Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Reflections on ... Sentimental Eartha (1970)

A few days ago, I scored the obscure oddity Sentimental Eartha (1970), widely regarded as sultry atomic-era chanteuse Eartha Kitt’s strangest album. In her case that’s really saying something: Eartha Kitt (1927 - 2008) was a strange woman who made strange records. The CD version released on an independent label in the nineties is long out of print and now ultra-pricey. On Amazon it routinely goes for between £75 - £400.  Miraculously, I nabbed a used copy for only about £3 from Germany!

By 1970 Kitt was still in-demand on the glitzy cabaret circuit but the hits had well and truly dried up. Sentimental Eartha showcases the slinky feline temptress’conscious effort to update and reinvent her image and sound “with it” by embracing modern rock trends. Many of the other post-war pop and jazz divas of Kitt’s vintage were also experimenting with a more contemporary “groovy” direction. Around this time, Peggy Lee re-interpreted songs by the likes of Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding and Sly & The Family Stone. On Julie London’s unintended camp classic Yummy, Yummy, Yummy (1969) she applied her breathless sex kitten coo to “Louie Louie” and “Light My Fire” by The Doors as if they were Cole Porter standards. A few years later saw Miracles (1972), on which Peruvian high priestess of exotica Yma Sumac explored trippy fuzzed-out acid rock.

Sentimental Eartha bombed upon release and is pretty much forgotten today. It deserved a kinder fate. As her biographer John L Williams would later assert, “The innocuous title gives little indication that this would turn out to be far and away Eartha’s most experimental album and one of her best.”

Sentimental Eartha’s cover features Kitt lounging in a woodland setting amidst autumn leaves clad in an animal-print maxi-dress, floppy black hat and the long straight wiglet familiar from her stint as Catwoman on TV's Batman. On the psychedelia-tinged music within, Kitt gamely tries on the unfamiliar roles of hippie maiden, soul sister and earth mother by tackling Herman’s Hermits “My Sentimental Friend” and three songs by singer-songwriter Donovan: “Wear Your Love Like Heaven”, “Catch the Wind” and best of all, “Hurdy-Gurdy Man”, on which Kitt cackles like a witch and suggests a sorceress casting a spell.

On some of the more delicate songs Kitt seems to deliberately and audibly mute some of her signature purring mannerisms. On others (like the ultra-dramatic opener “It Is Love”), she roars in full feline attack. And when “The Way You Are” ends with campy ad-libbed comedy Spanglish, it could only be Miss Eartha Kitt.

In his 2013 biography America’s Mistress: The Life and Times of Eartha Kitt, John L Williams interviewed the producer of Sentimental Eartha, Denny Diante.  (The album was recorded in Los Angeles for a British label). The producer recalled Kitt as enthusiastic: “She was thrilled to death; she couldn’t thank me enough for pushing the more contemporary stuff. She was very contemporary herself, very progressive in her thinking.”

Kitt promoted her new material with a German TV special. It was obviously produced on a shoestring budget. Check out that frugal set (decorated with office furniture? Hotel lobby furniture? What’s the deal with the coat stand? And why during “Sentimental Friend” does it repeatedly cut away to photos of spaghetti western actor Franco Nero?). But durable pro Eartha belts out the songs with style, sex appeal and conviction. And while the band may look square in their tuxedos, they’re tight, dramatic and swing hard. 

Thankfully there are plentiful clips from Kitt's 1970 TV special on YouTube. I've tried to assemble them all here:

/ Above: "Hurdy Gurdy Man" and "Catch the Wind" /

/ Above: "It Is Love", "My Sentimental Friend" and "The Way You Are". The dramatic spoken intros are something else! Kitt also seems to be doing some intense Method Acting with her performances. Check out her smouldering eye contact during "The Way You Are" and the way she moodily smokes and sips champagne  /

/ Above: "Genesis". Eartha at full-throttle tigress assault mode. Like Nina Simone, the volatile Kitt was the mistress of abrupt mood swings /

/ "Once We Loved": fierce! /

/ "Wear Your Love Like Heaven": Eartha Goes Psychedelic, Baby  /

/ "I remember what you said about me. You said I was a very beautiful brown Helen of Troy ..." An epic performance of that world-weary anthem "When the World Was Young" - which also featured in the Marlene Dietrich songbook /

/ One of the few nods to the old days: "C'est Si Bon", one of Kitt's first and biggest hits in the fifties /

As Williams argues, the TV special’s high-point is Kitt’s impassioned performance of the ballad “Paint Me Black Angels” (a Mexican song she’d already recorded in the fifties as “Angelitos Negros” with its original Spanish lyrics). Kitt delivers it in extreme close-up with a stark simplicity and a few tears rolling down her face. What a mesmerising presence she was!

Nonetheless, Sentimental Eartha bombed in the UK and was never even released in the US.  Kitt never pursued modern rock music again. It was a doomed but noble effort. As with Peggy Lee and Julie London, Kitt’s experimentations baffled her existing mature fans and failed to engage with a new younger audience.

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