Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


KITT, Eartha

(b Eartha Mae Keith, 17 January 1927, Columbia SC; d 25 December 2008 of cancer) Actress and singer; a sexy night-club star with a throaty voice. She never knew her (white) father; her mother gave her away several times until an aunt finally took her to New York at age 8. She found out her true birth date when students at Benedict College in Columbia SC found her birth certificate. She learned never to depend on anybody but herself, not accepted by blacks or whites because of her mixed race (like Lena Horne). As a teenager in the street, stopped by another girl asking for directions to a makeup shop, she said, 'You're such a pretty girl; what do you need makeup for?' The other girl turned out to be a dancer with Kathryn Dunham's company. Kitt went to meet Dunham (another 'yellow' woman), auditioned on a dare and won a scholarship.

Appearing with the Dunham troupe in the all-black variety show Blue Holiday '45 (it flopped) she was spotted by folksinger Josh White, who bought her a wardrobe, showed her around the cabaret scene and introduced her to his agent, Mary Chase, who became Kitt's first agent. White and Kitt had a long-running relationship in the USA and in Europe; eventually they fell out, but not before he went down south with her to attend the funeral of the aunt who had brought her up. In 1946 she was one of Sans-Souci Singers in Dunham's Broadway production Bal Negre, and touring with Dunham in Europe she began to become a star.

Aram Avakian was enrolled at the Sorbonne in Paris on the GI Bill of Rights, supporting himself by waiting on tables at Inez Cavanaugh's bistro. He spotted Eartha Kitt in the early '50s, who sang in several languages and had also been spotted by Orson Welles, and wrote to his brother George Avakian, then director of pop albums and of the international department at Columbia Records in New York, offering to make an album with her cheaply. George thought it was a crazy idea and turned it down; years later Welles teased him about it. She appeared as Helen of Troy on stage in Welles's production of Faust (Welles famously described her as 'the most fascinating woman in the world'), and came home to Broadway's New Faces Of 1952 (wherein she sang 'Monotonous', about her charms becoming too reliable, though traffic will stop for her, stock prices drop for her, Truman play bop for her). She also appeared in the hybrid Miss Patterson '54-5 (she sang six of the seven songs by Don Shelton, but not live: recordings were used) and a straight play Shinbone Alley '57 (a flop based on Don Marquis' stories about archy and mehitibel, not the last time Kitt would play a cat).

Meanwhile she was a sensation in clubs and was signed by RCA, where her hits 1953-4 included 'Uska Dara' (sung partly in Turkish), 'I Want To Be Evil', 'Somebody Bad Stole De Wedding Bell', 'Lovin' Spree', 'C'est Si Bon' ('It's So Good') (memorably satirized by Stan Freberg), and  the sexy golddigger's 'Santa Baby', revived every Christmas for half a century. 'Under The Bridges Of Paris' '55 was a UK hit. Her first two albums were RCA Victor Presents Eartha Kitt '54 and Bad Eartha '55. She continued successful in cabaret and on Broadway, appearing in The Owl And The Pussycat in the 1960s, and eventually in more than a dozen films (she played opposite Nat Cole in St Louis Blues '58, Sidney Poitier in Mark of the Hawk '57, Sammy Davis Jr in Anna Lucasta '59). On TV she was nominated for an Emmy for an appearance in an episode of I Spy '66, then became the sexy Catwoman in the campy Batman series '67-8, replacing Julie Newmar, who'd originated the role. She was so outspokenly against the Vietnam War that she was virtually blacklisted, working in Europe again after 1968, but in '75 she was back on Broadway in Timbuktu! (Kismet set in the African city instead of Baghdad, with new songs for an all-black cast) and welcomed to the White House by Jimmy Carter.

Further albums: with a Doc Cheatham trio on Swing (from Europe; also tracks on Disques Swing series '87), Love For Sale and The Romantic Eartha Kitt on Capitol; Best Of on MCA; and At The Plaza '65 on GNP Crescendo. An album for children, Folk Tales of the Tribes of Africa, was nominated for a Grammy '69.  C'est Si Bon '83 on Polydor was a live club performance; I Love Men on Record Shack '84 included UK hits with the discoish title single and 'Where Is My Man'; My Way '87 was a tribute to Martin Luther King, made live with a 100-voice choir at the Caravan of Dreams for the label of that name. There was a compilation Miss Kitt To You on RCA; a later album Back In Business on DRG was nominated for a Grammy '96.

She complained on TV talk shows that there were few places for beginners to practice an art like hers: rock clubs weren't the same thing. Many critics pointed out that she was one of those cabaret entertainers who was mesmerizing in her live act; even people who didn't particularly like her records were seduced by her magic. 

In 2000 she was the voice of Yzma in the Disney animated feature The Emperor's New Groove, and on stage again nominated for a Tony, for The Wild Party. In 2003 she replaced Chita Rivera in a revival of Nine on Broadway. Another cartoon voiceover was the wicked queen Lexus on Nickelodeon's My Life As A Teenage Robot. She was the subject of a feature-length documentary film All By Myself '82, and published three memoirs: Thursday's Child '56, A Tart Is Not A Sweet/Alone With Me '76 and I'm Still Here: Confessions of a Sex Kitten '92. The books contradicted each other and the later ones left out Josh White. When her fitness book Rejuvenate! was published in 2001, the cover photograph had her in a figure-hugging black dress, revealing a body that a 20-year-old girl might envy. She had played the first Newport Jazz Festival in 1954, and came back to kick off the 2005 Festival at the age of 78, still as fascinating as ever.

She was married once, in the second half of the 1960s, and had one child, a daughter.