Friday, December 26, 2008

RIP Eartha Kitt

Sultry `Santa Baby' singer Eartha Kitt dies at 81

NEW YORK – Eartha Kitt, the self-proclaimed "sex kitten" whose sultry voice and catlike purr attracted fans even as she neared 80, has died. The singer, dancer and actress was 81.

Family spokesman Andrew Freedman said Kitt, who was recently treated at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, died Thursday in Connecticut of colon cancer.

Dubbed the "most exciting woman in the world" by Orson Welles, Kitt's career spanned six decades, from her start as a dancer with the famed Katherine Dunham troupe to cabarets and acting and singing on stage, in movies and on television.

She won two Emmys, and was also nominated for several Tonys and two Grammys.

Kitt was featured on the cover of her 2001 book, "Rejuvenate," a guide to staying physically fit, in a long, curve-hugging black dress with a figure that some 20-year-old women would envy. She also wrote three autobiographies.

She persevered through an unhappy childhood as a mixed-race daughter of the South, and made headlines in the 1960s for denouncing the Vietnam War during a visit to the White House.

Her first album, "RCA Victor Presents Eartha Kitt," was released in 1954. It featured songs such as "I Want to Be Evil," "C'est Si Bon" and the saucy gold digger's theme song, "Santa Baby," which is revived on radio each Christmas.

The following year, the record company released "That Bad Eartha," which featured "Let's Do It," "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" and "My Heart Belongs to Daddy."

After becoming a hit singing "Monotonous" in the Broadway revue "New Faces of 1952," Kitt appeared in "Mrs. Patterson" in 1954-55. (Some references say she earned a Tony nomination for "Mrs. Patterson," but only winners were publicly announced at that time.) She also made appearances in "Shinbone Alley" and "The Owl and the Pussycat."

She was the sexy Catwoman on the popular "Batman" TV series in 1967-68, replacing Julie Newmar, who originated the role. A guest appearance on an episode of "I Spy" brought Kitt an Emmy nomination in 1966.

In 1996, Kitt was nominated for a Grammy in the category of traditional pop vocal performance for her album "Back in Business." She also had been nominated in the children's recording category for the 1969 record, "Folk Tales of the Tribes of Africa."

Kitt also acted in movies, playing the lead female role opposite Nat King Cole in "St. Louis Blues" in 1958. She more recently appeared in "Boomerang" and "Harriet the Spy" in the 1990s.

"Generally the whole entertainment business now is bland," she said in a 1996 Associated Press interview. "It depends so much on gadgetry and flash now. You don't have to have talent to be in the business today.

"I think we had to have something to offer, if you wanted to be recognized as worth paying for."

Kitt was plainspoken about causes she believed in. Her anti-war comments at the White House came as she attended a White House luncheon hosted by Lady Bird Johnson.

"You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed," she told the group of about 50 women. "They rebel in the street. They don't want to go to school because they're going to be snatched off from their mothers to be shot in Vietnam."

For four years afterward, Kitt performed almost exclusively overseas. She was investigated by the FBI and CIA, which allegedly found her to be foul-mouthed and promiscuous.

"The thing that hurts, that became anger, was when I realized that if you tell the truth — in a country that says you're entitled to tell the truth — you get your face slapped and you get put out of work," Kitt told Essence magazine two decades later.

In 1978, Kitt returned to Broadway in the musical "Timbuktu!" — which brought her a Tony nomination — and was invited back to the White House by President Jimmy Carter.

In 2000, Kitt earned another Tony nomination for "The Wild Party." She played the fairy godmother in Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Cinderella" in 2002.

As recently as October 2003, she was on Broadway after replacing Chita Rivera in a revival of "Nine." She also gained new fans as the voice of Yzma in the 2000 Disney animated feature "The Emperor's New Groove," and won two Emmys for her voice work in "The Emperor's New School."

Kitt was born in North, S.C., and her road to fame was the stuff of storybooks. In her autobiography, she wrote that her mother was black and Cherokee while her father was white, and she was left to live with relatives after her mother's new husband objected to taking in a mixed-race girl.

An aunt eventually brought her to live in New York, where she attended the High School of Performing Arts, later dropping out to take various odd jobs.

