Kim Carnes is an American country and rock singer known for her raspy, throaty singing style, as well as for her global hit “Bette Davis Eyes” (1981). Formerly of the band the New Christy Minstrels, she continued writing and performing songs with her longtime husband Dave Ellington as Kim & Dave. Kim & Dave’s success in supplying the soundtrack for the film Vanishing Point got Kim a solo recording deal with Amos. But after her first album flopped, she moved out of Amos and signed to A&M Records in the early 1970s. She yielded her first charting single with “You’re A Part of Me” in 1976. Carnes received her first break in 1980 when her duet with Kenny Rogers, “Don’t Fall in Love with a Dreamer,” became a big hit. She moved to EMI’s American arm later on, and eventually notched her first Top 10 position with the song “More Love,” a cover of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. She then achieved the greatest success of her career with “Bette Davis Eyes,” which topped the Billboard Hot and stayed there for nine weeks. It turned to be the biggest hit of 1981, and won Carnes a Grammy for “Song of the Year.”
Carnes later found it difficult to follow up her phenomenal hit, with subsequent releases flopping of becoming only minor hits. Her last Top 20 hit was 1985’s “Crazy in the Night.” Carnes returned to her country roots and shifted her focus more to songwriting, although she has continued her singing. In 2012, a label named Culture Factory, re-issued Carnes’ albums Mistaken Identity, Voyeur and Cafe Racers, and plans to release her other albums Light House and Barking at Airplanes this 2013 (as of this writing).
Early life and career
Kim Carnes was born in Hollywood, Los Angeles, California on July 20, 1945. Carnes started to pursue her singing career during the 1960s by playing in local clubs around LA as well as performing as a session singer. She also honed her craft songwriting, penning songs for other artists.
In 1966, Carnes became a member of The New Christy Minstrels, whose members also included Kenny Rogers and Karen Black. In 1967, she also took part in the David Butler-directed film C’mon, Let’s Live a Little, a folk musical with political themes.
As a songwriter, she earned her first publishing deal in 1969 with producer Jimmy Bowen, whose other wards also included composers such as The Eagles’ Don Henley and Glenn Frey.
On the road to becoming solo
Carnes had left The New Christy Minstrels to form her own act together with her husband Dave Ellingson, called Kim & Dave. Kim & Dave’s success in supplying the soundtrack for the 1971 film Vanishing Point (which featured the songs “Sing Out For Jesus” sung by Big Mama Thornton and “Nobody Knows,” which was a duet by the pair) landed Carnes a recording deal with Amos label.
Carnes’ 1971 debut album Rest on Me didn’t chart. She then moved to A&R Records. She released two albums there, Kim Carnes (1975) and Sailin‘ (1976) both of which failed to register on the charts either, although Kim Carnes’ single “You’re a Part of Me” did make it to the adult contemporary singles chart at #32.
In 1979, Carnes released her first album on EMI label, St. Vincent Court. Again, it didn’t make a dent on the charts, but its single “It Hurts So Bad” became a minor pop hit at #56.
In 1980, she scored a major hit via “Don’t Fall in Love with a Dreamer” along with her former The New Christy Minstrels co-member Kenny Rogers, who had become a star in his own right. “Don’t Fall in Love with a Dreamer” was written by Carnes and husband Ellingson, as well as the rest of the tracks of Rogers’ album Gideon.
Poised for success
Things were going better for Carnes as she finally hit the big time on her own. Her cover version of Smokey Robinson’s “More Love” gave Carnes her first top ten pop hit. Its album Romance Dance (1980) charted for the first time on the Billboard 200, at #57.
It looked like Carnes was poised for success, and that finally came in 1981. She recorded the song that Donna Weiss and Jackie DeShannon had written seven years earlier, “Bette Davis Eyes.” DeShannon had also recorded the original version.
The song was released as the first single of Carnes’ sixth studio LP Mistaken Identity. This rock number highlighted her raspy voice, something which was reminiscent of Rod Stewart’s vocal style. Carnes led “Bette Davis Eyes” to the chart-topping position on the Billboard Hot 100. It also went to #5 on the Billboard rock chart, #15 on the adult contemporary singles chart, and #10 on the UK singles chart.
