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Eartha Kitt discusses her music career ; part 1

BROADCAST: Jul. 10, 1962 | DURATION: 00:27:08


Studs Terkel interviews actress and singer Eartha Kitt. The program begins with a musical selections sung by Kitt, "C'est Si Bon". Kitt discusses the following; her career; how the songs she sings are interpreted and preferred by people of different nationalities; what led her to be an international star; her childhood; her meeting with Albert Einstein;


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Studs Terkel The voice of a unique performer and one of the works for which she is most celebrated. You might call this a gay, yet sardonic comment on our values. I can think of no other way to describe this song, which is more than a song, it's a vignette. More of this and our guest in a moment as we hear her voice now in action. [pause in recording] And even though, even though there are a number of languages involved here, primarily French, Eartha Kitt, our guest, of course, whose voice you just heard. Somehow the language is universal, is it not? The discussion is loot.

Eartha Kitt To some extent, yes.

Studs Terkel You say to some extent.

Eartha Kitt Yes, because I think that no matter which song I am singing, it's the way the audience accepts whatever I'm saying, that they interpret things for themselves. There may be subjects that deal with loot and the mink coats, but the other songs, too, they say completely different things. But no matter what subject I go onto, it always seems to be the loot and the Cadillac cars that people remember most.

Studs Terkel I wonder -- well, now, this is, you raise a point that's very interesting, Miss Kitt. I wonder, this this reaction? It's the Cadillac cars and the loot the audience this is remembers most. Do you find this true? You've sung in many countries. You find this true of all countries?

Eartha Kitt No, not all countries, mostly in America. I find that they, uh, think of me as the loot-looking girl, or the loot-finding personality. Maybe it's because we are more conscious of mercenary things than the people in the rest of the world. We are more conscious of a quantity rather than quality. Therefore, when I sing a song like "C'est Si Bon," and you say, I would like to have all of this mercenary, all of these superficial, all of these material things, I think that we have been educated to feel that we are successful when we have all of these things. Therefore, this is what they remember.

Studs Terkel This this then is a fascinating commentary on your part, I'd like to dwell on this a bit more. The audience that sees you in the various nightclubs in this country then, the women, the men, this is the point that hits them most because you say of their conditioning. But in other countries, you don't find they're as much affected by these material values as we are? I mean, say "C'est Si Bon," you sing it in Istanbul or in -- did you sing in Israel, too?

Eartha Kitt Yes.

Studs Terkel Well, what's the reaction in these places?

Eartha Kitt Well, they think it's very funny. They think it's a very amusing song, they think it's very cute. But they go more for the soulful qualities. For instance, in London, where you take a country that is, say, they speak the same language we do, and, uh, they are more influenced probably by America more quickly than the rest of the European countries, but since I sing in the same language they speak and that both countries speak, they think that "C'est Si Bon" is very cute and very funny. And they also think that I am just a little -- I'm looking for a millionaire, for instance, I'm just an old-fashioned girl looking for a millionaire. They think that's hysterical. There's also a song that they think even funnier, and it's a takeoff on the Englishman himself. It was written by an Englishman for me, and it says an Englishman needs time, and it says, "As you've guessed I'm continental, romantic and sentimental." In other words, I look on love as something of an art. But you must find that, I found that different nationalities have different views on things. And you say, "A Spaniard needs a soft guitar and a balcony to climb," et cetera, et cetera. "But an Englishman needs time." Well, all of this is terribly hysterical to the to the British people. And a song like -- and this is what they always want to hear, and I've only done that song the last two years or so. And, I've been back to London, well I introduced it in London because this is where it was given to me. And of course, they laugh at it in America, too, and they laugh at it in other English-speaking countries. But they are, they laugh at it more so in England because it is a, you know

Studs Terkel They recognize their own frailty.

Eartha Kitt Yes, yes, and the British people are wonderful for laughing at themselves. There's also a song that I have sung quite often in London called "The Day That the Circus Left Town." It's a song that deals with a little girl or a grown-up person, for instance, maybe, that goes to a circus. And she remembers the day that the circus left town. "There goes the wonderful elephants and there goes the wonderful lions that I used to fawn over and have so much fun with. Now they're gone." It's rather emotional, tearful song that has to do with the emotions of a child, and this is the song that they always ask

Studs Terkel This is interesting, I think, we think of you primarily Eartha Kitt as the singer of the abrasive song, sardonic, songs of the high world and the half world. At the same time, parts of your repertoire concern songs of nostalgia and in this instance the memory of childhood. I suppose that's universal.

