Friday, October 2, 2009

A Voyeur's View Of Bette Davis Eyes

Back in the mid 70s, lyricist Donna Weiss co-wrote a song with 60s songstress Jackie DeShannon (‘What The World Needs Now Is Love’ and ‘Put A Little Love In Your Heart’). DeShannon recorded the song for her 1975 album, ‘New Arrangement’, and the track in its original form boasted a distinctly honky-tonk come folk-polka feel to it. The song in question was ‘Bette Davis Eyes’, and it could have remained virtually unknown, at least in its first incarnation. Weiss later revealed that the song title did indeed take inspiration, at least in part, from screen siren Bette Davis (in particular her Academy Award winning role in ‘Jezebel’), but apparently there was an additional inspiration behind the lyrics, which Weiss didn’t reveal. DeShannon and Weiss penned the music, and around 1980 DeShannon’s version found its way to producer George Tobin. Tobin suggested Kim Carnes record it for inclusion on her ‘Romance Dance’ album, but she turned it down flat. A year later, Carnes was working with a new producer (Val Garay) on her next album, when ‘Bette Davis Eyes’ surfaced once more (this time courtesy of Weiss). Keyboardist Bill Cuomo heard potential in the song, and went to work rearranging and restyling ‘Bette Davis Eyes’ for a contemporary pop-rock audience. Cuomo blanketed the song’s basic structure in an atmospheric coating of cutting-edge synth riffs, and both Garay and Carnes knew instinctively they had a major hit on their hands (Weiss too was reportedly pleased with the update). Kim Carnes’ soulful, husky vocals just added to the haunting mystique of ‘Bette Davis Eyes’ (it was the era of husky vocalists after all - think Bonnie Tyler, Tina Turner, Stevie Nicks), and indeed emulated in part Jackie DeShannon’s own throaty vocal style. The suitably stylish promo video was directed by Russell Mulcahy (Duran Duran, Elton John, Supertramp).

‘Bette Davis Eyes’ first gazed upon the U.S. Hot 100 during March of ‘81, and seven weeks later had ascended to the summit. For five weeks it looked down on the opposition until one week in June a bunch of anonymous session musicians became Stars On 45. But the following week Carnes reclaimed top spot, and ‘Better Davis Eyes’ didn’t blink for another four weeks. I should have said held its breath until Air Supply arrived with ‘The One That You Love’, but you can take your pick (interestingly Kim Carnes kept Smokey Robinson’s single ‘Being With You’ from reaching top spot during her reign at #1). Now in 1981 it was quite unusual for a song to sit at the top of both the U.S. and Australian charts at the same time, due mostly to the disparity in release dates between the two countries. But such was the longevity of ‘Bette Davis Eyes’ atop the U.S. charts, that its five week stint at the top of the Australian charts coincided with the song’s resurgence on the U.S. Hot 100. Not surprisingly the U.K. only offered up #10 to ‘Bette Davis Eyes’ - there was actually only one song that achieved the status of a trans-Atlantic #1 during 1981 - ‘The Tide Is High’ by Blondie (which actually hit #1 in the U.K. in late ‘80). ‘Bette Davis Eyes’ went on to become the second biggest selling single in the U.S. for the 1980s, behind Olivia Newton-John’s 1981 smash ‘Physical’, and ranks to this day inside the top 25 biggest selling U.S. #1’s of all time. When the song took out the Grammy Awards for ‘Single of the Year’ and ‘Record of the Year’, actress Bette Davis sent roses to Carnes, and to song writers DeShannon and Weiss. Davis had also written to each thanking them for making her name part of modern popular culture.

Like the song’s namesake, ‘Bette Davis Eyes’ would prove a tough act to follow for Kim Carnes. Whatever the choice for a follow up single, it was all but assured of being obscured by the shadow of its predecessor. The new-wavish ‘Draw Of The Cards’ (US#28/UK#49/OZ#64) failed to draw much attention (the keyboard riff reminds me of Toto’s ‘Africa’), relatively speaking, whilst the late night feel of the third single, ‘Mistaken Identity’ (US#60), remained anonymous. Though the follow up 45s didn’t adorn many juke boxes, Carnes’ album ‘Mistaken Identity’ did establish a very identifiable presence atop the U.S. charts (OZ#2/UK#26), thanks in the main to ‘Bette Davis Eyes’. A second Weiss/DeShannon song was covered on the set, ‘Hit And Run’, and Carnes delivers a faultless rendition of Frankie Miller’s ‘When I’m Away From You’, but the album’s melting pot structure didn’t congeal into main course that could match its stand out entree.