By chance, she dropped by an audition for the dance group run by Dunham, a pioneering African-American dancer. In 1946, Kitt was one of the Sans-Souci Singers in Dunham's Broadway production "Bal Negre."

Kitt's travels with the Dunham troupe landed her a gig in a Paris nightclub in the early 1950s. Kitt was spotted by Welles, who cast her in his Paris stage production of "Faust." That led to a role in "New Faces of 1952," which featured such other stars-to-be as Carol Lawrence, Paul Lynde and, as a writer, Mel Brooks.

In 1960, she married Bill McDonald but divorced him after the birth of their daughter, Kitt.

While on stage, she was daringly sexy and always flirtatious. Offstage, however, Kitt described herself as shy and almost reclusive, remnants of feeling unwanted and unloved as a child. She referred to herself as "that little urchin cotton-picker from the South, Eartha Mae."

Again, she's not exactly r'n'r, but is certainly a pop icon, especially considering her role as Catwoman in the 60's and her wonderful Xmas hit, "Santa Baby".

Friday, December 12, 2008

RIP Bettie Page

1950s pinup model Bettie Page dies in LA at 85

LOS ANGELES – Bettie Page, the 1950s secretary-turned-model whose controversial photographs in skimpy attire or none at all helped set the stage for the 1960s sexual revolution, died Thursday. She was 85.

Page was placed on life support last week after suffering a heart attack in Los Angeles and never regained consciousness, said her agent, Mark Roesler. He said he and Page's family agreed to remove life support. Before the heart attack, Page had been hospitalized for three weeks with pneumonia.

"She captured the imagination of a generation of men and women with her free spirit and unabashed sensuality," Roesler said. "She is the embodiment of beauty."

Page, who was also known as Betty, attracted national attention with magazine photographs of her sensuous figure in bikinis and see-through lingerie that were quickly tacked up on walls in military barracks, garages and elsewhere, where they remained for years.

Her photos included a centerfold in the January 1955 issue of then-fledgling Playboy magazine, as well as controversial sadomasochistic poses.

"I think that she was a remarkable lady, an iconic figure in pop culture who influenced sexuality, taste in fashion, someone who had a tremendous impact on our society," Playboy founder Hugh Hefner told The Associated Press on Thursday. "She was a very dear person."

Page mysteriously disappeared from the public eye for decades, during which time she battled mental illness and became a born-again Christian.

After resurfacing in the 1990s, she occasionally granted interviews but refused to allow her picture to be taken.

"I don't want to be photographed in my old age," she told an interviewer in 1998. "I feel the same way with old movie stars. ... It makes me sad. We want to remember them when they were young."

The 21st century indeed had people remembering her just as she was. She became the subject of songs, biographies, Web sites, comic books, movies and documentaries. A new generation of fans bought thousands of copies of her photos, and some feminists hailed her as a pioneer of women's liberation.

Gretchen Mol portrayed her in 2005's "The Notorious Bettie Page" and Paige Richards had the role in 2004's "Bettie Page: Dark Angel." Page herself took part in the 1998 documentary "Betty Page: Pinup Queen."

Hefner said he last saw Page when he held a screening of "The Notorious Bettie Page" at the Playboy Mansion. He said she objected to the fact that the film referred to her as "notorious," but "we explained to her that it referred to the troubled times she had and was a good way to sell a movie."

Page's career began one day in October 1950 when she took a respite from her job as a secretary in a New York office for a walk along the beach at Coney Island. An amateur photographer named Jerry Tibbs admired the 27-year-old's firm, curvy body and asked her to pose.

Looking back on the career that followed, she told Playboy in 1998: "I never thought it was shameful. I felt normal. It's just that it was much better than pounding a typewriter eight hours a day, which gets monotonous."

Nudity didn't bother her, she said, explaining: "God approves of nudity. Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, they were naked as jaybirds."

In 1951, Page fell under the influence of a photographer and his sister who specialized in S&M. They cut her hair into the dark bangs that became her signature and posed her in spiked heels and little else. She was photographed with a whip in her hand, and in one session she was spread-eagled between two trees, her feet dangling.

"I thought my arms and legs would come out of their sockets," she said later.

Moralists denounced the photos as perversion, and Sen. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, Page's home state, launched a congressional investigation.