Eartha Kitt Yes, because love is something that, no matter where you go, if you are able to reveal an emotion of love and affection, and get it across naturally, people feel this. It doesn't matter which language you're singing in. They will get the, the tonality, the vibrations of the emotional values of the song.

Studs Terkel We think of Eartha Kitt as a femme fatale. We remember her first in Chicago, most of us do, as being one of the stars of the good new faces several years ago. And what makes Eartha Kitt or beginnings, perhaps even beginning to find a bit about you. You're very -- what led you to being the international figure you are, the celebrated figure you are. Beginnings. The very beginnings. There were South Carolina beginnings.

Eartha Kitt Well, um, it's very difficult to say what motivates the kind of person that you are once you have become an adult. But there are moments that I remember in my childhood that I'm quite sure had a lot to do with molding of the me that is now. I remember being whipped when I was a child because I was fair in complexion. I was not dark like the rest of the members of my family, and my mother gave me away when I was about five or six years old with my sister, who was much darker than I am, but she gave me away mainly because she had to. She wanted to get married to a man who was also very dark, and he had several children. My mother, I think, was next to the oldest. My mother was younger than his oldest child, but she obviously was very much in love with this man. She wanted to marry him, but he said, "I don't want that yellow gal in my house," meaning me. As a result, my mother did not want my sister and I to be separated. So she gave us away to this elderly lady who had two grandchildren, and they too were dark. So I was given a whippin' practically every day just because these kids felt that-- I suppose now that I am grown up, I can understand it. And of course, at the time when you're a child and you're receiving this kind of brutal treatment, you think of it more or less as a natural part of life. You don't hate, because you say once you've become used to something, you know, you think that is the way things are supposed to be. At the time I didn't hate them, I was fearful of them. But I can still feel the sting of the peach tree switch on my little behind when they tied me in a crocus sack with my hands over my head and tied me around a tree and began to whip me for -- I don't know what the reasons were, just because they wanted to, you know, have a rebellion against something.

Studs Terkel Their own wretchedness, too, I suppose, their own wretched condition.

Eartha Kitt Yes, we were all very poor, and when it was not harvesting time, you know, we were not out in the fields picking cotton. The children just didn't have anything to do. So they, this was one of their little amusements. But as I said, I remember those two children today. I can still see their faces, and as I grew older, my aunt, who was living in New York, sent for me because she heard of the brutality that I was being -- the way I was being treated down South, and she sent for me. Now, in the South, half the time we were eating and half the time we were not eating. But also that too, is, was a part of life. And, I said, as a child, you know, you take it as it comes. I remember once the, the men in the family went out in the forest to find something to eat, and because they went hunting, you know, they would come back with anything, rabbit, possum, squirrel or anything that they could, even a fish or -- but as fate would have it, they found nothing. And on the way back there was a rainstorm, and across the little path that they were walking along was a little turtle. And this was the thing that they picked up and they brought home. Well, we had turtle soup for I don't know how many days, because we sort of passed the soup, you know, the turtle through one pot to the other. And I remember one year lightning struck the cotton field, we had, the sun had burned out the corn and the potatoes that we had planted, and we, you know how you preserve potatoes. You dig a hole in the ground and then you take pine straw and you put all in the hole and then you take the potatoes, these are sweet potatoes I'm talking about, take the sweet potatoes and you put on top of the straw, then you put more stroll on top of that, and then you build a pyramid. Well, this is to preserve the potatoes for the winter, and along with other, other things that you may have been able to preserve, like making sauerkraut, and you put it in a barrel and you put it in the barn and so forth and so on. And this year was one of the worst years I ever remember. Lightning struck, then the, all the potatoes that we had put away, frost got into it and ruined the whole batch of potatoes. And I don't know, things just got from worse to worse to worse, and we didn't have anything to eat for a long time that winter. So we went out into the forest naturally when these times come and look for things: wild berries or nuts or we used to even dig up roots. There was a kind of root, I remember the taste of it, and I've been trying to find it ever since. It was a kind of grass that grew all over, but it had something like an onion at the bottom of it, and we used to eat this, and used to eat the bottom of it but with the top of it, my sister and I used to make dolls. Out of the grass tops. So

Studs Terkel It was ingenuity out of adversity.

