Good times and bum times, I've seen them all and my dear, I'm still here...
Eartha Kitt certainly earned the right to sing those famous lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. The theatrical legend wrote the song for Yvonne DeCarlo to introduce in the 1971 Broadway production of Follies, but the seen-it-all anthem was later adopted by artists including Barbra Streisand, Carol Burnett, Elaine Stritch, Judy Collins, Dame Shirley Bassey, Cleo Laine, and Ann Miller. Kitt - a singer, dancer, actress, activist, and genuine trailblazer - made "I'm Still Here" her own when she portrayed Carlotta Campion (replacing Dolores Gray) in the West End premiere of Follies. Following the musical's closing, Kitt recorded an album in London also called I'm Still Here. That eclectic LP, featuring the title track, orchestral selections, and collaborations with synthpop trio Bronski Beat, is reissued tomorrow by Cherry Red's SFE Entertainment imprint in a deluxe 3-CD edition also including her 1990 double album Live in London.
The entertainer was no stranger to Europe's stages. Though born in the American south, she spent many of her formative years performing on the European cabaret circuit including in Paris. Though she'd made her Broadway debut in 1945 as a dancer, she was heralded as a bright up-and-comer in Leonard Sillman's revue New Faces of 1952. Soon, musicals were being written for her, and RCA was offering up a recording contract.
But a 1968 incident at a White House luncheon threatened to derail her career in America. When invited to the Washington, DC soiree with President Lyndon B. Johnson and his wife Lady Bird, Kitt was a beloved recording artist, stage star, and television favorite who had recently adopted the deliciously villainous role of Catwoman in Season 3 of the Batman television show, breaking new ground for an African-American performer. While at the White House, she made clear her passionate views on the Vietnam War: "The children of America are not rebelling for no reason...They are rebelling against something...We raise children and send them to war." Lady Bird and President Johnson were reportedly appalled by her courageous act. The CIA opened a dossier on Kitt, branding her a "spoiled child, very crude and [with] a vile tongue" and loose morals. She took it in stride, telling The New York Times in 1975, "I've always lived a very clean life and I have nothing to be afraid of and I have nothing to hide." She added, "As long as they're going to investigate any of us, they should at least come out with the truth." With America largely shunning her, Kitt returned to Europe and resumed her performing activities. She returned to Broadway in 1978's Timbuktu!, an African-American update of Kismet, and received a Tony Award nomination. Yet Eartha never forgot the love shown by her European audiences.
I'm Still Here wasn't Kitt's first foray into the club/dance realm. Her 1984 song "Where Is My Man" reached the top 40 of the U.K. Singles Chart and the top ten of the U.S. Billboard Dance survey. Her subsequent album I Love Men earned her a new generation of fans, including the gay men she had long supported; she would continue to be an advocate for LGBTQ+ causes and AIDS activism.
For the I'm Still Here LP, Kitt gamely threw herself into the ultra-contemporary, danceable pop of such original songs as "Primitive Man," "Hit Them Where It Hurts," and "Urban Fantasy." Her assertive, strong, and confident persona was at the forefront; in "Hit Them Where It Hurts," she offered this wry advice: "You can't let a man get the better of you/Time after time, you think that love is new/But when it ends you know what to do/Hit them where it hurts/Take the money and run!"
Bronski Beat joined Eartha for "My Discarded Men" (based on an offhand quip from the famously sultry star) and "Cha-Cha Heels." The former, featuring session veteran Herbie Flowers on double bass, was penned by producer Rod Gammons, Steve Bronski, and Eartha. It evoked the milieu of a smoky nightclub with high camp and high style. Eartha purred her way through the martini-dry lyrical recollection of the men whose company she'd oh-so-briefly enjoyed. "Cha-Cha Heels," on the other hand, was straight-up Hi-NRG in the Bronski Beat style. Co-writers Steve Bronski and Larry Steinbachek, like the other writers on the album, seemingly tailored the song to Kitt's deliciously naughty, seductive persona: "If I don't have my cha-cha heels, I'll walk all over you..." Devious laughter and trademark purring punctuated her vocal in full Catwoman mode.
