Music Interviews
5:25 pm
Sat April 26, 2014

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

Originally published on Thu May 22, 2014 12:54 pm

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 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ERIC WESTERVELT, HOST:

If you've just tuned in, you're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Eric Westervelt.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY HEART BELONGS TO DADDY")

EARTHA KITT: (Singing) While tearing off a game of golf, I may make a play for the caddy. But when I do, I don't follow through, 'cause my heart belongs to Daddy.

WESTERVELT: Singer and actress Eartha Kitt embraced the term sex kitten that was often assigned to her for her naughty, come hither stage persona. Kitt died in 2008. She continued to perform well into her 70s. That's when an inspiring jazz singer named Rene Marie got to see her on stage for the first time.

RENE MARIE: My mouth was hanging open like everybody else's. I was drooling. Ah, she was scandalous.

WESTERVELT: Rene Marie recently turned that passion for Eartha Kitt into a tribute album. It's called "I Wanna Be Evil: With Love to Eartha Kitt."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY HEART BELONGS TO DADDY")

MARIE: (Singing) So I want to warn you ladies, though I think you're perfectly sweet, that my heart belongs to Daddy, because my Daddy, he treats it so well.

WESTERVELT: Rene Marie took a remarkable path to jazz. In her early 40s, she left her husband and her religion, Jehovah's Witness. She quit her job at a bank and followed her passion for jazz. As a child, Rene Marie watched Eartha Kitt play Cat Woman on the old Batman TV show. She says that became an early memory of empowerment.

MARIE: The first 10 years of my life, I lived under Jim Crow laws in Warrenton, Virginia. And 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. Uh-oh, something bad is going to happen to her, because this just didn't happen. So it was a huge eye opener for me.

She's like the perfect person to deliver the lyrics of the Cole Porter tunes, because as we know, Cole Porter wrote so many tongue-and-cheek lyrics and double entendres and suggestive lyrics, and who better to do that except Eartha Kitt.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET'S DO IT (LET'S FALL IN LOVE)")

MARIE: (Singing) That's why birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it. Let's do it, let's fall in love.

When we do it live, you know, I introduced the song, everybody knows the tune, let's do it right. And I say, how does it go? And the audience starts singing, bird do it. They're really cute and light. I was like, yeah, we don't do it like that at all. Here's how we're going to do it. We're going to put some blues up in there.

WESTERVELT: Yeah, it's great.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET'S DO IT (LET'S FALL IN LOVE)")

MARIE: (Singing) The Dutch in old Amsterdam do it. Not to mention the Finns. Folks in Siam do it, just think of Siamese twins. Some Argentines, without means, do it.

WESTERVELT: I want to do a little compare and contrast here. Let's take a listen to Eartha Kitts version of "I Want to Be Evil."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WANNA BE EVIL")

KITT: (Singing) I've posed for pictures with Ivory soap. I've petted stray dogs and shied to clear of dope.

WESTERVELT: You're pretty faithful to the original at first.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WANNA BE EVIL")

MARIE: (Singing) My smile is brilliant. My glance is tender. But I'm noted most for my unspoiled gender.

WESTERVELT: But where Eartha swings a bit..

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WANNA BE EVIL")

KITT: (Singing) Like something that seeks its level, I want to go to the devil. I wanna be evil.

WESTERVELT: You really take the tempo up there. You start to rock out there.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WANNA BE EVIL")

MARIE: (Singing) I wanna to be evil. I want to hurt flies. I wanna do things that scare, do lies.

WESTERVELT: Did you wrestle at all with how much to stay true to Eartha's takes versus...

MARIE: Never. As a matter of fact, I tried my best to get as far away from her versions as possible because I was so worried, oh, I don't want anybody to think I'm trying to sound like Eartha. Who could do that?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WANNA BE EVIL")

MARIE: (Singing) And then the theater, I want to change my seat just so I can step on everybody's feet. I wanna be evil.

I've got to tell the truth. What woman doesn't want to say that I want to be evil? You know, we're just told to be good girls, don't ruffle any feathers, don't do this, don't, don't, don't. And then here's this great tune. I'm tired of being good. I want to be evil.

So I've actually thrown out a suggestion to the women in the audience when we do this live that they video themselves singing this, you know, buy a little get-up, video tape themselves singing it, and then send it to me so I can put it on my YouTube or my website.

