The other night I watched the wonderful classic 1942 film Now, Voyager, starring Bette Davis, Paul Henreid, and Claude Rains on Turner Classic Movies. Seeing Davis in scenes on the cruise ship, her famous eyes luminescent beneath the wide-brimmed white hat, made me think of the 1981 Kim Carnes hit song “Bette Davis Eyes”. It’s my favorite song of 1981, and ranks among my favorite songs of all time.
“Bette Davis Eyes” was written in 1974 by Donna Weiss and Jackie DeShannon, who’d had prior success with her hits “What the World Needs Now is Love” and “Put a Little Love in Your Heart”. With lyrics about a strong-willed, alluring and precocious woman with “Greta Garbo standoff sighs and Bette Davis eyes“, the song was originally recorded in 1974 by DeShannon for inclusion on her album New Arrangement. Her original recording has more of a country vibe, with twangy guitars and honky tonk piano, but it was Kim Carnes’ more synth-heavy 1981 version that made “Bette Davis Eyes” a massive worldwide hit. It spent nine weeks at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, and reached #1 in many countries, including Australia, Canada, France, Spain, Germany, Norway, Switzerland and South Africa. It was ranked the #1 song of 1981 on the Hot 100, and also won Grammy Awards for Song of the Year and Record of the Year.
Though she’d been writing and recording music for well over a decade, it wasn’t until 1980 that the raspy-voiced Carnes broke through with two top 10 hits – her duet with Kenny Rogers “Don’t Fall in Love With a Dreamer”, which she co-wrote with her husband Dave Ellingson, and a terrific cover of the Smokey Robinson song “More Love”. But it was her cover of “Bette Davis Eyes” that shot her to international fame and acclaim.
The song fell into her lap almost by accident during the search for material for her album Mistaken Identity, which she was recording with music producer/engineer Val Garay (who’d previously produced “More Love”). Garay later recalled that songwriter Donna Weiss had contacted him about a song she’d just written with Bruce Roberts that she wanted to play for him and Carnes. “So she came over and played us the song, and Kim and I kind of looked at each other and we thought, ‘Yeah, not bad.’ But it wasn’t what we were looking for. So she said, ‘Well, you know, I have this other song I gave to George Tobin and nothing ever came of it.’ And that was ‘Bette Davis Eyes.’ Kim had actually heard it before, and liked it. So she played the demo for me, and it was totally different than the record. It sounds like a Leon Russell track, with this beer-barrel polka piano part. But I loved the melody and I loved the lyrics.”
Garay had keyboardist Bill Cuomo come up with the signature synth riff, using a Sequential Circuits Prophet-5 synthesizer, which became a defining element of Carnes’ more sensual and rather mysterious version. The song was recorded in the studio on the first take. (Wikipedia, MIX webzine)
Bette Davis was 73 years old when Carnes’ version of “Bette Davis Eyes” became a hit, and was thrilled to have a song named after her and inspired by her legacy. She wrote letters to Carnes, Weiss, and DeShannon, telling them she loved the song and thanking them for making her “a part of modern times“, also adding that her grandson now looked up to her and told her she had “finally made it”. After their Grammy wins, Davis sent all three of them roses as well. In her 1987 memoir This ‘N’ That, Davis wrote “It was a thrill to become a part of the rock generation” as a result of the song. Carnes and Davis also struck up a special friendship, with Carnes visiting Davis at her home several times before her death in 1989.
Her hair is Harlow gold Her lips a sweet surprise Her hands are never cold She's got Bette Davis eyes She'll turn her music on you You won't have to think twice She's pure as New York snow She got Bette Davis eyes And she'll tease you, she'll unease you All the better just to please you She's precocious, and she knows just what it Takes to make a pro blush She got Greta Garbo's standoff sighs, she's got Bette Davis eyes She'll let you take her home It whets her appetite She'll lay you on a throne She got Bette Davis eyes She'll take a tumble on you Roll you like you were dice Until you come out blue She's got Bette Davis eyes She'll expose you, when she snows you Off your feet with the crumbs, she throws you She's ferocious and she knows just what it Takes to make a pro blush All the boys think she's a spy, she's got Bette Davis eyes She'll tease you, she'll unease you All the better just to please you She's precocious, and she knows just what it Takes to make a pro blush All the boys think she's a spy, she's got Bette Davis eyes She'll tease you She'll unease you Just to please you She's got Bette Davis eyes She'll expose you When she snows you 'Cause she knows you, she's got Bette Davis Eyes She'll tease you
The song’s official video, which shows Kim Carnes singing in front of her support band before an audience of oddly-costumed people doing bizarre dance moves and symbolically slapping one another in sync with the percussive synths, is deeply unsatisfying to me. I think it would have been far more effective to have Carnes sing the song against a visual backdrop of scenes of Bette Davis from some of her most iconic film roles, but my guess is that it would have been prohibitively expensive or a lengthy legal process, or both, to obtain the rights to be able to include such scenes.
Here’s a simple audio of the song, which has much better sound quality: