…and then there was Eartha Kitt

Eartha Kitt was my version of teenage Viagra. That woman’s voice gave me a boner ever time she sang, growled, cooed, and purred. She was probably the most exciting singer, classical or “pop,” that I ever heard.

She had the bad fortune to die on December 25, the same day as Harold Pinter. As a footnote, Aldous Huxley had the bad fortune to die on November 22, 1963. Are you old enough to remember the significance of that date, kids?

Eartha used to get into trouble regularly because her sexuality was so in evidence that she made Marilyn Monroe look drab. She was once on the Tonight Show, I think with Jack Paar, late in a pregnancy. The kid apparently kicked her and she said “Hey Junior, hold on,” or something like that. Would you believe she caught hell for that?  Some advertiser probably got up in arms cause here was a woman who was not white, who actually indicated that at some point in the recent past she got laid.

Wow. Never learn their place, will they?

The big secret is a lot of guys, white or non, wanted to ball Eartha Kitt. Many are called but few are chosen, right?

Eartha, along with Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge, was one of the mixed-race heart-throbs who was a secret sex-dream. The price could be huge. Dorothy Dandridge was driven to (successfully) court her own destruction. But Horne and Kitt prevailed. They endured the insults and racial slurs. Kitt, I’m sure, took the amalgam of her mixed white-black-Cherokee heritage and turned it into something devastating to see and to hear.

There are also stories of her great generosity to younger artists. A young black bass named Bruce Hubbard was engaged to sing the role of Joe on a studio recording of Kern and Hammerstein’s Show Boat that would be made in London in 1988. The cast would be astonishing: Federica von Stade, Teresa Stratas, and Jerry Hadley. The text also would amaze. The producers had located, probably in a Secaucus warehouse, the original score–included cut songs–from the 1927 production. They also found the original dialogue.

And therein lay Hubbard’s problem.

“Ol’ Man River” begins with the most horrid shock imaginable. We are used to “Colored folks work on the Mississippi.” In 1927 the words were “Niggers all work on the Mississippi.” It was surely intended to shock a northern audience (it was premiered in New York). Hubbard saw the lines and didn’t want to do it. It would be like a Jew calling himself a “kike.” Hubbard went to Eartha Kitt, who was a friend and mentor. She said something to this effect:

“You owe it to your people, to yourself, to your history. It was 1880, a terrible time. You have an obligation to show the past in its ugliness, not simply an improving present.”

Hubbard recorded it come scritto. The chorus went along with him. The recording is what we’d call a reference recording, the standard against which all others have been and will be measured.

Eartha Kitt deserves no small measure of credit for helping bring about the authenticity and power of that performance.

Sadly, Bruce Hubbard died in 1991, age 39. The New York Times obituary called the cause of death pneumonia. It was in fact a complication of AIDS.


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