Thursday, December 25, 2008

Eartha Kitt: "I'm A Liberal Artist"

Since Eartha Kitt died on Christmas day, most of the initial reports are focusing on "Santa Baby." That certainly wasn't the best song she recorded, but with her approach, the song itself was not the most important thing. Every performer creates a persona, but with Kitt, every number was about her persona as the cosmopolitan sex kitten. It helped if the lyrics were specifically about that ("Monotonous"), but she could make anything sound sexy.

It took a lot of originality, ingenuity and courage to create that persona, to get away with projecting a sexuality that defied racial barriers. Even with that layer of campiness that was necessary to take the edge off and make her acceptable, what she did was still very unusual and kind of daring. For years, movies and Broadway and the rest would only show a sexy black woman if they could find some way of implying that she was only sexy to other black people. (Remember Lena Horne's bathtub scene getting cut out of Cabin in the Sky for that very reason.) But when Kitt sang "Monotonous" in the Broadway and film versions of New Faces of 1952, she wasn't just implying that all men, black or white, find her attractive, she was saying it very specifically.

Jack Fath made a new style for me,
I even made Johnnie Ray smile for me,
A camel once walked a mile for me,
Monotonous, monotonous.

Traffic has been known to stop for me,
Prices even rise and drop for me,
Harry S. Truman plays bop for me,
Monotonous, monotone-eous.

In this 1952 article in Time magazine, just after she'd conquered New York, she explained why she and her record company didn't see eye-to-eye on what kind of songs were "her type":

What is her type?

"That's the problem," says Eartha. "Nobody is able to put a definite type on me. All I can do is keep them guessing. I'm a liberal artist."

She was not the greatest singer, or the greatest actress, or the greatest Catwoman (though she was good at all those things), but she was the best Eartha Kitt imaginable; she created a magnetic, irresistible persona through her varied talents. She was a terrific Liberal Artist.


Anonymous said...

"Initial reports focused on Santa Baby" simply due to the fact she died Christmas Day. I mentioned New Faces in my newscast because I've been re-reading the Paul Lynde biography (I don't know if any wire service touched on it), and C'est Si Bon because, well, because of Stan Freberg. Who doesn't love Stan's music parodies?

The Johnny Ray line is great.

burlivespipe said...

But Bennie, you realize that had she died July 1st the main focus still would have been Santa Baby, don't you?
She interacted with a lot of the era's greats, from Welles to King Cole. You described her very well - a liberal artist.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Very nice tribute to a true original. Thanks.