WESTERVELT: Interesting. You've got a little collection of "I Wanna be Evil" videos on your website now?

MARIE: Not yet. I haven't gotten one, I haven't gotten one. But I have a feeling that they are coming.

WESTERVELT: They're coming. After this interview they're coming.

MARIE: I hope so.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WANNA BE EVIL")

MARIE: (Singing) Ha ha ha, as evil as I can be.

WESTERVELT: I'm speaking with singer Rene Marie about her latest album, "I Wanna Be Evil: With Love to Eartha Kitt." It always seemed that she took on a bit of a character when she performed her music. I mean, she was the playful, bad girl, the temptress. Did you do a bit of that too? I mean, did you get into character a little to record these songs?

MARIE: No. It's not a matter of getting into character for me. What it is is simply disrobing what's already there, uncovering what typically stays covered up. So being vulnerable enough to go to those places that the songs just were dying for, you for me to go to. Any time you sing a song, like, "Oh, John," you just have to surrender to what the lyrics are.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OH, JOHN")

MARIE: (Singing) Oh, John, please don't kiss me. Oh, John, please don't kiss.

I've gotten some criticism for some of the songs like that, but it's cool.

WESTERVELT: Why's that?

MARIE: Because, the lyric is Oh, John, please don't kiss me. Oh, John, please don't kiss.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OH, JOHN")

MARIE: (Singing) Oh, John, please don't hold me. Oh, John, please don't hold.

Basically, John is doing whatever he wants to do and 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. And I've had women approach me afterwards and say, why did you sing that song?

WESTERVELT: Yeah, you wrote in the liner notes that, you know, you had the most trouble with "Oh, John," 'cause the music moves sort of closer and closer to the forbidden, but no apologies.

MARIE: None whatsoever. I did have to pull my husband aside and say, mm-uh, about that "Oh, John" song.

WESTERVELT: Right.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OH, JOHN")

MARIE: (Singing) Please don't touch me. Oh, John, please don't touch. Oh, John, please don't. Oh, John, please. Oh, John.

WESTERVELT: You care a lot about social issues, and your past albums reflect that, Rene. I mean, you've taken on racism and homelessness and inequality. Yet, this album is pretty much all fun, almost tongue-in-cheek. I mean, is this the pure playful and fun side of Rene Marie?

MARIE: It is so much fun. I had no idea how much fun I would have doing these songs. I mean, I love it. And as a matter of fact, I'm kind of dreading my next project because if I do my original stuff, it's going to be all fun like this one is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'D RATHER BE BURNED AS A WITCH")

MARIE: (Singing) They said that I'm a witch, that I weave a spell. Well, I'll be a son of L and what the, well, let me tell you I'd rather be burned as a witch, than never be burned all.

WESTERVELT: Rene Marie, it's been a real pleasure. Thank you so much.

MARIE: It's been my pleasure. Thank you very, very much. I've enjoyed talking to you.

WESTERVELT: That's Rene Marie. Her latest album is a tribute to Eartha Kitt called "I Wanna Be Evil."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'D RATHER BE BURNED AS A WITCH")

MARIE: (Singing) ...to unglue you, and all of the hex of the weaker sex to boo-do-dupe-dupe-do-do-you. They said that I'm a witch, that I weave a spell. Well, I'll be a son of a L, well, let me tell you I'd rather be burned as a witch than never be burned at all...

WESTERVELT: And for Saturday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Eric Westervelt. Check out our weekly podcast. Look for weekends on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on iTunes or on the NPR app, and follow us on Twitter @NPRWATC. I'm @EricNPR.

Tomorrow, I'll visit to a middle school in San Francisco where something different's happening. Kids with disabilities aren't relegated to a special classroom. Instead, they're being included in all classrooms.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Just by looking, you can't necessarily tell me who's the gifted the kid and who's the kid with a disability.

WESTERVELT: Inclusion, it's not always a simple process, and it's the subject of a hot debate. That's tomorrow. Until then, thanks for listening, and have a great Saturday night.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'D RATHER BE BURNED AS A WITCH")

MARIE: (Singing) ...ooh, what the hell. Baby, I'd rather be burned as a witch, than never to burn at all. Got a match? Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha, ha, ha, ha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.