‘Be Evil,’ with Rene Marie and Eartha Kitt
If You Go…
With Love to Earth Kitt, ‘I Wanna Be Evil’
June 26 & 27
7 & 9:15 p.m.
JAS Café at the Nell
‘After Blue,’ The Joni Mitchell Project
July 2 & 3
7 & 9:15 p.m.
JAS Café at the Nell
Eartha Kitt’s sensuous voice and elegant performances may have made her an icon of American song, but many fans first met her as Catwoman on the campy 1960s “Batman” TV series. Among those who discovered Kitt as the sexy purring villain was a young Rene Marie.
Marie went on to become an accomplished jazz singer herself and opens the summer season at the JAS Café at the Nell on June 26 with a tribute to Kitt.
“When she was Catwoman, that was a life-changing event for me,” Marie said from a visit to family in Silver Springs, Md.
Growing up black in segregated Virginia, Marie saw Kitt as a bold pioneer for African-American women.
“I was living under Jim Crow laws, and it seemed like this dangerous, outrageous thing for a black woman to be going on TV with white people,” she says. “Oh my God! What was going to happen? It can’t be good.”
Marie has taken Kitt’s lead, both in song and in substance. She didn’t begin her singing career until she was in her 40s, but Marie quickly set herself apart by using her sultry voice to do more than entertain (though she is quite an entertainer). She’s made bold original music and become a jazzy embodiment of girl power on albums like 2011’s “Black Lace Freudian Slip” and in her 2009 one-woman show and album, “Slut Energy Theory,” and she voiced a protest song against the Jena Six case titled “Four Nooses Hanging.”
On her 2013 album, “I Wanna Be Evil (With Love to Eartha Kitt),” she pays homage to Kitt with her own interpretations of Kitt standards like “C’est Si Bon,” “Let’s Do It” and “Santa Baby.” Of course, there’s only one Eartha Kitt, so Marie doesn’t attempt a note-for-note impersonation — instead offering her own takes on Kitt’s classics.
“I don’t think anybody told Eartha she had to be that way,” Marie said. “It just seemed to be her natural inclination. It’s admirable how fiercely she guarded her individuality.”
Marie’s “Santa Baby” is a slowed-down, slithering take. Her “Come On-A My House” has a primal feel to it and a verse that was included in Ross Bagdasarian and William Saroyan’s original 1939 song but isn’t on most versions (including Kitt’s).
Kitt herself was a genius interpreter of established songs, Marie noted. Her treatment of Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It,” for instance, reimagined the classic by dropping Porter’s jaunty delivery for a provocative and seductive one that made it all Kitt’s.
“The way she delivers it is delicious,” Marie said, singing a few bars over the phone. “Our version is an aggressive and bluesy, in-your-face ‘Let’s Do It.’ This isn’t your mom and dad’s ‘Let’s Do It.’ … I enjoy doing other people’s songs. I don’t have anything against it. I just don’t like doing it the way it’s always been done.”
Marie began performing in the mid-1990s at the behest of her oldest son. She’d always sung around the family home in Roanoake, Va., but never thought of it as a career option. One night, her son brought her to see a local jazz singer perform, and the disappointing results inspired Marie to begin going onstage.
“She was bored, and the band was bored, and the crowd was bored, and she was singing all these jazz standards, and I thought, ‘What a shame!’” Marie said.
Her son suggested that Marie could do better. Within a few years, she had formed her own trio and was moonlighting from her gig as a customer-service trainer in a bank.
As her first album was due for release in 1999, her husband protested her burgeoning career, eventually giving Marie an ultimatum — to choose jazz or him. She chose jazz, moved to Richmond and continued performing parttime, eventually quitting her job to sing fulltime.
Days after she quit, she got a call from a theater asking her to do a 10-week run of shows.
“Sometimes, if you jump, the net will appear, and that was my net,” she said.
After Marie’s two-night run, the summer season at the JAS Cafe continues on July 2 and July 3 with another tribute: five-time Grammy nominee Tierney Sutton playing the songs of Joni Mitchell.