Eartha Kitt Yes. There was -- one time I remember we had a cow, and the cow was giving very, very little milk, or sometimes it would give milk, and it was very temperamental, it wouldn't give any milk at all. So we dis-- finally discovered that the cow was not a milk cow at all, it was a beef cow. So even though it was a female, being a beef cow, it doesn't give milk. So they went and they traded this cow for a milking cow. And we were very happy, because it meant that we would have butter and we would have cream and we would have milk and

Studs Terkel -- Cheese.

Eartha Kitt Every, everything, you know, we would make it ourselves. And things were looking up. Well, my job, along with other things, was to take care of this cow. Well, as fate would have it, we have the cow bred, and the cow had a little calf, and one day the people or at, you know, they gathered in their little homes and they used to put this frame making quilts. They used to make a frame from the ceiling and everyone would gather around and they would do the [crute?] work. This would be their tea, you know, in the afternoon. Well, so my job was to be taking care of the cow. But I had to see to it that the cow did not go near a certain kind of tree in the field, because this tree was poisonous, because it's carried a sort of a red berry, and if the cow ate that it was poison. Not only that, I also had to see to it that the cow did not go near the garden, because lima beans were growing on the vines on the fence of the garden. Therefore, if the cow ate the lima beans, that too was dangerous to the cow. So I was taking care of the cow, and suddenly I was called into the house. Someone wanted a glass of water. I went into the house and I gave one person a glass of water while I'm looking out the window watching the cow. Well, when one person wants a glass of water, it's contagious, so everyone wants a glass of water. So here I was, running to and fro the kitchen, back into the sitting room to get the glasses of water, and then the same time, I was trying to look out all of the windows and doors and running out and so forth to try to look after the cow. Well, it so happened as I went to give the last glass of water, I did not see the cow anymore. I couldn't see the cow from the position in which I was standing in the living room from the window. So I put the glass of water down and I ran outside, and as I got to the garden, the cow was eating the lima beans. And of course I had the most frightening feeling in the world inside of me. I didn't know what to do. Because I knew, I was told that if the cow ate the lima beans, it would be dangerous. I started to pull the cow, the cow had a rope around his neck. So I started to pull the cow away from the lima beans, and as I did so, the cow went down on one knee, and oh! My heart went right into my mouth. Because no matter what I did in that household, no matter what I did down South, to me it seemed everything was wrong. I knew that no matter what I did, I was gonna either get whipped or somebody was going to slap me, or I was get, you know, as I used to hide under the house anyway, to get away from people, just to be sure that I wasn't getting in anybody's way. So when the cow went down on one knee. I started to pray. "Please, don't let anything happen to the cow." So the cow went down on two knees. Well, needless to say, the cow just kept going down and down and down until suddenly it was on its side. And then as it got on its side, I started to cry. And as the cow went down on the side, I started to cry and pray at the same time, and I didn't know what to do. I didn't know whether I should turn to God or go into the house and call everyone out to come and help me with the cow. And then I was scared, because I didn't want the grown-ups to know that I had allowed the cow to eat the beans. Anyway, I had to do something. So I went and I called Aunt Rosa. This was the woman I was given to, and everyone in the house came out, and they looked at the cow, and then naturally the first thing that I got was the back hand of Aunt Rosa, she hit across the face, and she said, "This is your fault. The cow is sick and the cow is going to die." And this and that and that and that. And then so I started to cry, and I didn't know what to do, and then I started to pray, and then everyone else was screaming and yelling and carrying on, and I didn't know what to do. So anyway, I remember there was an Uncle Ben. He was no relative of the family. But Uncle Ben was across the swamp, and maybe if there was a man around, he would be able to help us. So I started to run, and I ran through the swamp to Uncle Ben's and Uncle Ben wasn't home. But there was a man in the field and he was hoeing, so I stopped and I said, "Please, would you come, there's something is wrong with our cow and I don't know what, we don't know what to do." So by the time we got back, Aunt Rosa had given the cow baking soda, because in the South, if anything goes wrong with you, with your stomach, they give you baking soda. So I got a whipping because the cow died. And I didn't, I couldn't talk to anybody for days. I hid under the house for I don't know how many days, I wouldn't see anybody. Nobody would talk to me. And I didn't know whether I should run away or whether I should just go in the fields and die myself. Do you know when I found out that it was not the lima beans that killed the cow?

