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René Marie On Singing, Sex And The Importance Of Being Eartha

Jazz singer René Marie's latest release is <em>I Wanna Be Evil: With Love to Eartha Kitt</em>.
Janice Yim
Courtesy of the artist
Jazz singer René Marie's latest release is I Wanna Be Evil: With Love to Eartha Kitt.

Whether singing on stage in an evening gown or fighting Batman on TV in a leather catsuit, Eartha Kitt had a way of infusing sensuality into everything she did. Kitt died in 2008 at 81, after having kept up her performing career well into her 70s — and that's when an aspiring jazz singer named René Marie got to see her on stage for the first time.

Marie recently turned that passion for Kitt into a tribute album called I Wanna Be Evil: With Love to Eartha Kitt. In a wide-ranging conversation with NPR's Eric Westervelt, Marie describes how Kitt's elision of singing and sex spoke to a grander truth about power and vulnerability — and they discuss Marie's own unique music career, which began when she was on the far side of 40, upending her marriage and religious life in the process. Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read more of their conversation below.

You're known for doing a lot of your own original material. You once said you'd you swore you'd never do a tribute album. What was it about Eartha Kitt that made you change your mind?

Oh boy. Well, I fought tooth and nail to prevent it from being called even a tribute; I just was so afraid people would compare me with the incomparable Eartha Kitt. But a tribute to her music is exactly what it's turned out to be.

It was just knowing that there was this delivery that Eartha Kitt gave to a song. She completely was herself and didn't pull any punches, so to speak — just delivered it the way she only could deliver it. I wanted to celebrate that, and I realized as we started talking about it that I was already doing several songs that she sang herself without even knowing it. So it just seemed like a logical thing. I kind of surrendered to the idea.

It always seemed that she took on a bit of a character when she performed her music: She was the playful bad girl, the temptress. Did you get into character a little to record these songs?

(Laughs) No. I gotta tell you the truth, it's not a matter of getting into character for me. What it is is simply a disrobing of what's already there, uncovering what typically stays covered up, and being vulnerable enough to go to those places that the songs just were dying for me to go to.

Anytime you sing a song like "Oh John! (Please Don't Kiss Me)" or "C'mon a' My House," you have to surrender to what the lyrics are. I think that was what was going on with Eartha, too. I don't think that she was putting on. I think that she was, rather, uncovering and delivering those songs as only she could.

She's also the perfect person to deliver the lyrics of Cole Porter tunes, because Cole Porter wrote so many tongue-in-cheek lyrics and double entendres. I think there's a place for that, even though I've gotten some criticism for some of the songs that we've done. But it's cool.

You've gotten criticisms for doing ... ?

"Oh John!"

Why's that?

Because the lyric is, "Oh John! Please don't kiss me / Oh John! Please don't kiss / Oh John! Please don't / Oh John! Please, oh ..." And there's a second verse: "Don't touch me, go home." Basically, John is doing whatever he wants to do, seducing this woman, and some people have taken it to mean that it's OK for someone to continue forcing themselves on someone else, in spite of being told no.

I've had women approach me afterwards and say, "Why did you sing that song?" But as I said, I think there is a place and a time for that type of song, and no apologies on this end. I did have to pull my husband aside and say, "About that 'Oh John!' song. You do understand that in my mind, you are John?" And he's like, "OK ..."

How'd he take it?

He took it like a man. Took it like a natural-born man (laughs). Also on this CD is a song that I wrote called "Weekend." Oh boy, I got raked over the coals for doing that at a venue just last week, because it sets up the scenario of a woman, um ... well, it's left up to the listener to decide what actually happens.

That's a complex and dark song. I took it as coming from an abuse victim who maybe starts to embrace an intruder.

Well, it was written from the perspective of a question I had: What constitutes abuse, and what constitutes force, and what constitutes restraint? Because in an abusive relationship — we'll talk about men and women — women are often restrained, by words or out of fear, from leaving. They will tolerate abuse up to and including being put to death.

And it's kind of condoned in our society: There are things that an abusive mate could get away with with their partner that they could not with a stranger. My question is, why is that? And which is worse — for it to happen at the hands of someone that you supposedly love, who supposedly loves you, or from the hand of a stranger? And where does the line draw?

I don't have the answers to it, but I did have the questions, and I think it's OK to compose songs and sing them about questions that we don't have answers to yet.

What do you say to fans who criticize you for doing that song? Do you say, "Back off, it's my art"?

No. I say, "I understand. I understand what you mean." And they do have a point, but I think I have a point, too. I would never, ever dare tell an artist, "How could you do that?" I would just not support the art. I would not try to get them to change, ever. So, it's OK. It's not for everybody. I'm not going to try to fool myself into thinking that.

I love your take on "Let's Do It." You really walk this beautiful line: You make the song your own, but you pay homage to the core, the essence of the tune. Did you wrestle at all with how much to stay true to Eartha's takes?

