he Black Academy of Arts & Letters (TBAAL), the nation’s largest multi-discipline African-American cultural arts institution, is dusting off a classic for the digital generation. Back in 1987, vinyl LPs were on the way out and CDs were still a novelty. At that technological crossroad, TBAAL released a live recording of the legendary entertainer Eartha Kitt performing with The Black Academy Choir in celebration of the life and legacy of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. The album, My Way: Musical Tribute To Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was a strong seller and helped raise funds for the non-profit organization’s various arts and youth programs.
The roots of the project were born at Clara’s Kitchen, a once legendary soul food establishment in Dallas. TBAAL founder Curtis King had met Ms. Kitt when she was in concert at the city’s Venetian Room. “I told her that I admired her and she gave me her private contact information and we stayed in touch,” he recalls. “At some point I invited her to headline our annual King Day concert and she stayed over a couple of days to just relax. We were sitting in Clara’s Kitchen and she talked about her career and being blacklisted. She gave me a lot of business advice and both she and her daughter were very encouraging to me over the years.”
So, when the idea of a CD to raise funds for TBAAL arose, King instantly thought of Kitt who was only too happy to participate. However, she wasn’t the only shining star on the project. “We used several singers who are well known in the Dallas area,” King remembers. For instance, contralto John Archie Sanders, a now 80+-year-old former schoolteacher, led a gutsy, “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around.” King says, “The great choral director Eva Jessye always said John Archie Sanders was one of the greatest female singers that never got heard nationally.”
Sharon Ephran’s powerful vocals slice through the ballad, “Old Ship of Zion,” and Rev. Armond W. Brown, pastor of Fellowship Baptist Church of Oak Cliff, leads a jubilant “Look Where God Has Brought Us” and a tender take on “Old Rugged Cross.” Pat Kessee, whose biggest moment in the limelight was as a vocalist on the 1973 movie soundtrack “Book of Numbers,” turns in a bluesy rendition of the Caravans’ 1958 gem, “Mary, Don’t You Weep.” Sterlena Taylor, Barbara Sims and organist Jimmy Wyatt join forces for the harmonious ballad, “Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross.” Ms. Kitt purred and sang her way through four of the songs including, “America The Beautiful” and Dion’s `60s classic “Abraham, Martin and John.” She delivered a smoky rendition of Billie Holliday’s “God Bless the Child” and created a spirited, nearly seven-minute rendition of Frank Sinatra’s signature tune “My Way” as homage to Dr. King who also did it his way. “The drums still beat,” Ms. Kitt said in her spoken dialogue. “They beat for Martin. They beat for Mahatma. They must beat for you.” The legacy lives on. Visit www.tbaal.org for more information on the 501C3 organization.