march 2011

Thank You. You’re Welcome.

Django Reinhardt, briefly but memorably a Parisian in America, and Eartha Kitt, briefly but memorably an American in Paris, considered anew.

By David McGee

Sony Legacy
Sony Legay

That she would become the sensation of all Paris in the late ‘40s was likely the last thing the St. Matthews, South Carolina-born Eartha Mae Kitt-Fields, daughter of a white man and a woman of mixed African-American and Cherokee heritage, dared dream of in her childhood as an abandoned social outcast. She never knew her father, and her mother moved constantly during the Depression years, picking up whatever odd jobs were available in order to make a buck. The mother eventually met and fell in love with a man who proposed marriage; but as much as he wanted Eartha’s mother, so did he reject her mixed-race daughter. Which resulted in the mother leaving her offspring with a local family, who abused her physically. The neighborhood kids were no better, taunting her, even tying her to a tree and hurling rocks at her.” I was told I was an ugly duckling, a yellow gal, even lower than the 'N' word," Kitt told Leslie Gray Streeter of the Palm Beach Post. "I was not accepted by anybody on either side."

Sometime around her tenth birthday, Kitt was summoned to New York City by a woman claiming to be her mother’s sister and reporting the death of Mother Kitt. Arriving in Harlem, Eartha was introduced to electric lights and indoor plumbing, but little else changed for her--the city kids were as scornful of her as those in South Carolina had been.

School proved to be young Eartha’s sanctuary--she loved reading and immersed herself in books and in her schoolwork. Encouraging her scholarship, one of her teachers gave her a ticket to see the Broadway play Cyrano de Bergerac, thereby igniting a lifelong passion in Kitt for the theater; another teacher encouraged her to enroll at the High School for the Performing Arts where she could develop her acting skills. Speaking years later to Pamela Johnson of Essence magazine, Kitt said the big turning point for her as a youth came in meeting a woman at the Harlem church she attended who first made her feel destined for something great in her life.

"One day she put her hand on my shoulder--it felt so spiritual,” she told Johnson. “Then she said I was born with the hand of God on my shoulder. It gave me a spark inside, a fire that started burning in me."

Eartha Kitt, ‘C’est Si Bon,’ a #8 single for Ms. Kitt in 1953. This live performance is from 1962.

Unhappy in her aunt’s care, Kitt was a frequent runaway. Finally she landed a job as a seamstress in a Harlem sweatshop and, on meager wages, began supporting herself. During this time she saw a film featuring the Katherine Dunham Dance Company, the successor to Dunham’s Ballet Negre, the first African-American modern dance company (which numbered Alvin Ailey among its members). Fate intervened when, by sheer accident, Kitt was stopped on the street and asked directions by one of Dunham’s dancers. As payment for her directions, Kitt learned of the company holding an open audition; she tried out, won a scholarship to the school and even earned ten dollars a week as a Dunham dancer.

From 1942 to 1947 Kitt danced with the Dunham Company, touring the world and making her first film appearance with it in 1948’s Casbah. She was singled out for effusive praise by the British press when the company toured France and England in 1947, but Kitt found those plaudits bittersweet, appreciating the compliments but feeling the sting of her otherness: "They didn't call me a beautiful woman," she told a reporter "It was 'the beautiful creature.'"

While performing in Paris with the company, Kitt’s performance caught the attention of a local nightclub owner who offered her a solo engagement at his bistro, Carroll’s, a venue otherwise notable for its host being Marlene Dietrich’s female lover, who dressed as a man and went by the name of Fred. No matter--Kitt stepped in where another African-American female, Josephine Baker, had left off after soaring to international stardom in the ‘20s and ‘30s in the City of Lights. One customer was so enthralled by Kitt’s erotic energy and exotic looks that he offered her a part in his new movie based on Christopher Marlow’s play Doctor Faustus. Orson Welles, the customer in question, wanted Kitt to portray Helen of Troy, opposite his lead. Welles was so carried away by his passion for Kitt--they later became lovers--that during a big scene when he kissed her, he was so aggressive that he bit into Kitt’s lip. As she later told Charles Osgood on CBS Sunday Morning: "The blood is seeping down my chin, and [Welles] has a hold of me so I can't get away. When I ran into him afterwards, and asked, why did you bite me? He said, 'I got excited.'" But Welles also called Kitt “the most exciting woman in the world,” a comment he could not have known would have such an impact on his co-star, who had suffered mightily in Jim Crow America. “It was so nice to be accepted,” she later told a reporter from New Jersey’s Bergen County Record.

