I’m still here

A new league of over-60 female singers has no intention of ever giving up the stage

I’m still here

It’s 3 p.m. on a scorching June afternoon in New York’s Upper East Side, and 81-year-old singer Eartha Kitt hasn’t had lunch yet. Unlike most women her age, she’s spent the day in back-to-back business meetings, sorting out concert contracts and signing legal agreements for her recently released DVD, Eartha Kitt: Live at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival. With the help of her 47-year-old daughter/manager/driver, Kitt Shapiro, the pair manages to make it on time for a sound check for one of the 80-plus gigs she has booked for 2008. Tonight’s performance marks her return to the Café Carlyle—where Kitt has been seasonally showcasing her acclaimed one-woman show for nearly 10 years.

After finishing up with her band, squeezing in a wardrobe fitting, an hour of yoga and some phone time with her L.A.-based publicist, Kitt sits down for a light snack during her interview with Maclean’s—slotted a mere two hours before the night’s 6 p.m. showtime. Her to-do list—which still includes a makeup and hair sitting before curtain call—sounds manic for anyone, let alone a person in her ninth decade. Yet Kitt insists she is “taking it easier than ever.”

“I usually do double of what I am doing now. Last year I did two shows a night for 12 weeks. This year, it’s just one show a night for five weeks. In January, I’m doing two shows a night on Fridays and Saturdays until February. You see, if it were up to them, darrling,” she purrs while forking at a plate of fresh berries, “I’d be punching the clock as soon as I got up. That’s how much . . .” she pauses for drama, “the public still desiiiires me!”

It was one of the last in-person interviews Kitt ever gave. The tireless cabaret queen equally known as Catwoman (she played the famous feline villain on the Batman TV series in the ’60s) died of cancer on Dec. 25. But Kitt remains an inspiration for a league of female singers who are over 60 and taking to the stage as much as they did during their ingenue years, among them Dolly Parton (63), Gladys Knight (64), Buffy Sainte-Marie (67) and Roberta Flack (71). All of them have recently been packing venues without a No. 1 hit or a single tabloid headline—or a news-inducing farewell tour.

“People make fools of themselves when they go on a farewell tour,” says country veteran Dolly Parton via phone from her lake house in Tennessee. Wrapping up the last leg of the tour for her latest album, Backwoods Barbie, this past November, Parton is bemused by the fact that Tina Turner, 69, and Cher, 62, both announced their return to the stage in 2008, since each has already headlined farewell tours earlier this decade.

“I want to tell them: ‘Don’t be stupid!’ ” laughs Parton. “Don’t ever get off the road, ’cause you’re gonna get bored or you’re gonna need the money. Just tell people, ‘I’m gonna take off for a while,’ if you want. They’ve retired so many times it has become a joke!”

Turner’s current string of concert dates, which have her booked throughout Europe until April, have reportedly already made more than US$47 million in ticket sales alone in 2008. Also in no need of a bailout any time soon is Cher, who has signed a lucrative contract for 200 shows in Las Vegas, which requires her to perform for three years at Caesar’s Palace. Bette Midler, 63, has agreed to a similar arrangement, taking on a two-year run at Caesar’s until early 2010.

“Making records just isn’t enough anymore,” Parton says, referring to the illegal downloading endemic in the music industry. “People want to see singers sing—in the flesh—more than ever. There aren’t as many real singers as there used to be so we usually have a full house. My fans understand that what I give them is genuine and labour-intensive. Especially for someone who isn’t a spring chicken anymore.”

The demand is so high that Parton was pulling late nights and early mornings for seven months straight. “It’s fine by me that my workload has tripled over the past years,” she says, listing her accomplishments during her 60-city tour: a video for her latest single Shinola (from Backwoods Barbie), a Broadway musical called 9 to 5 and an in-the-works disc of dance music called Dance with Me, Darlin’ (slated for release later this year). “The only way I’ll end [touring] is if I got sick or my husband did, ’cause as you get up there in years, you have to pay attention to your body more,” she says, dismissing the three concert dates she postponed last February due to back problems. “I might have had a small delay here or there but honey, they’ll be peeling my body off the stage if and when heaven calls me.”

