Every performance by jazz singer Rene Marie is an act of validation. Sixteen years ago, she faced an ultimatum from her then-husband — abandon music or get out. She chose the latter course, and went on to enjoy an international career.
Her musical journey continues as Marie brings her Eartha Kitt tribute to Creative Alliance this weekend. Given her self-confidence and dynamic personality, Marie is a natural to delve into the legacy of the sexy, indelible Kitt.
Although Marie can purr seductively through a song, she doesn't try to imitate Kitt. It's the woman's spirit she seeks to honor on "I Wanna Be Evil — With Love to Eartha Kitt," an album released early this year on the Motema Music label.
"I first discovered Eartha when I was a kid and she was Catwoman on the 'Batman' series," says Marie, 58, who was born Rene Marie Stevens and raised in Warrenton, Va. "Later on, I remember seeing her on TV talking to white folks in a way I have never seen anyone in my community do when I was growing up under Jim Crow laws."
Marie pretty much forgot about Kitt until recent years, when she got an opportunity to catch Kitt in performance at New York's Carlyle Hotel.
"I was drooling, along with everyone else in the room," Marie says. "I thought it was kind of kitschy, a bit of an act, maybe. But she sure had the shtick down."
Marie decided to do a salute to Kitt, who died in 2008, and began researching music sung by the famed entertainer.
"When I found songs like 'I'd Rather Be Burned as a Witch' and 'I Wanna Be Evil,' I was thinking, 'Oh my God, how did she get away with this?'" Marie says. "I checked out old TV clips and saw how Eartha was so sexy and seductive. I couldn't get over it."
Marie sings such selections as "C'est Si Bon," "My Heart Belongs to Daddy," and, of course, "Santa Baby" with, as DownBeat magazine put it, "a level of sass that rivals that of her hero."
Marie has had several other musical heroes, especially Nina Simone, Roberta Flack and Miriam Makeba. And, when she was a teen, there was Diana Ross.
"I went to see 'Lady Sing the Blues' because Diana Ross was starring in it." Marie says. "I didn't know anything about jazz or Billie Holiday. But, oh my God, when I heard the music — I'm getting goose bumps now just thinking about it."
Marie became hooked on jazz and was soon performing professionally. Her early jazz career continued after she married at 18 and joined Jehovah's Witnesses ("It helped straighten me out"). Although encouraged by her husband, he delivered his ultimatum in 1998, after 20 years of marriage.
"To this day, I don't know what happened," Marie says. "When I was touring or recording, I always placed a schedule on the wall. But my husband would act as though I were lying when I came home. He finally said if I didn't stop performing, there would be hell to pay. Before I could get out the door, the violence started."
After breaking free of that relationship, Marie formed a band, left Jehovah's Witnesses and never looked back. In addition to concertizing, she wrote and performed an edgy one-woman show, "Slut Energy Theory -- U'Dean," last year Off-Broadway. The piece exlores the life and lessons of U'Dean Morgan, born in poverty in 1912 and abused by her father.
"It's the first of four stage plays that I'm doing about generations of so-called sluts," Marie says. "The play is heavy, but there is lots of levity, too. I've sketched out the other three plays and would like to be able to perform them all by 2016."
However Marie's theatrical career develops, her musical one is bound to continue flourishing. The success is easy to understand.
Marie's infectious a cappella version of "When You're Smiling," rhapsodic "Shenandoah," unlikely fusion of Ravel's "Bolero" (she sings a wordless riff on the famous melody) and Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne" — such performances, documented on YouTube, reveal a highly imaginative vocal artist. The sexy/charming Eartha Kitt album does the same.
"Someone once said, 'Take care of the music and the music will take care of you,'" Marie says. "I believe that."