Returning to New York in triumph, Kitt performed to enthusiastic crowds at The Village Vanguard and was cast in the Broadway revue New Faces of 1952. She had two show stopping numbers in the production: “Bal Petit Bal,” a duet, sung mostly in French with a romantic spoken interlude in English, with co-star Robert Clary (who would achieve his greatest fame as Corporal LeBeau on Hogan’s Heroes, the hit ‘60s sitcom set in a German prisoner of war camp), and the clever, and decidedly autobiographical, June Carroll-Arthur Siegel-penned “Monotonous.” Based on Kitt’s real-life experiences, the song recounts the feigned ennui--“a dull routine”--of a singer who is pursued by one “amusing fool” after another, all of whom genuflect at her altar. While singing, Kitt would crawl with slinky, feline grace--and sensuality--across three chaise lounges, her timing impeccable, her movements sultry (the Katherine Dunham training really paid off). Some of the suitors named in the lyrics: Montgomery Clift; Harry S. Truman (“plays Bach for me--monotonous”); Johnnie Ray (“I even made Johnnie Ray smile for me”); T. S. Eliot (“writes books for me”); Egypt’s King Farouk (“is on tenterhooks for me”); Sherman Billingsley (“even cooks for me--monotonous!”); Chiang Kai-Shek (“sends me pots of tea”); President Dwight David Eisenhower (“and furthermore Ike likes me”). The Camel cigarettes slogan “I’d walk a mile for a Camel” becomes “a camel would walk a mile for me,” and at the big finish, she soars, with a Piaf-like cry, into “I could not be wearier, life could not be drearier, if I lived in Siberia, ooohhhhh…although I know I’ve acres of dough, I’m not sure of the amount--it might be exciting someday if I learned to count!” She even has a fleeting, but startling, moment when she lets loose with an upper register yodel that incorporates a snippet of the melody of Rodgers and Hart's 1934 pop classic, “Blue Moon.”

‘I want an old fashioned house/with an old fashioned fence/and an old fashioned millionaire…’ Eartha Kitt, live in ’62, sings her 1956 gem, ‘Old Fashioned Girl’

Seizing on Kitt’s success in New Faces, RCA signed the artist to a recording contract. During her tenure with the label (1952-1958), she cut six long playing albums, eight extended play 45s, and 23 singles. After leaving RCA almost all of her recordings, singles and albums, from 1959 through 2001, were for foreign labels (including RCA). Amazon offers several fine live albums from Kitt’s later years, as well as a Collectables two-fer of a pair of her RCA albums, an import containing four RCA albums in one package, and, remarkably, the original cast recording of New Faces of 1952 remains in print as well. The essential Earth Kitt, the foundation of the legend, and by far her greatest vocal performances on record, are captured on the new double-CD Sony Legacy release, The Essential Eartha Kitt, a title pretty much beyond dispute.

Nineteen fifty-three and 1954 were the two big chart years for Kitt, when she placed seven consecutive singles in the Top 40, three of those peaking in the Top 10. “Monotonous” was not one of those singles, but it gets the first disc off to a rousing start, and is followed by “Bal Petit Bal,” the delightful duet with Robert Clary. On most of the tracks she is accompanied superbly by Henri René and His Orchestra (the orchestra backing her on “Monotonous” and “Bal Petit Bal” is conducted by Anton Coppola, uncle of film director Francis Ford Coppola), which is supplanted on the later recordings (from the 1958 St. Louis Blues concept album) by the Shorty Rogers Orchestra, with arrangements by Matty Matlock. Her producers/arrangers were formidable: in addition to René these included Hugo Winterhalter, Joe Carlton and Dennis Farnon, with Gordon Jenkins joining René in producing Kitt’s mock-dignified reading of “Just An Old-Fashioned Girl,” styled with Mozartian classicism to include celeste-like effects and a formal, waltz arrangement backing the singer’s precise, deliberately affected reading in which she seeks nothing more than “an old-fashioned millionaire” with a soundproof nursery “not to wake a baby while I’m counting.” Never above playing the sex kitten, and deliciously so, Kitt adopts a prissy, prim persona on “Old Fashioned Girl” that was distinctly at odds with the lusty character she had developed, and she couldn’t have played it more perfectly as a sendup of her own image.

