Force of nature

Rene Marie will sing the songs of Eartha Kitt tonight at TD Arena.

When she was very young, Rene Marie watched "Batman" on TV, like so many other kids in the 1960s fascinated by the kitsch of the Caped Crusader, his sidekick Robin, the Joker and others. During the show's third season, a new actress emerged from the puffs of red smoke to assume the role of Catwoman. She was a provocative villain, a flirt, a force. And she was black.

This was Eartha Kitt, formerly known mostly as a singer.

"Oh my God, here's this black woman being evil toward all these white people! What?! There is no way this can be happening," Marie remembered thinking. The only other black women on TV were Leslie Uggams ("The Leslie Uggams Show") and Diahann Carroll ("Julia") - "well-behaved black women," recalled Marie.

Otherwise, black women were stereotyped as either vixens or Aunt Jemimas. Kitt, instead, was dangerous, sexy, enigmatic, multi-talented, strange. She left an impression on Marie.

Flash forward to the mid-2000s. The camera tracks up Madison Avenue in New York at night and turns right at East 76th St. then swoops into the lobby of The Carlyle and into its famous cafe where, tucked into the curve of the piano, stands Eartha Kitt, now in her 70s, singing cabaret songs and swinging her hips.

Marie is there to witness this only once, and she is blinking hard. Memories of Catwoman flash in her mind. Could it be? No. Wait. "Oh my God, this is the Catwoman!"

In the cafe, Marie hung onto every word, every still-sexy gesture of this unusual performer.

Flash forward again, this time to 2012 or so, and Marie's record label people are asking her: What's next?

Marie had an idea for a tribute album featuring the music of four strong women: Roberta Flack, Miriam Makeba, Nina Simone and... who else? She couldn't put her finger on a fourth.

But then she thumbed through her repertoire in her head and realized there were a number of Eartha Kitt songs there, several edgy tunes she loved to perform.

"Maybe I should do just Eartha Kitt?" she told the record label people. "They were salivating."

And tonight a Spoleto Festival audience gathered at TD Arena will salivate doubly, for there will be two strong personalities present in the room, two black women (one in the spirit, one in the flesh) who, each in her own way, challenge the status quo and excite the senses.

One force of nature will pay tribute to another. Buckle up.

Marie will be joined on stage by her core band - Charleston's Quentin Baxter on drums, Kevin Bales on piano and Elias Bailey on bass - as well as three interlopers, Wycliffe Gordon on trombone, Etienne Charles on trumpet and Adrian Cunningham on reeds. It was this ensemble that recorded Marie's latest album, "I Wanna Be Evil: With Love to Eartha Kitt."

If Marie is smokin', these are the fellas who lit the fire.

Baxter first encountered Marie in 2002 at the Savannah Jazz Festival. "She was the featured vocalist with the big band, and I sat in with the big band that year," he said, remembers the impressive arrangements by Doug Richards and the agile vocals of the singer, maneuvering in and out of all the horn lines.

"She sang with such ease on some of the most complicated charts I ever had to read in my life," Baxter said.

Since then, the two musicians have bonded. They share musical tastes (and iPods), as well as a certain interplay that's at once intuitive and interpretive.

"The way she delivers the lyrics is unlike any other vocalist," Baxter said. "She expects you to be part of the delivery. I love being involved with the music, and she requires that."

As friends, they talk about much more than just music.

"She's been through some things," Baxter said. "She's got a great head on her shoulders." And that experience informs the music. "Every song is personal."

"Some things" Marie's been through is a difficult marriage rooted in a fundamentalist religion that kept her trapped in a submissive role for 24 years, she said. She grew up as a child-witness to physical abuse and later became a victim herself. She broke free of her past only in her 40s, determined to make a career as a singer.

Etienne Charles said he's looking forward to the Spoleto Festival gig, as well as the one immediately preceding it at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

"Since the studio we haven't (all) been together," he said. "It's been brewing, so we're ready to play again."

Charles, who made the horn arrangements for the Eartha Kitt tunes recorded by Marie, said his collaborator brings everything to bear when she performs. There are the tunes, and there are the stories behind the tunes.

"It's fun to see how people react to the tunes and stories," he said. "No one else can do it like Rene."

Charles has sat in with Marie and her band numerous times in New York City, where the trumpet player lives. So he was ready to lend his talents to the studio project when it came time to pay tribute to Eartha Kitt, he said. The arrangements, too, were easy to write, because he was familiar with her vocal style and expression.

"I definitely see her as directly in the lineage of the greats," Charles said. "But she is also in a class by herself because of the depth and reality of her compositions. It's kind of like what Langston Hughes did with poetry, making sure people are reminded about the darker side of reality."

There's also a lot of love conveyed in Marie's songs, he added, as if she were a nurturing parent who freely dispensed both affection and exhortation.

"She always reminds you that there's some seriousness going on," Charles said. "To me, that's what sets her apart from so many vocalists on the scene."

Marie might not be quite the enigma that Eartha Kitt was (Kitt died on Christmas Day 2008), though she certainly has her own aura and energy. Still, there are similarities: strength, self-direction, fearless expressivity, sensuality.

Marie said she thinks about what Kitt endured, how she forged her path despite resistance, "the audience hanging onto every word, seemingly approving everything you do and say, who you are on stage - until it's time to go home."

Off-stage, Kitt was a black woman living in a segregated society for many of her professional years.

"A certain callousness develops, you have to pretend it doesn't bother you."

Today, it's different. Marie can croon and curse on stage, she can share her rage and concern, her love, her fear. She can sing songs that are true and real and vital. She can ask her audience to consider difficult issues and she can invite them to laugh and rejoice.

And she doesn't have to leave by the back door.