If there is a downside to scoring a monster hit single and album, it would have to be the dreaded follow-up syndrome. When the challenge ‘beat that’ is posed, rarely is the challenge met, at least in respect of record sales. In August of ‘82, Kim Carnes released the lead single (and title track) from her new album, ‘Voyeur’ (OZ#21/US#49). The song was an accurate trailer for the feature length album to follow (produced by Val Garay). ‘Voyeur’ was laced from start to finish with sleek, atmospheric synthesizers, and a killer chorus hook. I first fell in love with the song via its inclusion on the 1982 compilation album ‘Up In Lights’, but though worthy of getting a good look at the top 10, ‘Voyeur’ only managed to sneak a peak inside the top thirty (US#29/OZ#30/UK#68). The follow up single ‘Does It Make You Remember’ (US#36) was classically formulaic 80s A.O.R., and would have sat comfortably in the songbooks of REO Speedwagon, Heart, or any number of high profile North American acts, as would the album track ‘Merc Man’. It’s not that the album or singles sold poorly as such, but the ‘beat that’ challenge had gotten the better of Kim Carnes for now. Though, the track ‘Voyeur’ did earn her another Grammy nomination, for ‘Best Pop Female’.

1983 kicked off in a flash for Carnes, as she contributed the song ‘I’ll Be Here Where The Heart Is’, which was included on the #1 soundtrack album ‘Flashdance’. The track was also fitted into the track listing for Carnes’ next solo album, 1983’s ‘Café Racers’ (US#97). The Keith Olsen produced set seemed formulated to regain some of the perceived loss in commercial ground suffered by ‘Voyeur’. I’m not sure if the cover art aided in this though, featuring Ms. Carnes seductively draped across some kind of moped. But the package therein was an unashamed attempt to marry cutting edge new wave with adult contemporary fare. To that end, Carnes invited an eclectic playing roster of support musicians to contribute, including John Waite (see future posts), and several members of Toto (maybe they liked what they heard with ‘Draw Of The Cards’). The lead out single, ‘Invisible Hands’ (US#40), crammed bombastic drums, numerous synth riffs, vocal chants, and all manner of archetypal 80s style instruments into an appealing slice of commercial pop-rock, and more of the same formula was served up on the follow up single ‘You Make My Heart Beat Faster (And That’s All That Matters)’ (US#54) in early ‘84. There was nothing wrong with either track, but then again they were patently formulaic, and it may have been a case of trying too hard to win commercial appeal. It wasn’t all bad news though, as ‘Invisible Hands’ did garner Carnes another Grammy nomination (Best Female Pop Rock Performance), and the album’s third single, the more mellow ‘I Pretend’ (US#74), returned Carnes to the top 10 on the Adult Contemporary charts (#9).

The period from late ‘84 into early ‘85 proved a productive one for Kim Carnes. Old friend Kenny Rogers invited her to sing on the title track for his new album, ‘What About Me?’. The track was actually set up to be a trio, with two male and one female vocalist. Kenny originally wanted to perform it with Lionel Richie and Barbra Streisand (I guess the A-list popular music names at the time), but when they both bailed, Olivia Newton-John and Jeffrey Osborne were approached. Scheduling conflicts for both left old Kenny in a bind, so he made a call to Kim Carnes, whilst James Ingram eventually substituted for Osborne. It mattered not in the end, as they were all fine vocalists, and ‘What About Me?’ delivered the trio a US#15 hit in late ‘84 (#1 Adult Contemporary). As ‘What About Me?’ was on its chart descent, Kim Carnes entered the U.S. Hot 100 not once but twice more over December ‘84/January ‘85. ‘Make No Mistake, He’s Mine’ (written by Carnes) was a much heralded duet with Barbra Streisand (lifted from Streisand’s ‘Emotion’ album), the very lady Carnes had sequentially replaced on ‘What About Me?’. ‘Make No Mistake, He’s Mine’ didn’t quite live up to the customary hype associated with Streisand’s music at that time, and sputtered out at US#51. In a case of swings and roundabouts Kenny Rogers later recorded his own version of the song. Carnes also scored a solo entry into the charts at the same time with the single, ‘Invitation To Dance’, featured on the soundtrack to the film ‘That’s Dancing!’, which accepted an invitation to US#68. During January of 1985, Kim Carnes became the first artist in history to chart simultaneously inside the U.S. Hot 100, as part of a trio, a duet, and as a solo performer. Had the superstar U.S.A. For Africa project been organised a little earlier, Carnes would have added a fourth category to that record, as she contributed vocals to the US#1 hit ‘We Are The World’ just two months later (she sang the line “when we stand together as one”, alongside fellow gruffle throat Huey Lewis and a rather boisterous Cyndi Lauper).