Kitt saw eye-to-eye with Parton’s extreme work ethic. “If someone would even suggest such a vulgar thing as a goodbye-themed event for me, I would pretend I didn’t hear it. Goodbye to what? My whole life?”

For Atlanta-based soul singer Gladys Knight, the hardest part of being on the road is deciding what material to perform. Knight’s Grammy-winning repertoire, which includes over 500 songs stemming from every era and genre of R & B, recorded with and without her band, the Pips, is a constant challenge. “I’ve been travelling since I was four years old and this is my 60th year in the entertainment business. I’m on the road an average of 30 to 48 weeks now so you do the math! That’s a lot of memories so believe me when I say this, you can’t please everyone in concert, even though I still want to,” she says, referring to the dozens of Top 40 hits she’s known for. “Someone always wants you to sing a song that isn’t necessarily on your set list so I’m heavy on the medleys these days.”

Having experienced the gravy days of the ’70s and ’80s—a time when bigwig gig bookers spared no expense for headlining acts such as hers—Knight says she received an education on how not to hit the road. “There was Cristal champagne in every dressing room, [designer] Bob Mackie gowns, ridiculous entourages of over 250 people and pyrotechnics. All the stuff that blew up a week’s paycheque!” she says in bewilderment. “Having seen all that, I carry the bare essentials on tour now. I don’t need so much fuss—my voice is at its prime so I can sing songs I only dreamed of singing when I was younger. When you get older, the spotlight is on the voice, not the glitz.”

However, Knight says, one thing never changes: “The sacrifice on your home life will always be there. It’s difficult to make sure you take care of family when you are doing so many shows. It’s like taking on two or three full-time jobs at once. Politicians like John McCain should have learned a thing or two from people like Tina Turner, Patti LaBelle and myself. We women have to multi-task and solve so many problems at once while being on tour. His credibility was on the line when he tried to back out of those debates. Ours always is too . . . every night we are on stage. Millions of people are trying to hear what you have to say—you can’t just excuse yourself one night. What you do or don’t do on the mike can easily turn into a backlash.”

Fellow soul singer Roberta Flack, 71, who is currently touring Australia and New Zealand until the end of February, says female singers have it worse than men when it comes to touring. “Women have to do twice the work of male rock singers such as the Rolling Stones. We have to sing, play instruments and get accustomed to walking out on stage in high heels. Never mind the pressures of your image,” she points out. “If something goes wrong on my stage in any way, from sound to style, nobody can blame a band member—it’s Roberta Flack who gets the rap and looks bad! I’m the one on the bill alone with no gang of boys or crew behind me.

“Yes, I’m older, wiser and more seasoned but I practise piano and sing daily,” she counters. “More than I ever did when I was younger. Audiences today know what the real deal is and it takes hours of preparation to make sure my Bach will not sound like my Beethoven and that I am on-key and look presentable. Crowds can smell a fake a mile away and they are much savvier and less forgiving when it comes to ladies.”

Saskatchewan-born singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie says she treats each concert as “a constant rehearsal.” Speaking by phone from her house in Hawaii, Sainte-Marie, 67, who is currently planning a tour to support her latest disc, Running For The Drum, says, “Touring helps strengthen my voice and it has given me a much cooler life than Madonna’s. I’ll play around 30 concerts a year at stadiums as well as on a lot of reserves and in a lot of rural areas, really beautiful places like Kamloops and Prince Rupert in British Columbia—mostly non-corporate environments.”

Sainte-Marie’s performance philosophy is something that Eartha Kitt also lived by. “My public fuels me,” Kitt told Maclean’s before heading off to her last appointment before curtain call, a session with her glam squad. “When I sing a song I’ve sung a billion times before—something like I’m Still Here—there is always a new and informed energy in it that wasn’t there the night before. That’s probably why I love—more than anyone else—when Oscar Wilde said, ‘I don’t have a life until I’m on stage.’ It really does sum up my life.”

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