Throughout this period Kitt’s global sensibility was reflected in her material. In those early post-war years, she capitalized on her world travels, and especially on her Paris experience. One of her biggest hits, surpassed only by her Yuletide classic, 1954’s sexy “Santa Baby,” was 1953’s “C’est Si Bon,” sung entirely in French, but with breathy asides and a pronounced feeling of post-coital pillow talk in its spoken outro, with a male chorus rhythmically chanting “c’est si bon” behind her over a subdued but smoldering horn-enriched arrangement. The single peaked at #8. Preceding “C’est Si Bon” was her first chart hit, also from 1953, “Uska Dara (A Turkish Tale),” which peaked at #23. With a bouncy, reed-heavy soundscape approximating the sound and style of Ottoman harem music, the music was westernized enough to be exotic but accessible to American listeners, who seemed not to care that Kitt sang the verses in Turkish, with two odd narrated passages in English interspersed between the verses. The ethereal, Hugo Winterhalter-produced “Angelitos Negros” is beautifully rendered in Spanish, with atmospheric verses alternating with belting choruses amid a beautiful Spanish-tinged Winterhalter arrangement abundant in understated reeds and subtle, moody string parts, with a tasty gut-string guitar ladling on a south of the border mood. Disparate cultures gaily intermingle in “Mambo de Paree”--as do French and English--but the gentle shuffle of “Je Cherche Un Home (I Want a Man),” sung in French and English, is a Piaf-like entreaty for some up-close-and-personal romancing--and one of the few songs in which Kitt says she’ll settle for a man, any man, regardless of his financial state. Then there’s “Honolulu Rock and Roll,” released in April of 1956, when rock and roll was first busting loose commercially in the wake of Elvis’s first RCA hits and Carl Perkins’s “Blue Suede Shoes.” As an attempt to capitalize on the new musical craze, “Honolulu Rock and Roll” is not bad--it incorporates a steel guitar in its bopping arrangement, along with a blaring tenor sax solo, and an eager male chorus answering Kitt’s sturdy, straightforward vocal, which has, at points, an uncanny similarity to Patsy Cline’s voice.

Further demonstrating her amazing versatility, in 1958 Kitt cut her ambitious St. Louis Blues album, which is indeed a blues album, mostly of songs written (or copyrighted) by W.C. Handy, with some pop flourishes common to the time--a male pop chorus and horn-infused orchestral arrangements--on which Kitt dispensed with the sex kitten pose and foreign languages and delivered some straight-ahead blues singing of a high order. She swings through the oft-covered “Careless Love” with an affecting lilt in her voice as she laments her lost love, and offers an effective, forlorn, moaning take on “The Memphis Blues.” “Chantez-les bas (Sing ‘em Low)” is a slow grinder right in Kitt’s sultry wheelhouse, and she lays into her lustful design (“just for a day/I’ll come take you away”) with scintillating, low flame heat. Her breezy “St. Louis Blues” won’t make anyone forget the Bessie Smith-Louis Armstrong definitive take, but it doesn’t try to, being the most pop-oriented of Matty Matlock arrangements here and altogether sunnier than most versions. In the midst of all this, though, Kitt delivered a monumental moment in her recording career with the traditional spiritual, “Steal Away.” Backed forcefully by the Jester Hairston Choir, Kitt brings breathtaking drama to her reading by immersing herself completely, and with Mahalia Jackson-like authority, in the song’s message, which counsels having faith in the saving grace of God’s son. In its original incarnation the song served as code for urging slaves to use the strength of their faith to escape bondage and find freedom on their own, something Kitt had pretty much been doing since she left North Carolina.

