Print this page

Music Memories: Eartha Kitt

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
Eartha Kitt on her album cover, The Essential Eartha Kitt

Eartha Kitt was born on January 17, 1927. Kitt was a singer, dancer, and actress whose unusual voice and striking features kept her in the public eye for more than sixty years.

It may seem strange to be talking about Kitt in January, because she is most remembered at Christmas, when her 1953 song "Santa Baby" returns to radio stations and holiday parties. The song evokes the distinctive features of Kitt's performing persona—a sultry sex appeal; a purring voice with an accent that you could never quite pin down; and a cheerfully unapologetic demand that the man in her life provides her a life of luxury.

Kitt's unique accent certainly doesn't suggest her actual birthplace, which was South Carolina. Her mother was of African-American and Cherokee ancestry. Kitt never knew her father, and family stories vary about who he actually was. After her mother's death, Kitt was raised by an aunt in Harlem, and graduated from what would later be called the High School of Performing Arts.

Her talent was clear at a young age; she joined the Katharine Dunham Dance Company in 1943, and performed with them for five years. She made a splashy Broadway debut in the revue New Faces of 1952, performing what would be one of her signature songs. "Monotonous" was a tongue-in-cheek lament about how dreary it is to be fabulously wealthy and desired by every man in the world. (The other "new faces" from that revue, incidentally, were an impressive group; the cast and writers included Paul Lynde, Alice Ghostley, Carol Lawrence, Robert Clary, Mel Brooks, and Sheldon Harnick.)

Kitt's first recordings played up her exotic appeal. "Uska Dara" took its melody from a Turkish folk song, and was sung mostly in Turkish; "C'est Si Bon" was a wistfully romantic French song. "Santa Baby" added a layer of deliberate camp, and Kitt's public persona was defined; it wouldn't change much for the rest of her life.

In 1953 and 1954, Kitt released half-a-dozen hit singles. She never again had that kind of success with individual songs, but her albums sold well over the next decade. She made several movies, and appeared occasionally on Broadway, most notably in 1957's Shinbone Alley, a musical based on Don Marquis' "Archy and Mehitabel" poems (e-book | print) about a cockroach and an alley cat. She had one of her most visible roles in 1967, when she became the third actress to play Catwoman on the Batman TV series.

Kitt suffered a major setback in 1968, after making controversial remarks at a White House luncheon. Lady Bird Johnson asked for her thoughts on the Vietnam War, and Kitt said, "You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed. No wonder the kids rebel and take pot." In the aftermath of that incident, Kitt found it difficult to get work in the United States; it was eventually revealed that the CIA had compiled a dossier of gossip and innuendo, most of it untrue, about Kitt. She spent the next decade working mostly in Europe and Asia.

two broadway musical posters

She returned to the United States in 1978 with a successful return to Broadway in Timbuktu!, a revised version of the 1950s standard Kismet with an all-black cast. Kitt was nominated for a Tony for her performance.

A new generation discovered Kitt in 1984 when her record "Where Is My Man" became a hit in dance clubs. It was a return to the "he needs to buy me things" attitude of "Santa Baby;" there weren't many performers who could pull off that sort of sex-kitten personality in their late 50s, but it made Kitt a star all over again. She developed a particularly strong following among gay men, and became an activist on HIV/AIDS issues, frequently performing at benefit concerts. Kitt was among the speakers at the 1993 March on Washington, documented in the film A Simple Matter of Justice.

In the last twenty years of her life, Kitt's unique voice made her a popular actress with producers of radio plays and animated films. She played the serpent Kaa in a 1994 BBC Radio production of The Jungle Book and starred as the villainous sorcerer Yzma in The Emperor's New Groove. That movie went through many changes during its production, and the finished film had only a couple of songs in it. Kitt's song, "Snuff Out the Light," didn't make it into the movie, but was included on the soundtrack album.

Kitt returned to Broadway one last time in 2000, as part of the ensemble cast of Michael John LaChiusa's The Wild Party. Her spotlight number, "When It Ends," was a highlight of the show, and she received another Tony nomination.

Kitt made her final recording in April 2008, a live album recorded at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival. It included several songs that she'd originally recorded fifty years earlier. Kitt died on December 25, 2008, from colon cancer.

Most of the songs referenced above can be heard on the collection The Essential Eartha Kitt; the few not included there have been separately linked. More of Kitt's music is available for streaming or download at Hoopla and Freegal.