Eartha Kitt: Purr-Fect & In Person at the Plaza

Samuel Chell By

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The singer and actress Eartha Kitt (1927-2008) was the ultimate femme fatale, "the most exciting woman in the world" according to film director Orson Welles. Purr-Fect: The Eartha Kitt Collection is an enjoyable if flawed greatest hits collection. In Person at the Plaza a representative and recommended live recording.

Eartha Kitt
Purr-Fect: The Eartha Kitt Collection
Spectrum Audio UK

She may not have had Edith Piaf's musical instrument or the full, flowing facial geography (but what sculpture!) of a Greta Garbo, or the irresistible, girl-next-door wholesome charm of a Judy Garland or Doris Day, but singer Eartha Kitt was the institution of cabaret personified not to mention the most fatally feline femme fatale of them at all—so much so that Orson Welles (like her, an American institution) looked upon her as an epic Circe, even casting her as the woman whose allure led to the Trojan War and to the fall of one of the world's great civilizations (undoubtedly a more convincing Helen than the one cast opposite Richard Burton ten years later).

To put it plainly, Kitt was underrated, and it's somewhat sad that for those who still remember her, that her career is essentially reduced to two representative but nonetheless inadequate moments: her recording of "Santa Baby" and her role as The Catwoman in the 1960s television series (she alone surpassed all of the Tim Burton big screen versions).

She was smallish, an overcompensating overachiever, and musically limited, but thanks to a prodigious intellect, an acute and lightning-fast mind, and a sense of "theatrically" perhaps rivaled only by Welles, she managed to "play big"—regardless of the venue or the time. In fact, in her last interview—an hour-long spot for PBS telecast in late September of 2008 (she died December 25)—she was as sharp mentally, as animated physically, as alive spiritually, and as sexy and full of play as she must have been 60 years earlier. More than a colossal femme fatale, she was the ultimate impersonation of the type (arguably created by men), playing it so far "over the top" that it was "performance art" at its best.

There's no way to capture such achievement on a recording. The weakness of this collection is that it excludes "Monotony," the first song that aroused the interest of the big producers; the strength of the collection is that it omits "Here's to Life," a song that Kitt insisted on using as a closer in her cabaret act during the last 15 years or so. The sentiments are understandable, but the song had already received sublime readings from Shirley Horn and Joe Williams, making Eartha seem like a poor "copycat." Moreover, the lyric seemed too "sincere" to fit the playfulness, candor, and irreverence that were so integral to the Kitt persona. With three autobiographies to her credit, this final testament was inevitably anticlimactic if not gratuitous.

Better our heroic, incorrigible octogenarian had ended her act with "I Want to Be Evil." We would have understood, no doubt better than she, that no more appropriate and satisfying "message" could have been issued, demonstrating to the fullest what she hoped to deliver with the lyrics of "Here's to Life."

Eartha Kitt
Eartha Kitt In Person at the Plaza

GNP Crescendo

The only way to appreciate Kitt is to experience her pouncing and purring in her cabaret act. This well-recorded date from 1965 is perhaps her most representative, all-around satisfying performance. It captures her persona as a dangerous Circe who requires men with deep pockets, disposing of them like tissue paper after they've broken the bank on her, yet confessing that she really prefers "dirt" to "diamonds and gold" (the "inside" part of the whole joke). As Kitt liked to say following the Madonna hit song, the original "material girl" was a character invented by Kitt herself. "At the Plaza" also reveals what a talented multilingual actress the (loudly) self-proclaimed "evil woman" was ("Come-on-a-My House" is hysterical in Japanese; "Rumania" is a Yiddish tour-de-force).

If you want to complete the picture, simply pick up two additional tunes and read one of her three autobiographies. The tunes are "Monotonous," a 1952 put-on by an independent spirit who is "bored" by what the rest of us yearn for, and "Santa Baby," her lone mega-hit, made possible by the success of "Monotonous"' the year before.

Kitt's life story is remarkably similar to Billie Holiday's, Edith Piaf's, and especially Nina Simone's. A Southern poor girl, of mixed black and white heritage, living and working on a former cotton plantation, shipped to New York, where she was exploited and slept in subways. But then that exceptional independent spirit and will—unlike the addictive personalities of Holiday and Piaf and superseding even Simone's determination—carried her to international stardom. It's unlikely the voice alone is going to produce new fans of Eartha (who, like the preceding vocalists, had cross-generational appeal to the gay community and repaid in kind with numerous benefits for AIDs-related causes). But making the acquaintance of the whole phenomenon that was Kitt is worth the effort.

After her much-publicized denunciation of the Viet Nam war while an invited guest at the White House in 1968, she became, in effect, exiled from America until ten years later, when President Jimmy Carter invited her back as a sign that all was forgiven. To say that she made the most of the homecoming would be an understatement.

Tracks and Personnel

Purr-Fect: The Eartha Kitt Collection

Tracks: Just an Old Fashioned Girl; Je Cherche un Homme (I Want a Man); I Want to Be Evil; Mink, Schmink; Let's Do It (Let's Fall in Love); C'Est Si Bon; Annie Doesn't Live Here Anymore; Monotonous; My Heart Belongs to Daddy; Under the Bridges of Paris; I Wantcha Around; Lilac Wine; Somebody Bad Stole de Wedding Bell (Who's Got de Ding Dong?); Thursday's Child; Angelitos Negros; Lovin' Spree; Toujour Gai; Uska Dara (A Turkish Tale); Proceed With Caution; Blues; Heel; Santa Baby.

Personnel: Earth Kitt: vocals; various instrumental personnel.

Eartha Kitt In Person at the Plaza

Tracks: Sell Me!; I Wanna Be Evil!; Waray, Waray; Touch; How Could You Believe Me?; Zhara Bee, Zha Zha; Champagne Taste; C'mon a My House!; Old Fashioned Girl; C'est Si BonRumania, Rumania.

Personnel: Earth Kitt: vocals; David Saxon: musical director; uncredited instrumental personnel.

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