The 28-strong Starcoast Orchestra, featuring Flowers and a bevy of session pros, accompanied Kitt on the orchestral material such as a mannered cover of Eric Carmen's classical-inspired "All by Myself" complete with lengthy spoken-word monologue and the commanding "I'm Still Here." The latter's straightforward arrangement by Roger Webb is based upon the Follies original while Kitt delivers a taste of her West End performance, imbuing each word with authenticity.
SFE's new edition adds six period remixes and edits to the original album on CD 1 as well as Eartha's Live in London album on CDs 2 and 3 (one act per disc). The concert was recorded on March 31 and April 1, 1989 at Follies' home of the Shaftesbury Theatre following its closing on February 4 of that year. Backed by Roger Webb's orchestra and under the direction of Nica Burns - who supplies an essay in the liner notes - Kitt movingly reprised many of her past classics ("C'est Si Bon," "I Want to Be Evil," "Just an Old-Fashioned Girl," "Uska Dara (A Turkish Tale)," "Where Is My Man") plus recent material from I'm Still Here ("All by Myself/Beautiful at Forty," "My Discarded Men"). She also borrowed other characters' songs from New Faces of 1952 and Follies: "Guess Who I Saw Today?" and "Could I Leave You?," respectively. The pair of songs makes for a mini-suite about a woman responding to a husband's betrayal. Kitt puts her stamp on other standards ("Here's to Life," "Ne Me Quitte Pas," "St. Louis Blues") before concluding with a valedictory one-two punch of "I Will Survive" and "I'm Still Here."
Eartha Kitt was a survivor, indeed. Clearly, "I'm Still Here" had meaning for her; she even used it as the title of her third of four autobiographies, subtitled Confessions of a Sex Kitten. But she was no mere sex kitten. In the later years of her career, she earned a Tony Award nomination for her showstopping turn in Michael John LaChiusa's musical The Wild Party, and won three Emmy Awards for voiceover roles on the animated television The Emperor's New School and Wonder Pets. Other stage roles in the 2000s included New York appearances in Nine, Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella, and the short-lived off-Broadway musical Mimi Le Duck. Kitt passed away on Christmas Day, 2008, of colon cancer. She was 81.
The three discs of I'm Still Here/Live in London, each housed in a paper sleeve, are contained within a slipcase along with a 28-page booklet. In addition to Nica Burns, producer Rod Gammons has supplied a note. Lyrics are also included for I'm Still Here. There are no remastering credits. You'll find the full track listing and order links below. This two-for-one release pays a fine tribute to a dazzling artist who lived life on her own terms.
CD 1: I'm Still Here (Ariola 260 390, 1990) plus bonus tracks
- Do or Die
- Primitive Man
- My Discarded Men
- All by Myself/Beautiful at Forty
- Cha-Cha Heels
- Hit Them Where It Hurts
- Urban Fantasy
- I'm Still Here
- Primitive Man (Extended) (Ariola 12-inch single 612 713, 1990)
- Cha-Cha Heels (Extended) (Ariola 12-inch single 612 213, 1989)
- Urban Fantasy (Single Edit) (Ariola single 112 713, 1990)
- Cha-Cha Heels (Remixed Version) (Ariola 12-inch single 612 442, 1989)
- Primitive Man (Single Edit) (Ariola single 112 713, 1990)
- Cha-Cha Heels (Radio Mix) (Ariola 12-inch single 612 442, 1989)
CD 2: Live in London (Act One)
- Just an Old-Fashioned Girl
- I Want to Be Evil
- Guess Who I Saw Today?
- Could I Leave You?
- The Blues
- Louis Blues
- Where Is My Man?
- Ne Me Quitte Pas
- C'est Si Bon
CD 3: Live in London (Act Two)
- Here's to Life
- An Englishman Needs Time
- All by Myself/Beautiful at Forty
- Uska Dara (A Turkish Tale)
- My Discarded Men
- The Day That the Circus Left Town
- When the World Was Young
- Hymn to Love
- I Will Survive
- I'm Still Here
Live in London originally released as Ariola 303 825, 1990