There was something regal about Eartha Kitt. Despite her humble origins as the daughter of a poor black woman, conceived in rape, and born on a cotton farm in rural South Carolina, Kitt exuded nobility. Part of her grace may have been due to her training as a dancer. She began her professional career as a member of the Katherine Dunahm Company, the first African American Modern dance company, but this quality also came across in Kitt’s voice. She had a strange, unidentifiable, and cosmopolitan accent that sounded appropriate whether she sang in English, French, Spanish, or Turkish, and she had successful recordings in all those languages. Her vocals also had a throaty vibrato that made her seem sexy, no matter in what tongue she sang.
No wonder Orson Welles called her “the most exciting woman in the world” and that Kitt entitled her third autobiography Confessions of a Sex Kitten. Her biggest hit, “Santa Baby”, turned Christmas into an occasion for an erotic celebration. There’s nothing dirty in the lyrics. Everything is implied by the way she sings the opposite (“Think of all the fun of missed / Think of all the fellas I haven’t kissed”) as she attests to being good. But there’s a reason artists like Madonna have covered the song since. Kitt used sex as a form of female empowerment during an era in which this had to be coded.
Not that Kitt ever shied away from controversy. She made headlines during the ‘60s by confronting the President’s wife Lady Bird Johnson during a White House luncheon about the war in Vietnam. But Kitt’s performances were provocative in their own right. Her first hit, “Monotonous” (1952), featured her on the Broadway stage crawling seductively from couch to couch while she sultrily crooned about prominent white men who wanted her favors—including former President Harry S. Truman, current President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Nobel Laureate T.S. Eliot. The song still sounds exciting today as Kitt proclaims her boredom with men who offer her riches and expensive gifts in order to impress her, to no avail. She delivers the lyrics with panache—from stone-faced intonations to emotional howls—while maintaining the façade of control.
The Essential Eartha Kitt compiles the artist’s major works from the ‘50s. One can always quibble with such anthologies and question why certain songs were left out and others included, but the 40 tracks on the 2-CD set offer a wonderful selection of material. The fidelity on such classic tracks, such as the sophisticated “C’est Si Bon”, the naughty “I Want to Be Evil”, and Cole Porter’s playful “Let’s Do It”, is breathtakingly clear. Some cuts, including the novelty “Honolulu Rock and Roll” and the silly “Lovin’ Spree”, seem superfluous. They are enjoyable for only a few listens. But other songs, such as the urbane “The Heel” and the bucolic “Lazy Afternoon” serve as unheralded classics that deserve a wider reception.
Kitt lived a rich and full life. She died in 2008 and achieved newfound popularity in the current century as the voice of Yzma in the animated movie The Emperor’s New Groove, its sequel, and the subsequent television spinoff. More recently, she was featured on The Simpsons as one of Krusty the Clown’s ex-wives. She died before the episode aired and its broadcast was dedicated to her memory. These songs from her golden era of recording reveal why Kitt was revered by so many people and function as a solid introduction to her genius.