Rene Marie: an Inspiration Herself, Inspired by Eartha Kitt
One of the finest—and most original—music albums of any sort came out late last year, further enlarging the artist’s reputation and resurrecting a ghost of a jazz legend at the same time.
That would be the provocatively entitled “I Wanna Be Evil” by the surging and one-of-a-kind jazz singer Rene Marie, who with a ten-song work on the Motema label has managed to bring alive the high-spirited one-of-a-kind life and music of Eartha Kitt.
The album—subtitled “With Love to Eartha Kitt”—came out late in 2013 and proved to be a wonder. It’s rich in the trademark songs of Kitt, who was one of those singer-performers who was way beyond category with big hits like “C’est Si Bon” and the hugely popular “Santa Baby” back in the 1950s, when she was one of the singular “New Faces,” right through 2008 when she passed away.
“There wasn’t anybody like her,” Rene Marie said of Kitt. “It’s why I wanted to do this. She inspired me more than anybody. I always wanted to sing, but I got kind of a late start.”
We had occasion to talk on the phone with Rene Marie a while back when she appeared in Bethesda. She’s one of the most personable, straight-ahead people you ever want to meet. On Saturday, May 24, Washington fans of both Kitt—and of Rene Marie, born Rene Marie Stevens, in nearby Warrenton, Va.—get a chance to hear her doing songs from the album as part of the two-day 19th Annual Mary Lou Williams Jazz festival at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater. Other performers on May 24 include Trio 3 performing a Mary Lou Williams repertoire and rising star Anat Cohen and her quartet.
Rene Marie isn’t exactly like Kitt, although both have appeared in Washington, D.C.—we talked with Kitt a number of years ago when she appeared at the now gone Charley’s Supper Club on K Street. Kitt had a style that was damn tough to imitate and reproduce, and she had attitude to spare, but she also more often than not flat out made you listen and watch if you had the good fortune to catch her in person.
In 1999, the year her career started to take off, Rene Marie performed at Blues Alley, also in Georgetown. Rene Marie has an attitude too, but it’s the of the kind that’s looking to share music and help others. On line, you can see her singing for homeless people, in shelters or impromptu occasions.
She always entertained the thought of singing—her voice has a clarity that’s hard to subdue, but she was as she has said in “an abusive marriage” for years. Rene Marie continued to try to sing and perform until her husband said, she told us, "Choose, me or your music." Encouraged by her grown children, she chose music. “At that point, well, it was an easy choice,” she said.
So, Rene Marie was off at the age of 42 to start a singing career. It wasn’t easy, but she’s at what amounts to a personal zenith now, but never forgets that songs—like “Strange Fruit”—are about people, history and times, as well as the joy of making music. She’s written much of her own materials and songs as well as hewing to her own unique style of singing standards.
When you listen to Rene Marie's voice, her singing on the Kitt album, you hear strains of other voices—influences like Betty Carter, Ella, Dinah, Nancy Wilson and Sarah Vaughan, and, of course, Kitt. Mostly, however, it’s a voice you’ve also never heard before.
The tribute to Kitt is different from Kitt. It’s a musical praise for Kitt’s courage as much as her unique talent. But Kitt always had something growly, a hot touch, unbeatable but not necessarily classical.
Rene Marie is the real thing. She makes all the songs on the album her own, and therefore emotionally stronger, clearer and better. She has a rangy, beautiful voice. “Santa Baby” becomes more than a playful tune, as does “My Heart Belongs to Daddy.” She has that throaty optimism that makes “I’d Rather Be Burned As a Witch” a lights-out effort.