Studs Terkel The baking soda.

Eartha Kitt It was only about five years ago. I found out that it was not me that was responsible for the cow dying, but it was because Aunt Rosa gave the cow baking

Studs Terkel So all this time, you say you found this out about five years ago. So all this time, when you were blamed for everything, you actually believed you were at fault.

Eartha Kitt Yes, of course. Because this is what they told

Studs Terkel This is what they told

Eartha Kitt So when you

Studs Terkel How old were you then? About ten?

Eartha Kitt No, I was -- I guess I was about seven years old. But of course, when you have a cow that gives milk, you know, this is one of the most important things in a family down South.

Studs Terkel Eartha, well, of course your memory is so vivid. And so graphic and so moving, the story you tell, as you sing the song, the one you described about the child remembering the elephants, in a way I suppose this poignant song you sing probably reflects a certain memory of yours, an experience of yours.

Eartha Kitt Well, every subject that you either talk about or, or sing about or you happen to be expressing, there is a feeling that come from somewhere and naturally you cannot express a feeling that you do not have inside. And, of course, the -- you can have an essence of a feeling. But if you have experienced that emotion, then naturally, you're able to relay it much more clearly.

Studs Terkel I think, as you say this, this is the incongruity. And yet it's a marvel, I'm sure this is the mark of the artist. It's a, it's a combination of events that -- a combination of opposites. "C'est Si Bon," which deals with materialism and riches and you swathed in mink, some of this against this childhood memory, you see, probably adds to the sardonic quality you give the song. You add no -- Are you conscious of this or not as you do it?

Eartha Kitt Well, it's a wonderful feeling that I get from singing about the grand Cadillac cars and the mink coats because it is so completely different than I am really. I mean, everyone loves to have mink coats. I cannot say that I do not want these things or do not have a desire for them, but the thing that is basically the person is not always the person who is more expressive in the things that they sing about. For instance, to me, the song is funnier to me because I'm not really that way. Therefore, I can sing it and be -- I'm laughing more probably than the audience is, and I even created the song myself the way it is, because I think these things are hysterical. I also think that it's terribly hysterical for a person to grow up, never realizing anything else but the material things in life, because this is the thing that they think makes them happy. Whereas it's the spiritual qualities of a human being, I think that makes them happy, finding that self within yourself and understanding it and realizing when you're happy. I don't think that another Cadillac car or another Frigidaire in the house is going to make anyone any more happy. As a matter fact, these are the things that complicate your life. But this is the way we're educated, particularly in America, you see, because of our economic situation. If we did not live on borrowed time, we -- I don't think the country would survive, because of our economy, the way it's set up. Therefore, you have to have Madison Avenue to constantly tell the people that they should buy, buy, buy, buy, never pay. But just keep buying, because this is the only way to maintain happiness. Because the way to maintain happiness [of this?] is not for the individual, but for the country itself.

Studs Terkel Of course, this this helps explain naturally why the song has the bite, and I should say it now, obviously more underneath, the power that it has. On borrowed time we live. You speak of course, of status. Status, the installment buying, and status itself.

Eartha Kitt Yes! But it's very, it's very strange to me to find that people think of status in the, how much money you have in your pocket sense, because, for instance, it's a shame in very many ways and in other ways, you cannot say that it's a shame, because this is probably one of the only countries that it can happen in: how many people can leave school at the age of 14 and turned out to be multibillionaires at the age of 32?

Studs Terkel Horatio Alger story.

