René Marie – singer, actress, writer. Earth Kitt – singer, actress, writer. Never before has there been a vocal recording tipping the hat to the divine Ms. Kitt and her fiery, sensual and clever interpretations of songs. With her incredible range of vocal ability, her powerful emotional resonance and strong independent streak, René is the right artist to conceive of this historic project, out November 12 on the adventurous, multi-Grammy®-nominated label Motéma Music. I Wanna Be Evil (With Love to Eartha Kitt) is René’s third recording for the label and her 10th career album.
Eartha Kitt’s daughter Kitt Shapiro, who maintains her mother’s legacy via EarthaKitt.com and the company Simply Eartha, expressed her appreciation.
It’s wonderful that such a talented artist like René Marie has recorded the first tribute album to my mother, helping to keep her memory and spirit alive. These classic songs deserve to be heard and loved by all generations.
This brilliantly entertaining album burnishes René’s reputation as the most provocative risk-taker among today’s jazz divas. Featuring star turns by trombonist Wycliffe Gordon, trumpeter Etienne Charles and Australia’s Adrian Cunningham on saxophone, clarinet and flute, I Wanna Be Evil opens with a cackle of mischief. Then René tears into “I’d Rather Be Burned As A Witch,” a powerhouse song that immediately signals the melding of the spirits of two audacious women. She changes gears dramatically with a sly arrangement of “C’est Si Bon,” one of the songs most associated with Eartha. Lesser-known gems “Oh, John” and “Let’s Do It” follow, both of which René imbues with sultry affection. She puts her scintillating touch on “Peel Me A Grape” – featured on her 1998 recording debut – before giving a classic rendition of “My Heart Belongs to Daddy.” The title track is another barnburner that showcases René’s playfulness. The little-known Caribbean-tinged “Come on-a My House” – featuring a percussion turn by Charles – leads into probably Eartha’s best-known song, “Santa Baby.” René’s slow burn version is sure to become a new holiday favorite. She closes with her haunting original, “Weekend,” a favorite with fans, who adore René for her ability to enthrall. Produced by René and veteran producer/writer/programmer Mark Ruffin, I Wanna Be Evil features René’s longtime band: Quentin Baxter (drums, percussion, washboard); Kevin Bales (piano); and Elias Bailey (bass).
René shares more about her inspiration for the project.
Eartha Kitt is one of America’s strongest iconic figures. She was an inspiring artist, a strong woman and an essential activist in different ways. She was homeless when she first moved to New York City yet became a star. She was a sensual and powerful woman in a man’s world at a time when most women were background not front and center. She was a black actress in Hollywood at a time when most black actors were given subservient roles yet here she was – Catwoman. She challenged President Johnson on the Vietnam War and paid a price for her outspokenness. She unabashedly shared her sensual self and her fierce self and was just herself – simply Eartha. That alone, I have learned, can be the most radical act, especially if you are a woman. As Eartha states in one of her famous ‘Kittisms’: The price you pay for being yourself is worth it.
René too is unabashedly herself, winning many fans for her audaciousness but also receiving strong criticism. Her well-known medley of “Strange Fruit” and “Dixie” wowed many but also stirred the pot on America’s history of slavery and Southern race relations. Her choice to sing the black national anthem, “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” (set to the melody of the “Star Spangled Banner”) when the Mayor of Denver John Hickenlooper asked René – one of Denver’s high profile resident artists at the time – to open the State of the City address in 2008 spurred a significant backlash, right wing criticism and even death threats.
Yet René stood strong. Her daring makes her one of America’s most interesting and compelling artists. So do her influences. Her style incorporates a distinctly American mélange of jazz, soul, blues, folk and gospel and an innate theatrical ability to interpret a song deeply and live its truth. An actress as well as a vocalist, René will be seen Off-Broadway October 12-13 and 18 and 20 as part of the All for One Theater Festival at the Cherry Lane Theatre in a touring one-woman play she wrote, directed and stars in. In typical fashion, she raises eyebrows just from the title itself – “Slut Energy Theory – U’Dean.” The meaning becomes clear and intensely significant as the audience – and critics alike – find themselves transformed by her play about U’Dean, a woman on a painful yet sometimes funny journey from sexual abuse to self-esteem.
René also is a woman of great strength and humor who walked a similar journey. Married at 18, a mother of two by 23 and a Jehovah’s Witness, she only occasionally sang. When her husband of 23 years issued an ultimatum to stop singing or leave, she chose music over the turbulent marriage and self-released her debut Renaissance in 1998 and toured as Ella Fitzgerald in a regional play. She began experiencing a whirlwind of success rarely seen in the jazz world, winning over critics; receiving awards such as the Best International Jazz Vocal CD (besting Cassandra Wilson and Joni Mitchell) by France’s Academie Du Jazz; gracing the Billboard charts multiple times; and becoming a headliner at major international festivals. A gifted songwriter, her previous Motéma release, Black Lace Freudian Slip, features blues-heavy originals. Her label debut, Voice of My Beautiful Country, is an ambitious celebration of Americana and a striking display of her incredible ability to forge connections between songs most would never think to merge.
For René Marie, success means shining attention on important issues in America and on bold artists like Eartha Kitt who helped change America’s landscape for the better. René has become one of those bold artists. It’s hard to believe it all started after she turned 40.
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