The Pop History Dig

“Bette Davis Eyes”
1981

Bette Davis captured by photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt for Life magazine, January 23, 1939.
Bette Davis captured by photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt for Life magazine, January 23, 1939.
      In May and June of 1981, the most popular song around was a tune about a Hollywood actress — or more precisely, about her eyes. “She’s got Bette Davis eyes” was the refrain made famous by the top-selling song of 1981, appropriately titled, “Bette Davis Eyes.”  The song was performed by singer Kim Carnes, and was originally written in the mid-1970s by singer-songwriter Jackie DeShannon and Donna Weiss.  DeShannon had also recorded a version of the song on her New Arrangement album of 1975.  But it was the Kim Carnes version of the song in 1981 that became the big hit.

     “Bette Davis Eyes,” in fact, became the third best-selling song of the entire 1980s decade, ranking only behind “Physical” by Olivia Newton John and “Endless Love” by Diana Ross and Lionel Richie.  In 1981, it also won Grammy Awards for Song of the Year and Record of the year. Released on the EMI America label as a single in the spring of 1981, the song spent a total of nine weeks at #1 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart during May, June and July.  It remained in the Top 40 for about 20 weeks.  The Kim Carnes album containing the song — Mistaken Identity — also hit #1 and sold over eight million copies.

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“Bette Davis Eyes”

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Song History

     Jackie DeShannon has stated that she was moved to write “Bette Davis Eyes” in 1974 after seeing the classic 1942 film Now Voyager, and one scene in particular, in which actor Paul Henreid, smitten by Bette Davis, is falling over himself lighting cigarettes for her.  In the lyrics for the song by DeShannon and writing partner Donna Weiss, an intriguing, teasing woman is presented (see lyrics below).  Bette Davis, of course, was a Hollywood legend.  She had appeared in more than 100 films.  She was known in part, for her large, expressive eyes, her engaging repartee, and for her sometimes sassy film roles.  More about Davis in a moment.  First, the song.

DVD cover for 1942 film, 'Now, Voyager.'
DVD cover for 1942 film, 'Now, Voyager.'
      In 1980, Kim Carnes was a 34-year-old singer and songwriter who had experience in both Hollywood and the music business.  She had begun her career at the age of 18 in Los Angeles, singing commercial jingles and doing nightclub work.  In the 1960s she joined the New Christy Minstrels folk troupe where she met Kenny Rogers and Dave Ellingson, later marrying Ellingson with whom she did some joint singing and songwriting.  She also produced some solo albums in the 1970s and had a minor hit or two. Her songwriting, however, was more successful —  with Frank Sinatra, David Cassidy, and Kenny Rogers, among others.  A duet she sang with Kenny Rogers, “Don’t Fall In Love With a Dreamer” in early 1980, became a Top 5 hit, and also had a related album, Gideon.  About that time, Carnes was recording another album for EMI called Romance Dance and worked with producer/engineer Val Garay.  The album charted and included Carnes’ first solo Top 10 hit, a version of Smokey Robinson’s “More Love.”  Carnes and Garay then began work on a new album.

Cover for single of 'Bette Davis Eyes' by Kim Carnes released in 1981 by EMI Records America.
Cover for single of 'Bette Davis Eyes' by Kim Carnes released in 1981 by EMI Records America.
      During their search for material, songwriter Donna Weiss brought some of her songs over to the studio where Carnes and Garay were working. One was a demo for a newer version of the 1974 “Bette Davis Eyes” song. Karnes and Garay both liked the melody and the lyrics, but the total package wasn’t quite there yet. However, one of their band members — keyboardist Bill Cuomo — gave the tune a more contemporary arrangement, along with a half dozen other musicians backing up Carnes. As Carnes would later explain to Dick Clark: “It’s Bill Cuomo, my synthesizer player, who really came up with the new feel, changing the chords. The minute he came up with that, it fell into place.” Garay recalls that ‘Bette Davis Eyes’ was recorded live in a North Hollywood studio.” I think we did three takes and the one we used was take one,” he said. Carnes has also written about recording the song: “I heard this song about a year before I finally cut it. My band, Val Garay and I rehearsed it for three days before coming up with the right feel. It was a completely collaborative effort between all of us. The next day we cut this track ‘live’ with no over-dubs and got it on the second take…” The song quickly became a major hit, along with the album. In addition to Carnes’ Grammy award for the song, Garay was also nominated for Producer of the Year, but lost to Quincy Jones.

“Bette Davis Eyes”
1981

 

Her hair is Harlow gold
Her lips 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 stand off sighs
She’s got Bette Davis eyes

She’ll let you take her home
It whets her appetite
She’ll lay you on her 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

And she’ll tease you
She’ll unease you
All the better just to please ya
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 ya
She’s got Bette Davis eyes
She’ll expose you, when she snows you
She knows ya
She’s got Bette Davis eyes


First Lady of Film

     Bette Davis, meanwhile, was still very much alive when “Bette Davis Eyes” became a hit song in 1981. In fact, she was then still actively performing, appearing in TV and Hollywood films, and would continue doing so through 1989. Davis began her film career in 1930 after a stint on Broadway. Born in Lowell, Massachusetts in April 1908, Davis had studied acting at the John Murray Anderson’s Dramatic School in New York where one of her classmates was Lucille Ball. In Hollywood, she was sometimes called “The First Lady of Film.”