Eartha Kitt Yes, so you don't need brains to have the monetary things in life, and since we are taught that the thing to make us happy, is the amounts and the quantities

Studs Terkel How much money you got in the

Eartha Kitt Me?

Studs Terkel No, no, this is,

Eartha Kitt Yes, that's always the way, that this is what they ask you constantly. And it doesn't matter if you are an Al Capone or, um, a tax evader, or um, an Einstein. You know, it's how much money you've got in the bank. As a matter of fact, Dr. Einstein probably died a pauper because he had, had to use his brains to become

Studs Terkel I want to ask you something. Some years ago, I believe, you went to see Albert Einstein, didn't

Eartha Kitt Yes.

Studs Terkel What led you to this? Why, why, what, what, just, you -- this an impulsive thing on your part?

Eartha Kitt Yes. I wanted to meet him because I thought that he was one of the most fascinating people of our time. And I want to have a contact with someone like this, that maybe in the hope that some of his knowledge and some of his sensitivity that he had about him would rub off on me, and to have a greater understanding of, of why a man would be a mathematician to such a great extent and devote himself to to science the way he did. Because you don't find that many devoted people today. You go back to show business. I keep telling myself that, "Why, why am I such a -- why am I so insane? Why do I work as hard as I do?" And so, so many other people come along and [snaps fingers] like this, you know, they are the ones that are making the fortunes. But then I stop and realize that I'm not in this business to make money. I'm in it because I like it, and this is my way of expressing myself. And, uh, it just happens that I make money at it, too. But my first concern is not the money.

Studs Terkel Obviously, there's a certain hunger in Eartha Kitt. I mean of a hunger, I don't mean an actual physical hunger stemming from the childhood, but this hunger to -- find out the why. Obviously you're curious about the why, and so you wanted to see this man.

Eartha Kitt Yes!

Studs Terkel Living in this, living in this framework of values such as we have.

Eartha Kitt That's right.

Studs Terkel Wonder what makes this other guy, this great man tick.

Eartha Kitt And what is so different about a man who devotes himself to something that he can never gain a tremendous amount of wealth out of monetarily? There must be something else behind that man that motivates his devotion, and I found it. It was the values of himself as a human being. And this is what I felt when I was sitting and talking to him. This is what I came away with, that kind of wonderful, beautiful spiritual feeling that you get from so very, very few people. And this is the thing that I constantly look for in people. And I find myself looking for it more and more every day.

Studs Terkel Bit by bit there's a portrait being painted right now of Eartha Kitt, artist, and a certain kind of person. And for the moment, let's hear another, another aspect of your singing. I want to return to you yourself, because I can't forget this childhood memory that you remembered so movingly. Another aspect now. In your travels, I'll come to that, I'll ask you this later, how you came to travel and what happened after your childhood. The Turkish song that was so popular, this folk song, "Uskudara," that deals with what? This deals with a woman and her young sec-- isn't this basically she has a young associate, secretary, they talk about her? Isn't that the idea

Eartha Kitt Yes, well at one time in Turkey the women did have men secretaries, because they were not allowed to have anything like women secretaries. There were no such thing. And this is just a joke on the idea that women do have very attractive secretaries and sometimes they fall in love with them.

Studs Terkel This a folk song? Or was this a pop song? I wonder how this was in origin. The song itself, "Uskudara."

Eartha Kitt Well, it's a folk song. I found it in Istanbul. It was taught to me by some Turkish friends of mine. And it's also the name of a little town just outside of Istanbul that is very, very popular now because of this song.

Studs Terkel The town is called Uskudara?

Eartha Kitt Yes, it's a town called Uskudara, and it was in Uskudara that this song, it was the little town of Uskudara that this song is about. Not only that, you know, many people when I first made this record, they did not know that there was such a thing as a Turkish language, and I got a lot of fan mail, and when it was played on the air, the stations received a lot of questions as to what kind of language was this? Was it a language that I made up, or was it real? And as a result of this particular record, for the first time in the history of America, they put a Turkish folk song in the American school books. So as a result, I have been made an honorary ambassadoress to Turkey.

Studs Terkel So after we hear this song, I'll ask about that line, that gap between that childhood and the honorary ambassadoress. "Uskudara."

Eartha Kitt All right.