Her chart career was too substantial for one-hit wonder status (ten top-40 songs, including three in the top 10), but Kim Carnes will always be best remembered for one spectacular effort: “Bette Davis Eyes.”
Carnes, a vocalist from the Rod Stewart and Bonnie Tyler school of raspiness, is only partially responsible for the massive success of this record. Producer Val Garay gets credit for the insistent percussion and driving momentum the song rides. Critic Dave Marsh, naming the song one of the top 1,000 singles in rock history, offered these kudos: “Garay coupled a tinny syndrum with the racket from a regular drum kit and the most relentless maracas since Bo Diddley. You can still hear this record’s echoes in Madonna and her imitators.”
The song, a remake of a country version by writer Jackie DeShannon, dominated the spring of 1981, settling at number one for nine weeks. It could have been ten, but after five weeks it was interrupted by “Stars on 45,” only to re-claim the throne one week later.
Carnes is singing about an archetypical Bad Girl who uses and abuses her romantic conquests, under the influence of a famous actress’ screen persona. But as Marsh points out, the song is sketchy in its specifics.
“Its lyrics are all mystique and little detail, an evocation of one of the great movie icons that took the wise strategy of leaving its real meaning mysterious,” he wrote.
As modern sounding as any record of the early ’80s, “Bette Davis Eyes” remains an irresistible invitation to saucy fun with a spice of danger.