As its title suggests, with René Marie’s 2003 album, "I Wanna Be Evil: With Love to Eartha Kitt,” music lovers get two rewards for the price of one: cozying up to the singer at the center of the project; and connecting with, or perhaps meeting for the first time, Kitt, who died in 2008 at the age of 81.
Reportedly dubbed "the most exciting woman in the world" by Orson Welles, Eartha Kitt was a jazz singer with a string of hits in the 1950s who performed on Broadway, in film and on television, where she enlivened countless variety shows with her purring renditions of sly, sexy songs. She also played Catwoman on TV's "Batman" and was the voice of Yzma in Disney's "The Emperor's New Groove," a role she continued in the TV spinoff for which she received two Emmys. Her work in "Timbuktu!" earned her a Tony nomination in 1978. A successful career in cabaret followed.
Born in Virginia as René Marie Stevens, René Marie was a late bloomer, beginning her singing career in the late '90s and releasing her debut disc in 1999. As her reputation blossomed, she came to be known as a bit of a rabble rouser, adding to her concert sets a medley of Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit" and "I Wish I Was in Dixie." In 2008, prior to the Denver mayor's State of the City address, she sang "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing," sometimes referred to as the Black National Anthem, to the melody of "The Star Spangled Banner" without notifying the organizers. Death threats ensued. She wrote and starred in a one-woman play entitled "Slut Energy Theory—U'Dean."
After releasing her 2011 disc, "Black Lace Freudian Slip," René Marie met with her manager and label representatives to discuss her next album. She considered a tribute to Roberta Flack, Nina Simone and Miriam Makeba, but Kitt’s name kept popping into her mind. Recalling her early memories of Kitt, he told me: "I thought, 'Oh my god, where are there black women who act like that?' She was like no other black woman I'd ever seen before. Remember, I was living under Jim Crow cover." She added: "She was a phenomenon, and not just for people of color."
Working with her customary rhythm section of bassist Elias Bailey, drummer Quentin Baxter and pianist Kevin Bales, René Marie set out to select from and rework the Kitt repertoire. "C'est Si Bon" and "Santa Baby" were mandatory choices, and sizzlers like the title track, "I'd Rather Be Burned as a Witch" and "Peel Me a Grape" were suited to the playful side of her persona. Though Kitt had her heavy side and a piercing way with a dark ballad, René Marie wanted to keep things light. "Funny and sexy," she said. "In every song, I sang with a big smile on my face."
That’s apparent on “I Wanna Be Evil.” René Marie, who was 58 when the album was released, sang the will she/would she? “Oh John,” with sly ambiguity as Wycliffe Gordon on trombone and plunger depicted John’s fumbling appeal. (Adrian Cunningham’s clarinet solo made a much more tempting case for his side.) “Come On-A My House” simmered as a blues as Etienne Charles on djembe and tambourine provided the provocative accompaniment. With Bales on piano, “Let’s Do It” was delivered as a lush, down-tempo ballad. In each instance, and throughout the album, René Marie was flawless.
"I Wanna Be Evil: With Love to Eartha Kitt” is neither a rock nor a pop recording – it was nominated for a Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Album – but both Kitt and René Marie transcend genre with their outsized personality and ample appeal. With “I Wanna Be Evil,” René Marie paid homage to an American original and delivered in her own style wonderful songs to a contemporary audience.