Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A Former New Minstrel Sails Into Pop

Within the mediums of creative expression, it’s not uncommon for cross pollination to occur between the various streams of artistic endeavour. Music has a way of permeating film, and vice versa - throw in literature, poetry, design, pasta sculptures, and a whole myriad of other channels of inspired articulation into the creative broth, and you have a limitless scope of ideas. Over the last fifty years of popular music history, many songs have been written about, or referred to, a famous celebrity or historical identity, either indirectly through lyrical reference, or directly in the song title itself. Gorillaz made their own day in 2001 with the hit ‘Clint Eastwood’, Bob Dylan scored a knock out with his 1975 tribute to boxer Rubin Carter, ‘Hurricane’, George Harrison reminisced about his fallen comrade John Lennon in 1981’s ‘All Those Years Ago’, Bananarama must have been talking Italian to me when they sang ‘Robert De Niro’s Waiting’ in 1984, U2 took a giant leap toward achieving their dream of being the biggest band in the world, with their 1984 smash ‘Pride (In The Name Of Love)’, a tribute to Martin Luther King, Weezer enjoyed some happy days with their 1995 rocker ‘Buddy Holly’, and Steve Porcaro pined after his then girlfriend, actress Rosanna Arquette, in Toto’s 1982 top five hit ‘Rosanna’. And speaking of actresses featuring in song titles, Kim Carnes scored the biggest hit of her career, and one of the biggest hits of the 1980s, with 1981’s ‘Bette Davis Eyes’.

When Kim Carnes’ eyes first opened on the world, the actress who would lend her name to Carnes’ biggest hit had already assumed the mantle of screen icon. By 1945, Bette Davis had appeared in more than 30 films, including Oscar winning performances in 1935’s ‘Dangerous’, and 1938’s ‘Jezebel’. To give some perspective on just how big a star Davis was, she ranked second only to Katherine Hepburn in the American Film Institute’s list of greatest American screen actresses of the 20th century. L.A. born Kim Carnes also had an interest in acting, but it would take a backseat to her talents as a singer and songwriter. She reputedly penned (or crayoned) her first song at age three, and throughout her school years developed her craft as a singer, writer, and pianist. Upon graduating from high school, Kim Carnes leapt into a career in the music business, and balanced performing at local L.A. clubs, with session work recording demos for song publishers. During the mid 60s, she was a regular performer at small L.A. club venues (mainly belting out ballads), and it was less a case of smoke getting in her eyes, but rather her vocal chords, that contributed to Carnes developing her distinctive raspy, throaty voice.

By 1967, Carnes had hooked up with veteran folk outfit The New Christy Minstrels, whose line-up at the time also featured David Ellingson (Carnes’ future song writing partner and husband), and a young Kenny Rogers. But life as a wandering minstrel wasn’t for Kim, and she left to form a new folk duo with Ellingson, called surprisingly enough, Kim & Dave (I would have thought Carnes and Ellingson would have been catchier). The club work continued, but the couple’s primary source of income during the latter part of the 60s was via their song writing partnership (including penning and performing music for commercials). In 1967, Carnes also made her silver screen debut in the folk-themed musical, ‘C’mon, Let’s Live A Little’ (alongside songstress Jackie DeShannon), and penned the song ‘Sing Out For Jesus’, performed by R&B legend Big Mama Thornton in the riotous road movie ‘Vanishing Point’ (1971). The film’s soundtrack had been released on the Amos Records label (owned by Jimmy Bowen - co-writer of the 1957 US#1 ‘Party Doll’), and also featured Kim & Dave’s rendition of their song, ‘Nobody Knows’, which led to Carnes signing with Amos as a recording artist in her own right. In 1971, she released her debut album, ‘Rest On Me’, which did a lot of resting but not much else. For a born songwriter like Carnes, the album (produced by Bowen) also proved frustrating as it only featured two of her own songs.

Soon thereafter, Carnes left Amos and signed on the dotted line with A&M Records. By 1975, her self-titled album surfaced, with more than half the tracks penned by Carnes herself, and in partnership with Ellingson. Produced by Mentor Williams, the album boasted a distinctly middle of the road, country tinged flavour, and yielded Carnes’ first flirtation with the charts, via the single ‘You’re A Part Of Me’ (US#32 Adult Contemporary) - the album also featured the likes of David Foster (piano), Jim Keltner (drums), and Leland Sklar (bass) on its playing roster. Legendary producer Jerry Wexler (Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Wilson Pickett, Bob Dylan), co-helmed Carnes’ third album, 1976’s ‘Sailin’, recorded in part at Wexler’s Muscle Shoals studio facility, and boasting the famed Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. Again the album was roughly a fifty/fifty split between original and cover material, with the ballad ‘Love Comes From Unexpected Places’ winning the ‘Best Song’ gong at the 1977 American Song Festival. The song attracted the notice of ‘Babs’ aka Barbra Streisand, who recorded it for her 1977 album ‘Streisand Superman’. The Carnes/Ellingson song writing duo was soon cropping up on the track listings for artists such as Anne Murray, Rita Coolidge, and Frank Sinatra.

In mid 1978, Kim Carnes made her first foray into the U.S. Hot 100 with a song that she had recorded two years earlier. You’re A Part Of Me’ had been re-recorded by Gene Cotton (who had a dart at chart success in the late 70s) as a duet with Carnes. Released on Cotton’s home label Ariola, ‘You’re A Part Of Me’ peaked at US#36. Around the same time, Jim Mazza signed Kim Carnes as the first artist to the newly established EMI-America label (a subsidiary of Capitol/EMI). Carnes also had the honour of being the first artist to chart for the new label, with her early 1979 single, the country hued ‘It Hurts So Bad’ (US#56), lifted from the album ‘St. Vincent’s Court’. All but one of the album’s tracks had been penned by Carnes (with Ellingson), and Carnes also co-produced the set, which moved a tad toward more pop-rock oriented territory. The album also boasted a strong contribution from keyboardist Bill Cuomo, who would play a key role in Carnes’ biggest hit.

The dawn of a new decade would prove positive for Kim Carnes, and 1980 was kickstarted by a reunion with an old ‘minstrel’ from the 60s. Former New Christy Minstrels’ bandmate Kenny Rogers, decided to record an entire album of Carnes/Ellingson compositions, titled ‘Gideon’. It was an enormous vote of confidence that an artist of Rogers’ stature was willing to take a gamble on a, still, relatively unknown song writing partnership - but then Kenny always was the ‘gambler’. Rogers asked Carnes to duet with him on the beautiful ballad ‘Don’t Fall In Love With A Dreamer’, and the combination proved a winning hand on the charts (US#4/OZ#38). As ‘Don’t Fall In Love With A Dreamer’ was sitting pretty in the top ten, Carnes released her own new album, ‘Romance Dance’. The success of her duet with Rogers no doubt played a role in boosting exposure, and airplay, for her next single, ‘More Love’, a radio friendly rendition of the classic 1967 US#23 hit for Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. Carnes version (which boasted Darlene Love on backing vocals, not to mention a striking synth-intro) climbed to a high of US#10 (OZ#46) during mid 1980, and helped to push its source album ‘Romance Dance’ into the charts (US#57/OZ#89). The follow up single, ‘Cry Like A Baby’ (US#44), rounded out an impressive start to the decade for Kim Carnes, but a case of mistaken identity would soon propel her to a new echelon of eminence.

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