Page quickly retreated from public view, later saying she was hounded by federal agents who waved her nude photos in her face. She also said she believed that, at age 34, her days as "the girl with the perfect figure" were nearly over.

She moved to Florida in 1957 and married a much younger man, as an early marriage to her high school sweetheart had ended in divorce.

Her second marriage also failed, as did a third, and she suffered a nervous breakdown.

In 1959, she was lying on a sea wall in Key West when she saw a church with a white neon cross on top. She walked inside and became a born-again Christian.

After attending Bible school, she wanted to serve as a missionary but was turned down because she had been divorced. Instead, she worked full-time for evangelist Billy Graham's ministry.

A move to Southern California in 1979 brought more troubles.

She was arrested after an altercation with her landlady, and doctors who examined her determined she had acute schizophrenia. She spent 20 months in a state mental hospital in San Bernardino.

A fight with another landlord resulted in her arrest, but she was found not guilty because of insanity. She was placed under state supervision for eight years.

"She had a very turbulent life," Todd Mueller, a family friend and autograph seller, told The Associated Press on Thursday. "She had a temper to her."

Mueller said he first met Page after tracking her down in the 1990s and persuaded her to do an autograph signing event.

He said she was a hit and sold about 3,000 autographs, usually for $200 to $300 each.

"Eleanor Roosevelt, we got $40 to $50. ... Bettie Page outsells them all," he told The AP last week.

Born April 22, 1923, in Nashville, Tenn., Page said she grew up in a family so poor "we were lucky to get an orange in our Christmas stockings."

The family included three boys and three girls, and Page said her father molested all of the girls.

After the Pages moved to Houston, her father decided to return to Tennessee and stole a police car for the trip. He was sent to prison, and for a time Betty lived in an orphanage.

In her teens she acted in high school plays, going on to study drama in New York and win a screen test from 20th Century Fox before her modeling career took off.


While Bettie wasn't directly involved in r'n'r, her image is so iconic these days that no female rockabilly fan would know what to do without her!

Everyone loved Bettie and rightfully so - she was a beaut!

Sad to see her go....

Friday, December 05, 2008

Cream - Fresh Cream

The cleverly titled first album by the Cream features some of their best known bluesy numbers and while there are some oddities, this does show what they were trying to accomplish as a modern blues-based r’n’r band.

Doo-wop-styled vocalizing opens the first number, “I Feel Free”, before it blasts into a powerful rocker that retains its melody throughout. Clapton’s “woman tone” is on display here and his playing and sound is excellent. I really like the piano embellishments, as well. “N.S.U.” follows and no, I have no idea what these initials stand for, though Bruce seemed to like this type of in joke, as he reprised it in “SWLABR” on Disraeli Gears. This is another strong pop-rocker where Eric really lets loose on the solo with his screaming guitar and Ginger goes a little nuts on his drums. Great stuff, though I do think the vocals are slighter higher in the mix than they should be (even though the voice interaction and harmonies are really well done) – they tend to drown out the instruments at times.

While not exactly a strict blues number, “Sleepy Time Time” is damn close and it shows them experimenting within a blues setting and creating something really fine. Less successful is Bruce’s pop oddity, “Dreaming” (though this is appropriate to follow “Sleepy Time Time”). While I think that Jack could write truly phenomenal songs, I don’t care for these eclectic outings.

“Sweet Wine” is also somewhat unusual but is overall a good rocker, though it has some weird slow sections which seem to have nothing to do with the rest of the song. Clapton gets in his licks which helps rock it up.

They break out Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful” to show their true blues creds and they do a damn good job on it! Undeniably nodding to Dixon, they still manage to include enough of their own personality to make this song their own. Excellent!

I also love their take on the traditional instrumental “Cat’s Squirrel” – I think this is the optimum version – rockin’, with terrific harp playing from Jack. Unfortunately, I don’t particularly care for their version of Robert Johnson’s “Four Until Late”, which comes off as an old-timey saloon tune.

But they redeem themselves immediately with a manic take on Muddy Waters’ “Rollin’ and Tumblin’”. Frantic and fierce, with more superb playing all around, including another fantastic Bruce harmonica workout. Absolutely impossible to sit still during this one!