Having known desperate times in her youth, that Kitt would rise to the occasion of “Steal Away” is hardly surprising. Her performance comes from someone who’s learned the song the hard way. There are, though, countless moments of sublime and tender love balladry in evidence, when she approaches the degree of unabashed romantic yearning of a singer she must have come across during her time in Paris, the great Piaf, with whom Kitt shared a torturous childhood. The Piaf trill in Kitt’s voice is Kitt’s alone, not an affectation, but in the French songs it is rather striking how similar each one’s phrasing is to the other’s; but Piaf was there first and must have exerted some influence on Kitt’s vocal attack. Is there any doubt of Kitt being unable to recognize the source of the eternal ache in the Little Sparrow’s voice? The difference between the two is simple: Piaf was an open wound of hurt, longing and resiliency; Kitt was less inclined to let the scars show but fearless in being the seductress, in making the first move, and asserting her will, especially over men. She didn’t have to sing “Non, je ne regretted rien”--she simply lived it and articulated it in her vocal persona. You hear it in her beautiful, measured reading of “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”; in the unabashed surrender she recalls in the timeless, deeply romantic “Lisbon Antigua,” so big a hit in 1956, the year Kitt’s version was released, in an instrumental version by Nelson Riddle that few people realized it contained some beautiful, poetic love lyrics; in her soft, vulnerable confessions in “I’m a Funny Dame,” a tune from the Broadway musical Happy Hunting, realized here in a bluesy, cabaret arrangement featuring a tasty, full-bodied, but economical guitar solo of the type perfected by Al Viola on his Sinatra sessions; and in the carefree, flirty little girl’s voice she adopts on the infectious swing ditty, “Lovin’ Spree,” her final Top 20 single, released in 1954. It’s most certainly there in her biggest hit, 1954’s #4 seasonal ode to materialistic delights, “Santa Baby,” the song Kitt is best remembered for and far away her most played recording, given its Christmas perennial stature. “Santa Baby” is a great Kitt performance--restrained but smoldering, unabashed in its desires and with a hint of salaciousness in her suggestive come-on to “hurry down the chimney tonight.” The Essential Eartha Kitt is somewhat of a corrective in that it does the invaluable service of either reminding or educating listeners of what a remarkable musical artist this woman was. Her most productive years may have been few in number, and one song may be defining her now, but there are so-called singers gathering multiple Grammy awards these days who have not and will never approach the quality, the variety, the soul and the consistently high musical standard of these Eartha Kitt gems. More to the point, though, in their own time, these recordings compared favorably to the best of their era, and what an era it was. Further investigation is in order, starting here.

Django Reinhardt, ‘September Song’ (‘Song ‘Automne’), heard here in its 1947 version.  This is the orignal 1947 version. Reinhardt recorded the song several times in his career, including during the ‘Rome sessions’ (1950) featured on The Essential Django Reinhardt.

Eartha Kitt went to Paris and became a star, but Django Reinhardt didn’t need to come to America to make a name for himself--he was a living legend when he made his only U.S. appearances in an abbreviated 1946-1947 visit. From his formation of the Quintette du Hot Club de France in 1934 with the Parisian violinist Stephane Grappelli, with whom he had an almost otherworldly sense of instrumental communication, Reinhardt, through his recordings, and visits from American musicians seeking him out so they could record with him, Reinhardt was making his mark on jazz guitar and on Stateside jazz in general, all at once.

In a centennial tribute to Django in this publication last year, Wayne Jeffries observed: “During the ‘30s Django was at the forefront of the development of the guitar in jazz. His records had begun to reach America, and many major American musicians would arrive in France to record with him, spreading the word of this amazing musician on their return to the States. Who knows what effect he would have had on Be-Bop in America during the early ‘40s had he been able to get here, but just when he was at his peak, his career was radically affected by the outbreak of the second World War. Cut off from the brewing pot of Be-Bop for six years, he was not privy to the developments of modern jazz until it was well along the way.

“By 1949,” Jeffries continues, “the Be-Bop influence on Django's playing is obvious. Listen to any of the famous ‘Rome Sessions’ or the 1950 recording with saxophonist Andre Ekyan—Rienhardt makes both Grappelli and Ekyan sound dated. By this time Django was going exclusively for an electric sound. Ironically it was during this period that he fitted an electric bar pickup to his Maccaferri, and was able to produce a cleaner, more archtop sound. Indeed he once referred to the electric guitars in America as ‘tinpots.’ But he wanted the electric/archtop sound and obviously went out of his way to get it.”

