pulls back to spit out lyrics like tacks. Watching her live version, you can see how, even though she stays on-mic the whole time, she uses her entire body to tell the story of the song. She’s not afraid to use her claw-like hands or sex up her routine without being vulgar or cheap. 

Eartha Kitt made a huge impression on me long before I knew anything of her life story (which only impressed me more). I was trained Broadway-style and in the classical vein. In that world, you’re either belting so the back row can hear you, or your following the composer’s every indication of texture and interpretation. Kitt made me see the value of delicacy in vocal delivery (huge, HUGE difference from my M.O.).

She also indirectly opened more creative pathways for me to become more of a song stylist. Rather than repeat the standards, I try to find “the music within the music,” even if that means changing a standard 4/4 to a 3/4 or (gasp) delivering a classical piece in Balkan style. “As long as it serves the story.” Kitt was brilliant at this.

I recall seeing an interview of her on Larry King back in the late ’90s or so. She was flirting with him! Larry didn’t know what to do with himself and kept trying to parry her, but was a goner in the face of her mastery. It was hilarious. She was in her 70s and still knockin’ ’em dead.

Like so many old-school performers, Eartha Kitt started performing young and really never stopped. She went where she was loved and she gave 100%. She was an entertainer and an artist. Her singular talent was crafted and reinvented repeatedly to continually appeal to changing tastes and audiences.

She remains a unique, class act. Her kind will not come again.