Never. I tried to get as far away from her versions as possible because, again, I don't want anybody to think I'm trying to sound like Eartha — who could do that? But it's so much fun when we do it live. I introduce the song: "Everybody knows the tune 'Let's Do It,' right?" And I say, "How does it go?" And the audience starts singing, "Birds do it ... ," really cute and light. And then I'm like, "Yeah, well, we don't do it like that at all. Here's how we gonna do it. We're gonna put some blues up in there." And away we go.

You saw Eartha Kitt perform live pretty late in her career. I think it was the late '90s, correct?

Early 2000s, actually, and she was in her 70s. Yeah, wow.

What was that like for you?

My mouth was hanging open, like everybody else's. I was drooling. She was scandalous! I just enjoyed every single moment. And even though these tunes that she sings show the strength and power that she obviously has as a woman, at that particular gig, there was one very excited fan sitting in the very front row — a big guy. And at one point while she was talking, he got up and got on the stage with her, and she shrank back in fear.

You could see how she felt vulnerable, just reverted to a little girl. And I totally identified with that, because it's definitely that way when you are on stage and the audience is very close to you. You just never know what's gonna happen. So I felt this twinge of connection with her, probably just singer-to-singer.

She had such confidence and sensuality. But you're talking about a vulnerability there, as well.

And I think the two go hand in hand. I think vulnerability and sensuality, they're sides of the same coin. I don't see how a person can be sensuous — unless they're just, you know, following some kind of script — without being vulnerable. I often compare singing to lovemaking because there's so many similarities. You eventually get to the point where you have to say, "This is me. You know, all my flaws and all of my ... yeah (laughs). This is just me. I hope you like it."

Let it hang out.

There's a certain place you want to get to, and in order to do that, you have to be vulnerable. You have to be willing to look a certain way, and hold your body a certain way, until you get to where you want to go — I'm talking about musically, now. So I've never been the type of singer that can sing in heels and the gown and all this stuff, because I can't get to where I want to go while I'm in that getup.

Kitt was one of the first black women to become a real TV star. She played Catwoman on the Batman series, and she had that intense sensuality. Do you remember seeing her on TV when you were a kid?

Are you kidding? Yes, of course. Let me just tell you, OK: The first 10 years of my life, I lived under Jim Crow laws in Warrenton, Va. So seeing this black woman on TV with all white people, telling them what to do and just being mean and evil and reveling in it?

It was almost frightening to see this woman of color acting this way. Inside, it was like, "Uh-oh, something bad is gonna happen to her," because this just didn't happen. So it was a huge eye-opener for me. And I didn't make the connection that that woman on the Batman series was the same as the Eartha Kitt singer until I saw her live and heard her speak, and I thought, "Oh, that's the same woman?" It took me 30 years to put it together.

So yes, it was very powerful seeing her. And I'm sure I'm not the only black woman or little black girl who thought that at the time.

You took a unique path to professional jazz. You didn't start singing professionally until the late 1990s. You didn't quit your day job, as I understand it, at a bank, until a few years after that. You left your religion — Jehovah's Witness. You divorced your husband. So there you were in your early 40s, and you took this huge leap and followed your passion. Tell me about that decision to do that.

It wasn't planned. My whole plan was, "Hey, maybe I can sing locally and earn a couple of bucks." But my ex-husband has been one of my best teachers, and I believe that the areas of our life and the people in our lives that present the most problems to us — they really are our best teachers. They're teaching us lessons that we have to learn anyway, and if we don't accept the lesson from them, there will just be another teacher to step in and take their place.

Of course, I didn't have all this viewpoint at the time; I just knew that I had to sing. Once I started singing, I realized it was a language I'd forgotten I could speak. To be up on stage and interacting with musicians, that was a huge epiphany for me. And so when my husband gives me this ultimatum, "You either stop singing, or you move out," then it became very clear that what I needed to do — not just because I wanted to sing, but because I didn't want to live with anybody who issued ultimatums to me like that — would be to move out.

If he had been kind and said, "Oh, sweetheart, I'll miss you when you're gone," or, "This boys are in college now, this is our time to do fun things," I would have gone right along with it. Instead, he presented this opposition, which just made me say, "No, I am not going to do that." It's the best thing that could have happened, in the very best way. It wasn't really a plan. I just kind of tried to stay true to myself.

Where did the love of jazz come from? I assume it didn't come from going door to door with the Witnesses, with all due respect.

I just love music. I love all kinds of music, and I was exposed to it, me and my siblings, from the time we were in utero. We grew up listening to all types of music except jazz, but once I was introduced to it, when I went to see Lady Sings the Blues with Diana Ross playing the role of Billie Holiday, that was when I was introduced to jazz and thought, "Wow. This stuff is great."

Billie Holiday helped set you free. Sounds like Eartha Kitt helped as well.

They all do. I think that's the role of an artist, right? To touch someone and make us stretch out just a little bit more.

Kitt said in her memoir, "The price we pay of being true to ourselves is worth it." Sounds like you're still learning, still exploring, still asking questions in your art.

Hopefully. When I stop asking questions, something's wrong.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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