     During her career, Bette Davis appeared in more than 100 films. She gave notable performances in films such as Dangerous (1935) and Jezebel (1938), each of which earned her Oscars. In fact, she was nominated for an Academy Award five years in a row — 1938, 1939, 1940, 1941 and 1942.  Another memorable performance by Davis came in All About Eve (1950) as the character Margo Channing.

Davis, right, in 'All About Eve' with Anne Baxter.
Davis, right, in 'All About Eve' with Anne Baxter.

     “In her heyday, as the reigning female star at Warner Brothers,” wrote Terrence Rafferty of The New York Times in 2008, “she was as electrifying as Marlon Brando in the ’50s: volatile, sexy, challenging, fearlessly inventive.  She looked moviegoers straight in the eye and dared them to look away.”

     In Hollywood, Bette Davis also became the first woman to be president of the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences, elected to that post in 1941. In 2008, on the 100th anniversary of Bette Davis’ birth, the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp in her honor, the 14th in the Postal Service’s “Legends of Hollywood” series.


Madonna, Too

 

     In addition to being the primary subject of Kim Carnes’ “Bette Davis Eyes,” the famous actress was also mentioned by name in Madonna’s #1 hit song of 1990, “Vogue”, which was Madonna’s tribute to the Golden Age of Hollywood. But Bette Davis herself reportedly liked Kim Carnes’ song and wrote to Carnes to tell her so.  In liner notes from Carnes’ Gypsy Honeymoon album she writes about Bette Davis’s reaction to the song:

 “…After the release of the record, Miss Davis sent me a note explaining how much she loved the song and that she was especially thrilled because her young grandson now considered her to be very contemporary. I developed a warm and special friendship with Miss Davis that lasted through the years. Shortly before her death, I sang the song live for her at a tribute held in her honor.”

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Featured at right, Bette Davis in various
films & still shots, 1930s & 1940s.
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New Life for “Eyes”

     Over the years, meanwhile, the Kim Carnes version of the “Bette Davis Eyes” song has held up reasonably well.  Through the 1990s and beyond, the song was still being discovered by new listeners and recorded in new forms.  A CD version appeared in 1996.   In late August 1997, EMI UK and EMI Music Group Australia released a dance version.  And by 1998, “Bette Davis Eyes” still had enough appeal that Cleopatra Records released the song as a down-loadable MP3, selling on Amazon and other outlets.  In late 2003, another dance version was released with several different mixes. 

The visual image used for a 1998 MP3 version of 'Bette Davis Eyes' by Kim Carnes for Cleopatra Records.
The visual image used for a 1998 MP3 version of 'Bette Davis Eyes' by Kim Carnes for Cleopatra Records.
The cable TV channel VH-1 has also aired “Bette Davis Eyes” videos in programs such as “The Best Videos of the ’80s” and its “Pop-Up Videos” series.  And last but not least, You Tubers have also produced some interesting video versions of “Bette Davis Eyes.”  One enterprising video maker at You Tube has put together a nicely-done collage of Bette Davis stills that flash in sync with the Kim Carnes song — images that pretty much cover the film career of the famed movie star.

     With the help of music it seems, the legacy of Bette Davis has been given some additional exposure and added luster, and will no doubt help to send those just discovering her to inquire further about her life, or into the many books that have been written about her.

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Date Posted:  27 June 2008
Last Update:  16 August 2010
Contact: jdoyle@pophistorydig.com

Article Citation:
Jack Doyle, “Bette Davis Eyes, 1981,”
PopHistoryDig.com, June 27, 2008.

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Sources, Links & Additional Information

1996 CD of Kim Carnes song, 'Bette Davis Eyes'.
1996 CD of Kim Carnes song, 'Bette Davis Eyes'.

2001 Dutch dance mix CD of Kim Carnes song, "Bette Davis Eyes."
2001 Dutch dance mix CD of Kim Carnes song, "Bette Davis Eyes."

Blair Jackson, “Kim Carnes’ Bette Davis Eyes,” Mix Online Extras, September, 1, 2003, MixOnline.com.

Bette Davis, official web site, BetteDavis.com

Fred Bronson, “The Top Songs of 1981″ and “The Top 100 Songs of The Eighties,” Billboard’s Hottest Hot 100 Hits, 4th Edition, New York: Billboard Books, pp. 405-406 and p. 490.

Kim Carnes, album liner notes, Gypsy Honeymoon: The Best of Kim Carnes (1993).

“Kim Carnes’s Greatest Hit of All,” Members.AOL.com.

DivasTheSite.com, Bette Davis background and listing of Bette Davis books & DVDs. Site visited in 2008.

Terrence Rafferty, “The Bold and the Bad and the Bumpy Nights,” New York Times, March 30, 2008.

Kim Carnes” and “Bette Davis,” Wikipedia.org.

You Tube collage of Bette Davis stills set to the Joe Cocker tune, “You Are So Beautiful.”

A detailed account of Bette Davis’ reaction to Kim Carnes and the song “Bette Davis Eyes” can be found in Whitney Stine’s biography of Davis, I’d Love to Kiss You…Conversations with Bette Davis, Simon & Schuster, 1990.

Randolph E. Schmid, “Bette Davis Featured on New 2008 Stamps,” Associated Press, December 27, 2007.

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