Following the relative disappointments of ‘Voyeur’ and ‘Café Racers’, Kim Carnes assumed the responsibility of co-producing her next set, alongside long time keyboardist and creative collaborator Bill Cuomo. Carnes handled principle song writing duties, in partnership with Cuomo, Ellingson, and another regular colleague Duane Hithchings. Carnes penned the album’s opening track, and lead out single, ‘Crazy In The Night (Barking At Airplanes)’. The track’s quirky opening salvo, invites the listener playfully into a sumptuous elixir of melodic synth-rock. ‘Crazy In The Night’ found sanity at #15 on the U.S. charts over the summer of ‘85, and a few months later performed creditably on the Australian charts (OZ#21). The source album took its title, at least the part in parentheses, from the hit single, but ‘Barking At Airplanes’ only delivered a moderate bite on the charts (US#48/OZ#40). As always, Kim Carnes attracted no shortage of playing talent, with the likes of Steve Miller Band drummer Gary Mallaber, virtuoso guitarist Ry Cooder, bassist Leland Sklar, the Motels’ Martha Davis, vocalist James Ingram, and Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham. The mix worked well, as ‘Barking At Airplanes’ was Carnes’ best received album since ‘Mistaken Identity’. Carnes herself acknowledged at the time that she was unlikely to ever duplicate the commercial success of her ‘Bette Davis Eyes’ era, but it was more about recording music of quality. The follow up single, ‘Abadabadango’ was a playful puree of slick melodic pop, and deserved better than the home it was afforded at #67 on the U.S. charts.

Carnes’ swansong album for EMI-America was released in May of ‘86, but ‘Light House’ proved less than a shining beacon on the charts (US#116). The lead out single, ‘Divided Hearts’, had more than a faint echo of ‘Bette Davis Eyes’ in parts, and the chorus wouldn’t sound out of place on a like-era Jackson Browne song, but regardless of its qualities, the track couldn’t recapture the magic for Carnes on the charts (US#79). The follow up single, ‘Dancin’ At The Lighthouse’, was an appetising dollop of southern rock tinged pop, but it seemed the dancing had stopped and the lights were out (maybe someone forgot to pay the power bill). In 1987, Carnes recorded the duet ‘My Heart Has A Mind Of Its Own’ with Jeffrey Osborne, featured on the soundtrack to the film ‘Spaceballs’ (I see your Schwartz is as big as mine).

Carnes’ departure from EMI-America (to MCA) also marked a departure from mainstream pop-rock, and a return to her earlier music roots of folk and country. Both strains influenced her 1988 album, ‘A View From The House’, which bypassed the mainstream pop charts altogether, and instead found a homestead at #39 on the U.S. country charts. Carnes did return to her pop glory days for some inspiration, in the form of lyricist Donna Weiss, who co-wrote four of the album’s ten tracks. Many of Carnes’ music ensemble were on board again, including stalwarts Bill Cuomo, Craig Kampf, and Leland Sklar. Guest players included Bruce Hornsby (home from the range), Lyle Lovett, and the mercurial Vince Gill. Despite the down home feel, the single ‘Crazy In Love’ (#13 Adult Contemporary) proved there was still some pop to be had on a Kim Carnes album. 1991’s ‘Checkin’ Out The Ghosts’ proved more of an apparition than a solid hit, though once more it was through no shortage of writing or playing talent. The album track ‘Gypsy Honeymoon’ (re-recorded) did at least provide the title for the 1993 Kim Carnes ‘best of’ compilation released on EMI.

Over the next decade, Kim Carnes pretty much vanished into ether as a recording artist, and instead moved to Nashville to focus on her talents as a songwriter. And they were talents worth focussing on, as Carnes became one of the most revered songsmiths on the country music scene, penning hits for country stars such as Deana Carter, Tim McGraw, and Tanya Tucker. In 1993, Carnes co-wrote (with Donna Weiss) the country #1 ‘The Heart Won’t Lie’. The song was originally intended as a duet between Reba McEntire and Kenny Rogers, but a woodfire oven broke at the chicken roasters, so Vince Gill was called into the breach.

More than a decade after her last studio album, Kim Carnes returned in 2004 (at age 59), to release ‘Chasin’ Wild Trains’, a set that revealed, as both writer and recording artist, that Carnes had lost none of her playful spirit and sense of adventure, whilst remaining firmly grounded in the music she knows and loves.

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