In 1981 Kim Carnes released the year’s hit single, “Bette Davis Eyes.” The provocative song about a femme fatale who “snows you off your feet with the crumbs that she throws you,” “Eyes” seemed the perfect vehicle for Carnes and her distinctively raspy voice, a voice once described by Karen Stabiner in Rolling Stone as having “a fault line running through it.” In a singing career of more than a decade “Eyes” was Carnes’s first runaway top seller, its rock beat and insouciant feel a departure from the soulful ballads she had favored in prior recordings—and in her successful songwriting partnership with husband Dave Ellingson. Calling “Bette Davis Eyes” “the most seductive pop single in years,” Newsweek’s Jim Miller wrote that “its lyric has an offbeat after-hours allure that is given shape and texture by Carnes’s husky voice—a hoarse shrug of pleasure.” Jay Cocks similarly observed in Time: “She does not try to camp it, or torch it. Carnes just glides through it, getting inside its slinky rhythm as if it were a cocktail dress cut on the bias…. She has, simply, a good solid way with a ballad…. Despite what she calls her ‘perpetual frog,’ she sings as if she has a gardenia behind her ear.” The Time writer added that, despite its rock leanings, “Eyes” shows “the kind of straight-on pop craftsmanship that distinguished some of [Carnes’s] previous albums, an unashamed hovering right above the middle of the road.”
The only child of a lawyer and a hospital administrator, Carnes grew up in San Marino, California—a conservative, affluent suburb of Los Angeles. Her enthusiasm for show business was not encouraged, save for the acceptable classical piano lessons; nonetheless, Carnes pursued her interest in pop and rock music, sang at school functions and with local bands, and tried her hand at songwriting. After high school she wrote and performed commercials and made demonstration records. A successful audition with the folk-oriented New Christy Minstrels had Carnes “singing about slavery with eight other kids with these big smiles pasted on our faces” for a year—an admitted embarrassment mitigated by her romance with fellow minstrel and future husband Ellingson. With Ellingson as her songwriting collaborator and personal adviser, Carnes embarked on a solo career, occasionally working as an opening act for touring performers, then obtaining a recording contract with Amos/Bell Records. Her first album, Rest on Me, quietly came and went in 1972, but its original Carnes-Ellingson numbers piqued the interest of other recording artists. While Carnes continued to struggle in her singing career (A&M released two more critically-approved, poorly-selling albums in 1975 and 1976), things were heating up for the songwriting duo—music executives were frequently engaged by the new compositions the singer introduced in her demos, often suggesting that big-name clients record them.
For the Record…
Born in 1948 in Los Angeles, Calif.; raised in San Marino, Calif.; daughter of an attorney and a hospital administrator; married Dave Ellingson (a singer and songwriter) in late 1960s; children: Collin. Education: Attended Pasadena City College.
Singer, songwriter, mid-1960s— vocalist with New Christy Minstrels, late-1960s; songwriter with husband Ellingson, late-1960s—; solo recording artist, 1972—. Writes and performs themes for commercials.
Awards: “Love Comes From Unexpected Places,” written with Ellingson, won American and Tokyo Song Festivals in 1977; Grammy Award for record of the year, 1981, for “Bette Davis Eyes”; co-recipient of Grammy for best album of an original score written for a motion picture, 1983, for Flashdance.
Addresses: Home —Sherman Oaks, Calif. Record company —CEMA/EMI, 1750 N. Vine St., Hollywood, Calif. 90028
In 1977 Barbra Streisand recorded the Cames-Ellingson ballad “Love Comes From Unexpected Places” (released a year earlier by Carnes) and the cut went platinum. Frank Sinatra recorded the duo’s “You Turned My World Around,” and other clients included Anne Murray and Rita Coolidge. The pair collaborated on Kenny Rogers’s top—selling 1978 album Gideon: Carnes and Rogers dueted in “Don’t Fall in Love With a Dreamer,” a cut that climbed to Number 5 on the country charts. With success begetting success, Carnes followed with a popular single of her own, a remake of Smokey Robinson’s 1967 hit “More Love” on her briskly-selling fifth album Romance Dance. With a mix of rhythm and blues, country tunes, rock and roll, and the soft ballads that dominated Carnes’s earlier recordings, the album showed a clear effort to broaden the singer’s appeal. Especially interested in capturing the album-oriented rock listener, Carnes concentrated more on rock and roll in subsequent recordings, with the platinum album Mistaken Identity and its Grammy-winning “Eyes” one happy result. Ironically, the song was co-written and recorded by pop singer Jackie DeShannon in 1975, and was a sleeper given new life by Carnes’s throaty delivery and Bill Cuomo’s hightech arrangement. Carnes explored hard rock in the album Voyeur, which appeared the following year.
Carnes continued to release charted singles throughout the 1980s, although none quite duplicated the success of “Bette Davis Eyes.” To some fans of the “old” Carnes, the singer—trading her tennis shoes and overalls for a sexy black jacket and recording less of her own compositions in favor of more commercial songs—seemed to be selling out, an assessment Carnes dismisses as misinformed and simplistic. “I want to keep a variety of styles because they all reflect different sides of me,” the singer explained to Time. “I’ve always loved rock ‘n’ roll. I’m not a manufactured product. I’ve made a point of changing.” After too many years with an idling performing career, Carnes is enjoying her late arrival thoroughly.
Rest on Me, Amos, 1970.
Kim Carnes, A&M, 1975.
Sailin’, A&M, 1976.
St. Vincent’s Court, EMI America, 1979.
Romance Dance, EMI America, 1980.
Mistaken Identity, EMI America, 1981.
Voyeur, EMI America, 1982.
The Best of Kim Carnes, A&M, 1982.
Cafe Racers, EMI America, 1983.
Barking at Airplanes, EMI America, 1985.
Lighthouse, EMI America, 1986.
View From the House, MCA, 1988.
Recorded single “She Dances With Meat” under pseudonym Connie Con Came, 1979.
Scored, with Ellingson and Jimmy Bowen, motion picture Vanishing Point; contributor to score of motion picture Flashdance.
Stambler, Irwin, The Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock and Soul, revised edition, St. Martin’s, 1989.
Newsweek, September 21, 1981.
Rolling Stone, September 18, 1980; July 9, 1981.
Stereo Review, December, 1988.
Time, July 27, 1981.
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