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ClassicsOnline Home » KITT, Eartha: C'est Si Bon (1952-1954)
That highly overused epithet,‘sex kitten’
somehow seems fresh again when it’s applied to
Eartha Kitt, whose voice you’re about to hear in
twenty splendidly seductive selections.
Not only is there something decidedly feline
in the image she’s always presented (Hear that
purr! Watch those claws!), but she’s actually
played cats at several points in her career, most
notably Mehitabel in Shinbone Alley and
Catwoman in the TV series of Batman.
As of this writing, she’s 77 years old and still
appearing in cabarets and clubs around the
world. But this collection of songs was recorded
over fifty years ago, when she was still near the
start of what has proved to be a very durable
None of this seemed likely when she was
born Eartha May Kitt into a life of extreme poverty
on 26 January 1928 in the town of North, in the
state of South Carolina. For many years, Kitt
wasn’t really sure of the place or date of her birth
until the 1970s when some students at Benedict
College finally found the relevant documents.
She was illegitimate and her family were poor
sharecroppers who told her that her name was a
tribute to the earth, because the harvest had been
good in the months just before she was born.
Kitt’s mother was black and her father was
mixed white and Cherokee. This made her an
almost total outcast in the America of the 1930s,
with no race willing to claim her. When her
parents broke up and her mother remarried, her
stepfather refused to accept her and she went to
live with her aunt in Harlem.
Despite poverty so severe that she often
existed only on apples, Kitt made her way into
the N.Y. School of Performing Arts. At the age of
sixteen, she was discovered by the famous choreographer
Katherine Dunham who took her under
her wing and made her a part of her company.
Soon, Kitt was touring around the world with
Dunham’s troupe. When she arrived in Paris in
the late 1940s, she decided to stay there and
soon carved out a name for herself. In 1950, she
became romantically involved with Orson Welles,
who cast her as Helen of Troy in his reworking of
the Faust legend, called Time Runs. He opened
it in Paris, then toured it around Europe.
But Kitt was finally homesick for the U.S.A.
She returned to Manhattan in 1951 and hit the
cabaret scene, with record-breaking runs at the
Blue Angel and the Village Vanguard.
It was while she was there that she was
discovered by producer Leonard Sillman. He was
casting the fourth in his series of seven legendary
Broadway revues called New Faces of … With
the date of the year they were performed
finishing the title.
Eartha Kitt was to prove the star of New
Faces of 1952 when it opened on 16 May. You
can hear two of the numbers that made her
famous: the charming Bal Petit Bal, which she
shared with Robert Clary (later to star in Hogan’s
Heroes) and her showstopper,Monotonous, a
slinky exercise in sensual ennui,written for her
by the popular special-material team of Arthur
Siegel and June Carroll (who was Sillman’s sister).
RCA Victor instantly capitalized on her fame,
by releasing a series of singles. All of them
concentrated on her ‘smoldering’ image, but they
cleverly played two angles.
Many of them featured foreign language
numbers like African Lullaby (sung in Swahili),
Angelitos Negros (sung in Spanish), Uska Dara
(sung in Turkish) and Avril au Portugal (sung in
But they also included more exotic English
language material like Mountain High, Valley
Low and the haunting art song Lilac Wine,
written by James Shelton.
RCA Victor obviously decided they were
going to play up Kitt The Seductress in 1953,
because they released more singles as well as her
first album. These included such exercises in
slinkiness as I Want To Be Evil, Annie Doesn’t
Live Here Anymore and – most infamously –
the first ‘R’ rated Christmas carol, Santa Baby.
The strategy worked and Kitt enjoyed six
singles that sold over 600,000 copies each in the
She also returned to Broadway in a ‘play with
music’ called Mrs Patterson, which enjoyed a
101-performance run starting 1 December 1954.
Kitt played the fifteen-year-old Teddy Hicks, a
poor black girl who longed to live the elegant life
enjoyed by her mother’s employer, the Mrs
Patterson of the title.
Although not officially a musical the show
featured a half dozen songs written by the
distinctive James Shelton. Two of them are
featured here: Tea In Chicago and My Daddy
Is A Dandy.
Kitt’s career was to continue in a variety of
directions, with Broadway shows like Shinbone
Alley and Timbuktu,movies like Anna Lucasta
and St Louis Blues and appearances on TV shows
like Mission Impossible and Batman.
But she never really surpassed the buzz she
achieved in those early years of the 1950s. Her
outspoken behaviour and strong political stance
against the War In Vietnam resulted in her being
virtually blacklisted by the entertainment industry
until the late 1970s.
She has written three exceptionally candid
biographies (Thursday’s Child, Alone With Me
and I’m Still Here: Confessions of a Sex Kitten
and has appeared on Broadway as recently as
2000, when she earned a Tony nomination for her
turn in The Wild Party and 2003 when she
replaced Chita Rivera in the revival of Nine.
Still, it’s on these first recordings that the
essence of Kitt comes through most clearly. Her
voice is a strange mixture of tremulous vibrato on
the held notes and silky smooth phrasing during
the more legato phrases.
Whether she’s singing in English, French,
Spanish,Swahili or Turkish, the message comes
through loud and clear.
She sounds naughty, she sounds enticing, she
sounds … well, like Eartha Kitt.
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KITT, Eartha: C'est Si Bon (1952-1954)