Properly titled, Sony Legacy’s two-disc Django release would be “Some Of the Essential Django Reinhardt,” which is maybe why yours truly will never be in charge of such things. In fact, the essential Django would survey multiple eras: the Quinette recordings; his reunion recordings with Grappelli in London in1946; the 1946-1947 recordings when he was alternating between acoustic and electric guitar and increasingly influenced by Be-Bop ideas; his final body of work, between 1951 and his death in 1953, when his guitar of choice was an amplified Maccaferri, working with some of Paris’s finest young modern musicians some 20 years his junior and playing in a less chordal, more Charlie Christian mode with darting, crisp lines. A live recording from Club St. Germain in February 1951 provides irrefutable evidence of Django’s evolutionary process.

Wayne Jeffries again: “He should be rated much more highly as a Be-Bop guitarist. His infallible technique, his daring, “on the edge” improvisations, coupled with his vastly advanced harmonic sense, took him to musical heights that Christian and many other Bop musicians never approached. The live cuts from Club St. Germain in February 1951 are a revelation. Django is in top form, full of new ideas he executes with amazing fluidity, with cutting, angular lines that always retain that ferocious swing. More new compositions appeared, such as ‘Double Whisky’ and the brilliant ‘Impromptu,’ of which a breakneck version was recorded in May 1951. This is a tremendously exciting tune that I have never heard anyone attempt to play. It features great solos from the whole band and Django makes it plain in his chord comping that it's based on the sequence of Dizzy Gillespie's ‘Things to Come’—he even emulates the sound of Gillespie's big band! Gillespie also used this chord sequence later for ‘Be-Bop.’”

Not the least of Django’s late life recording milestones came in Rome in 1949, for sessions in January and February, then again in 1950 for sessions in April and May. On the January-February 1949 tracks he’s accompanied by Grappelli, Gianno Safred on piano, Carlo Pecori in bass and Aurelio de Carolis on drums; in April-May 1950, he’s working with a superb André Ekyan on alto sax and clarinet; Ralph Schecroun on piano; Alf Masselier on bass; and Roger Paraboschi on drums. All essential Django, recordings from this timeframe form the entirety of this newest entry in the Reinhardt catalogue (all tracks were previously issued as The Indispensable Django Reinhardt [1949-1950] and are also available with other latter-era Django on JSP’s five-CD box, Postwar Recordings 1944-1953).

These, then, are the “Rome sessions” to which Jeffries refers above. He’s too hard on Grappelli and Ekyan, as both acquit themselves quite admirably throughout, even if on the romp through “Halleluyah,” for instance, Django seems off on a plane all his own with a breakneck solo that blends his Gypsy heat with Christian’s aggressive precision, though Grappelli and especially pianist Gianno Safred step to the fore with striking solos of their own, the latter adding a rowdy honky tonk flavor to the tune on the 88s. Grappelli and Django are at their communicative peak on a fiery rendition of “After You’ve Gone,” with the violinist working fascinating, rapid-fire variations on the familiar melody, and Django responding with jaw dropping flurries of precisely noted single-string runs blended with serpentine flourishes and the type of octave chording attack Wes Montgomery picked up on and developed into his own voice, as he does to even more striking effect on the big-band styled “Royal Garden Blues,” which harkens back to his brief encounter with Ellington in its big band arrangement with Ekyan contributing a warm, undulating alto sax solo that sets the stage for Django’s pithy single-string chorus preceding his jet-age octave chord flight at the end. In a minor quibble, the programming of the two discs--36 cuts in all--finds the 12 cuts from the April-May 1950 sessions randomly dropped into the tunestack rather the sessions being chronologically ordered, starting with January-February 1949. It gets a little maddening, if you want to follow Django’s ideas as he rethought his style, to keep referring to the liner booklet to find out if he was doing what he was doing in 1949 or 1950. But then you get lost in something as transcendently beautiful as 1949’s “Beyond the Sea,” wherein restraint and introspection rules all and the result is heart tugging--Grappelli’s violin is doubly aching in his soft, crying lines, and Django answers with tender, arpeggiated musings and gentle, cushioning strums, leaving the flash and aiming solely and straight for the heart. He hits it dead on. This is what it’s all about.

So, to Paris, thank you for the gift of Django Reinhardt, if only for a brief but incandescent moment. As for our Eartha Kitt making her home in your fair city for a brief but incandescent moment, you are most welcome.

The Essential Eartha Kitt is available at

The Essential Django Reinhardt is available at

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