The following year Carnes won two Grammys: one in the category of Song of the Year and another in the Record of the Year category, both for “Bette Davis Eyes.”
Mistaken Identity LP went to #1 on the Billboard 200, and was certified platinum. Despite this, the other singles from that album failed to even equal the success of “Bette Davis Eyes.” One of those other singles, “Draw of the Cards,” only managed to scrape a #28 position on the Hot 100.
It seemed that Carnes would live in the shadow of her biggest hit. Her subsequent albums Voyeur and Cafe Racers only yielded minor hit singles “Voyeur” (#29 pop), “Does It Make You Remember” (#36 pop) and “Invisible Hands” (#40 pop) were the only more decently-performing singles.
Musical and vocal style
The musical and vocal style of rock, pop, and R&B fusion artist Kim Carnes is well recognized. Her songs are distinguished by catchy melodies, energetic rhythms, and vocals that are strong, soulful, and emotionally charged.
Carnes stands out from other classic rock divas of her age because of her distinctive, instantly recognized voice, which has a raspy, soulful quality. Due to the vast range of her voice, she can seamlessly swing between energetic rock songs and softer, more personal ballads.
A distinctive and recognized sound is produced by her music’s sophisticated arrangements, which include elements of rock, pop, and R&B. Her compositions frequently combine fast, joyful rhythms with soaring guitars and moody keyboards, which combined produce a dynamic and potent musical experience.
Rod Stewart and Bonnie Tyler have been compared to Carnes’ voice because of how “distinctively raspy” and “throaty” it is. In 1993, Orange Coast magazine’s Keith Tuber referred to Carnes as “The Queen of Rasp ‘n’ Roll” in one of his articles.
One of the defining sounds of the classic rock genre, Kim Carnes’ musical and vocal approach has had a long-lasting impression on the music business. Her work is regarded as a classic illustration of strong and heartfelt rock music and continues to influence new generations of artists.
More focus on country music and songwriting
As the public response towards her later albums Light House (1986) and View from the House (1988) had become tepid, Carnes turned her focus to songwriting. By that time Carnes had turned into making country music, where she found much success. She wrote “Make No Mistake, She’s Mine” which she performed with Barbra Streisand and was later made into a #1 hit by Rogers and Ronnie Mislap in 1987. Carnes also composed the 1993 Reba McEntire-Vince Gill #1 hit “The Heart Won’t Lie.”
She still collaborates with her longtime husband and songwriting partner Ellingson. In 1994 she moved to Nashville, Tennessee, to concentrate more on country music. She and her family have been living there since. In recent years she has written music for (and with) other singers namely Dana Cooper, Greg Barnhill and Alyssa Reid. The new millennium saw the re-releases of her albums Mistaken Identity, Voyeur, Cafe Racer, Lighthouse and Barking at Airplanes, on the Culture Factory label. The last two were re-released in August 2013.
Carnes and her spouse Dave Ellingson reside in Nashville, Tennessee (1967–present). She has Collin and Ry as her sons. On the song “Rough Edges” from her album Barking at Airplanes, her son Ry, who bears the name Ry Cooder, makes a guest appearance. On this album, the opening of the song “Crazy in the Night” is performed by her son Collin. The songs “Divided Hearts,” “Gypsy Honeymoon,” “Don’t Cry Now,” and “River of Memories” were co-written by Collin and his mother.
- 1970: Silk Purse
- 1971: Rest on Me
- 1974: St. Vincent’s Court
- 1975: Kim Carnes
- 1976: Sailin’
- 1979: St. Vincent’s Court
- 1980: Romance Dance
- 1981: Mistaken Identity
- 1982: Voyeur
- 1983: Café Racers
- 1985: Barking at Airplanes
- 1986: Light House
- 1988: View from the House
- 1991: Checkin’ Out the Ghosts
- 1993: Gypsy Honeymoon: The Best of Kim Carnes
- 1996: Chasin’ Wild Trains
- 2004: Chasin’ Wild Trains
Carnes has released various compilation albums, live albums, and EPs over the course of her career in addition to these albums. She continues to perform and travel, showcasing her unique musical and vocal talent for adoring audiences all over the world.