The Number Ones

The Number Ones: Kim Carnes’ “Bette Davis Eyes”

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

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Kim Carnes – “Bette Davis Eyes”

HIT #1: May 16, 1981

STAYED AT #1: 9 weeks

Strange things happened to pop music in the ’80s. The order shifted, and people had to keep up. ’60s-vintage rock stars had to contend with new sounds and images. They teased up their hair. They made videos for MTV. They piled shimmery synths all over their records. And yet they still sounded like themselves. They still sounded like the singers who’d grown up fetishizing crackly, warped old folk and blues records. And so these ’80s songs — many of which became tremendous hits — seem to belong to some kind of dreamlike in-between world. Voices rasp and groan and growl over drum-machine pulses and soft, bleary keyboard tones. It’s weird. Sometimes, the weirdness works. “Bette Davis Eyes” is one of those times.

Kim Carnes was not a ’60s-vintage rock star, but she may as well have been. She belongs to that tradition. With her raw cigarettes-for-breakfast gargle-howl, Carnes is unmistakably a product of the ’60s, a blues-rocker to her bone marrow. (Apparently, lots of people thought “Bette Davis Eyes” was a Rod Stewart song when they first heard it. This is fun to think about.) Carnes was 35 when she scored her one massive hit. She sounded older.

Carnes had been around for years before “Bette Davis Eyes,” doing the sort of peripheral music-business jobs that seldom lead to actual stardom. Carnes grew up in Los Angeles and, in the mid-’60s, did a couple of short stints in the New Christy Minstrels, the LA folk institution that also produced previous Number Ones artists like Kenny Rogers, Barry McGuire, and the Byrds’ Gene Clark. In the late ’60s, she and her husband Dave Ellingson, another former New Christy Minstrel, started writing songs together. Carnes sang “Nobody Knows,” the end-credits theme from the great 1971 car-chase movie Vanishing Point. She co-created a not-that-successful bubblegum group called the Sugar Bears. She wrote songs for David Cassidy and sang backup on his records. She was around.

Carnes had her first real success in 1980, when she and Ellingson wrote all the songs on Kenny Rogers’ Gideon, a concept album about a Texas cowboy looking back on his life. On that album, Rogers and Carnes sang the duet “Don’t Fall In Love With A Dreamer,” which became a huge hit, peaking at #4. (It’s a 5.) That same year, Carnes scored another hit with “More Love,” a cover of a 1967 song from Smokey Robinson’s Miracles. The original “More Love” had peaked at #23. Carnes’ version did better, making it up to #10. (It’s a 6.)

“Bette Davis Eyes” was a cover, too. Jackie DeShannon released the original version in 1974. DeShannon, like Carnes, was a music-business survivor — one who started out as teenage country and rockabilly prodigy in the ’50s before tasting chart success in the ’60s. (DeShannon’s highest-charting single, 1969’s “Put A Little Love In Your Heart,” peaked at #4. It’s a 9.) DeShannon had co-written “Bette Davis Eyes” with Donna Weiss, who’d had the idea for the song after watching the 1942 Bette Davis film New Voyager. DeShannon’s version of the song, a sort of big-band boogie-woogie blues thing, was not a hit.

“More Love” producer George Tobin brought “Bette Davis Eyes” to Carnes, who didn’t think it could become a hit. But producer Val Garay reworked the song with Carnes’ band. Carnes gives the credit to keyboardist Bill Cuomo, who came up with the gooey bit of synth magic that completely transformed the song.

The new version of “Bette Davis Eyes” is state-of-the-art ’80s synth-rock. You can’t tell what’s electronic and what’s not. The keyboards and guitars sound just like each other. The handclaps are perfectly-placed drum-machine hits. The whole thing has a nervously insistent pulse to it, but it’s also got the dramatic sweep of so many ’80s-movie prom ballads. “Bette Davis Eyes,” as recorded by Carnes, has that sterile and hermetically sealed studio gloss all over it, and that sheen works as a great counterpoint to Carnes’ scraggle-growl vocals. In just about every other situation, the rawness of that voice would work against the extremely cooked backdrop. But on “Bette Davis Eyes,” Carnes and those gleaming bleeps find the same wistful tone, and they make perfect sense together.

On paper, “Bette Davis Eyes” is a warning. Carnes sings about a maneater, a woman who will happily manipulate and destroy anyone she meets. The song uses classic-film vocabulary to let you know who you’re dealing with here: Bette Davis eyes, Harlow-gold hair, Greta Garbo stand-off sighs. The writing is precise and elegant, but it’s mean, too. The girl in the song is “pure as New York snow,” which is not exactly a compliment. (I miss many things about living in New York. Gray, crusty, soot-strewn snow is not one of them.)

But “Bette Davis Eyes” plays more as a love song than an indictment. Carnes sings about this girl with warmth and fondness. She admires her. Maybe there’s some envy in there, too. The woman in the song doesn’t seem like a threat. She seems impossibly sexy and glamorous and unflappable. None of “Bette Davis Eyes” is in first person. It’s like Carnes is more interested in this other woman than she is in herself. She sounds like she wants to be this woman. Listening to the song, I kind of want to be her, too. Being the girl with Bette Davis eyes sounds cool as hell.

Bette Davis thought so. Davis was 73 when “Bette Davis Eyes” hit #1, and she wrote to Carnes, DeShannon, and Weiss to thank them for the song. They’d brought her into the present. Her grandchildren suddenly thought she was cool. When “Bette Davis Eyes” won the Grammy for Song Of The Year and Record Of The Year, Bette Davis sent flowers to everyone involved. Davis and Carnes even became friendly; Carnes visited Davis at her house a few times before Davis died in 1989.

“Bette Davis Eyes” became Billboard’s #1 single of 1981. The song’s success predated MTV; the network actually debuted a week after “Bette Davis Eyes” finally fell out of the #1 spot for the second time. And yet “Bette Davis Eyes” stands as an exemplar of the early-MTV era. The song’s video comes from the future Highlander/The Shadow director Russell Mulcahy, one of the truly important figures in those early MTV years. The clip has all of Mulcahy’s visual trademarks: The billowing black curtains, the dramatic shadows, the dancers doing weird interpretive mime stuff. It’s got its own kind of film glamor working for it.

Carnes never returned to the top 10 after “Bette Davis Eyes,” and she never seemed especially upset about that. (Carnes will only return to this column when she sings in the “We Are The World” chorus.) In the mid-’90s, Carnes moved to Nashville, where she and her husband became full-time country-music songwriters. That seems like a pretty good life.

GRADE: 8/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s Gwyneth Paltrow doing dramatic “Bette Davis Eyes” karaoke in the 2000 film Duets:

(Gwyneth Paltrow has never had a top-10 hit in the US, though her “Bette Davis Eyes” cover actually got to #3 in Australia. Her highest-charting single in the US, 2010’s “Country Strong,” peaked at #81. Huey Lewis will eventually appear in this column.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the producer Mylo interpolating the “Bette Davis Eyes” synth melody on his 2004 track “In My Arms”:

(Boy Meets Girl’s “Waiting For A Star To Fall,” the other song sampled on “In My Arms,” peaked at #5 in 1988. It’s a 7.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the audio of Taylor Swift covering “Bette Davis Eyes” at a 2011 show in Los Angeles:

(Taylor Swift will eventually appear in this column.)

THE NUMBER TWOS: Smokey Robinson liked Kim Carnes’ cover of his song “More Love” so much that he wrote a song specifically for her. Robinson’s people convinced him to release the song himself, and that song, “Being With You,” peaked at #2 behind “Bette Davis Eyes.” It’s an 8.