I love their take on Skip James’ “I’m So Glad” – not a traditional blues progression, but a simple number that utilizes dual vocal counterparts to great result and then allows Eric to present a tasteful, melodic and ultra-cool (and reasonably short!) solo! Plenty of super vocal harmony work, too.

Baker’s drum showpiece is “Toad” which starts off as a hard-rocker before moving into the percussion solo, which inevitably is just not very absorbing on record. Ginger’s a terrific drummer, but drum solos are really hard to keep interesting without seeing the person demolishing their kit. This is a logical closer but not a super strong one.

As expected at the time, this was and is a powerful debut album by this volatile and short-lived group.

Joe Jackson – Look Sharp!

JJ’s debut album featured some of the best new-wave-pop to come out of the late 70’s. The backing was stripped down minimalism that fit perfectly with the simple tunes that are so undeniably catchy that you just can’t help singing along with them. The record initially was released as a double 10” fold-out, which was freakin’ hip, too!

Sharp, edgy chords open the record in “One More Time” and Jackson’s caustic lyrics set the tone for the whole record. He must have had a really bad time with women before recording this, as the entire album is about broken relationships. But depression always makes for great music! This one is truly upbeat and probably one of the most “punky” tunes of the bunch.

More new wave-y, with syncopated rhythms, is “Sunday Papers”, a sarcastic look at the news and at the people who believe everything they read. Nice double time at the end during the “read all about it” section.

The alienated outsider comes to the forefront in his hugely successful hit, “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” The song itself is fairly slow, but insistent, and it concentrates on the story of the rejected and dejected lover who can’t believe who his would-be lover ended up with. Who couldn’t relate at some point in their life? While not super powerful, this is a great pop song with a terrific chorus.

A little more upbeat but lyrically similar is “Happy Loving Couples”, again showing his annoyance at other people’s happiness while he was alone and miserable. This is another stark, guitar-oriented pop tune. No one is the band comes off as a virtuoso but they work together in harmony and add just what is needed to the songs and nothing more.

One of the most aggressive and powerful songs is certainly “Throw it Away” – this is fast and furious with Joe’s pounding piano adding to the beat. Frantic and manic and great!

More percussion-dominated is “Baby Stick Around”, a somewhat more positive pop tune. This jumps into the title number, an almost r’n’b-ish groover with lots of great parts and another memorable chorus. I really like the middle break with the drum and guitar interplay around the basic piano chords. Nice songwriting!

Everyone was required by the British hipster police to do at least one reggae-tinged song at this time and Joe’s is the “Watching The Detectives”-styled “Fools in Love”. Kinda moody, like Costello’s tune, with dark lyrics. Much lighter fare is “(Do the) Instant Mash”, fun and inconsequential (not that there is anything wrong with that!).

A cynical treatise on women, “Pretty Girls”, has nods to Manfred Mann’s “Do Wah Diddy Diddy” while still maintaining its originality and new-wave-isms. This talks about women having the real power in this world and how Joe wishes he could switch off his libido – again, totally relatable – at least to geeky teens like I was!

“Got the Time” was frenetic enough for Anthrax to cover it and barely change it! I take back what I said about the first song – this is the wildest and punkiest tune of the bunch – and damn cool! Still crazily catchy and if you can keep from shouting along with the “1,2,3,GO!”, then you’re a better man than I! The rhythm section really gets a work out on this one. Super fun!

The CD has a couple of bonus tracks, “Don’t Ask Me” and “You Got the Fever”, but neither is exceptional. Not bad, just not as good as the tunes that made it on the album.

This is a wonderful piece of well-written, guitar-oriented, new-wave pop!

(BTW, I had a pair of the same shoes Jackson sports on the album cover in black in the 80’s!)

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Cream – Goodbye

Though the band had already decided to break up by the time they recorded this album, this is still a remarkably high-quality record. This is true even though they didn’t have enough new material so that half of the album was live recordings of previous released tunes and half were new studio recordings but all are great!

Opening with their terrific version of Skip James’ “I’m So Glad”, which first appeared on their debut record, they extend this with a wild, jamming solo section in which everyone gets to strut their stuff! While some may find this a little excessive, I still enjoy hearing their amazing playing and cool interaction.

Their riff-rock pounder, “Politician”, is included in a live setting, as well, although it had been released on their preceding album, Wheels of Fire. A hot take, though not wildly different from the studio recording.

“Sitting on Top of the World”, the Howling Wolf number, had come out on WOF, as well and this take is so similar that it is literally only 3 seconds longer than the studio version! But this shows them at their bluesy best!

The studio side is a pretty big change from their live cuts – they really were almost two different bands at times – the blues/rock trio and the experimental/psych/pop band (actually I suppose that makes more than two!).

One of my favorite Clapton songs is one that he co-wrote with George Harrison (before absconding with his wife) simply called “Badge”. The title comes from a bit of a stoner in-joke – I guess they were writing down the sections and George wrote “bridge” for the middle section, Eric thought it said “badge” and for some reason they thought this was so hilarious that they used it as the title!

Anyway, this is a terrific, rockin’ pop tune with some superbly pretty playing by Clapton and nice keyboard embellishments by producer Felix Pappalardi. Melodic with a groovy beat and really clever songwriting.

“Doing That Scrapyard Thing” is a Bruce/Brown eclectic composition that is keyboard dominant and something that they would or could never have attempted live. Obviously, Bruce was attempting to break boundaries even more that Clapton, who seemed much happier in a blues setting. Still, a nice psych-pop tune.

The record closes with “What a Bringdown”, a fitting finale for a short-lived but much-loved group. This is a Ginger Baker outing, and is suitably eccentric with a Dave Brubeck “Take Five” beat on the choruses balanced with poppy verses. He wisely let Bruce sing this one and it turns out to be one of his best numbers. Really strong bridge section here, also, and fine playing all around.

I’m sure that many fans would have preferred a full album of new material, especially considering the two live albums that came out shortly after this one, but regardless, this is still a respectable and extremely listenable final outing.

Runaways movie

"Twilight" star Stewart to play rocker Joan Jett

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) – Fresh from the box-office success of "Twilight," Kristen Stewart is set to portray Joan Jett in "The Runaways," the rock 'n' roll biopic of the 1970s all-girl band.

The Runaways were hugely influential as the first commercially successful all-girl hard rock band; their members included guitarists Jett and Lita Ford, drummer Sandy West, singer-keyboardist Cherie Currie and bassist Jackie Fox. The band was brought together in late 1975 by impresario Kim Fowley, who thought a novelty act of teenage girls performing in leather and lace would be an easy sell. But the girls proved to be serious and influential musicians with songs like "Cherry Bomb." The band lasted about four years, falling apart over management and money issues.

Jett continued her rock career into the '80s, forming the Blackhearts and scoring with such hits as "I Love Rock N' Roll" and "I Hate Myself for Loving You." She continues to record and tour.

The film will revolve around Jett and Currie and follow them from the band's meteoric rise as teenagers to their dissolution and disillusionment.

Video director Floria Sigismondi wrote the screenplay and is directing. Jett will serve as an executive producer.

The filmmakers are eyeing a 2009 start and will work around Stewart's commitments to the two "Twilight" sequels. The first, "New Moon," is expected to shoot in first-quarter 2009, with Stewart reprising her role as Bella, the human who falls for a vampire.

"Twilight" has made more than $120 million since opening November 21.

Interesting, but I'm not expecting too much from this project. Not too many movies about lesser known acts like the Runaways are done very well, I'm afraid...

RIP Odetta

American folk music legend Odetta dies at 77

NEW YORK – Odetta, the folk singer with the powerful voice who moved audiences and influenced fellow musicians for a half-century, has died. She was 77.

Odetta died Tuesday of heart disease at Lenox Hill Hospital, said her manager of 12 years, Doug Yeager. She was admitted to the hospital with kidney failure about three weeks ago, he said.

In spite of failing health that caused her to use a wheelchair, Odetta performed 60 concerts in the last two years, singing for 90 minutes at a time. Her singing ability never diminished, Yeager said.

"The power would just come out of her like people wouldn't believe," he said.

With her booming, classically trained voice and spare guitar, Odetta gave life to the songs by workingmen and slaves, farmers and miners, housewives and washerwomen, blacks and whites.

First coming to prominence in the 1950s, she influenced Harry Belafonte, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and other singers who had roots in the folk music boom.

I'm sorry to say that i didn't know that she was still alive. She was a talented and powerful musician and performer.