Bette Davis Eyes Original
Bette Davis Eyes is a Cover
Kim Carnes’ version of “Bette Davis Eyes” came out in 1981. It was the lead single from Carnes’ sixth studio album Mistaken Identity. The song was US Billboard’s biggest hit in 1981. It also topped the charts in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Norway, South Africa, Spain and Switzerland. In addition, “Bette Davis Eyes” won two Grammy Awards for Record of the Year and Song of the Year in 1982. It was the third-best-selling single of the 1980s, after Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical” and the Diana Ross/Lionel Richie duet “Endless Love”.
But did you know that “Bette Davis Eyes” original version was first recorded back in 1974 by 60s hit singer Jackie DeShannon? It was written and composed by DeShannon and singer-songwriter Donna Weiss for DeShannon’s 1975 album New Arrangement. They came up with the idea to write the song after seeing Bette Davis in the 1942 film Now, Voyager.
An Uptempo Arrangement
The “Bette Davis Eyes” original version is an “R&B lite arrangement, featuring a prominent uptempo piano part, as well as flourishes of pedal steel guitar and horns”. The opening is brassy and sassy. A piano plays cheerfully throughout the song, accompanied by DeShannon’s almost show-tune sounding vocals. This unknown original is definitely fun.
Kim Carnes Version
A few years later Weiss suggested that Carnes release a version of “Bette Davis Eyes”. Carnes, with her band and producer Val Garay, subsequently came up with the synthesizer-based arrangement that made the song such a commercial success.
Garay suggested the band use a cheap-sounding drum set, along with a Sequential Circuits Prophet-5 synthesizer. Keyboardist Bill Cuomo made significant contributions to the chord changes and arrangement, as well as coming up with that immortal synth riff. Carnes and her band rehearsed for three days to transform DeShannon’s uptempo tune to the dark and haunting version we know today. “Bette Davis Eyes” was recorded on the first take with no overdubs.
Early listeners heard Carnes’ raspy voice and initially thought the singer was Rod Stewart! However “Bette Davis Eyes” quickly became synonymous with Kim Carnes and remains the biggest hit of her career.
When the song came out in 1981, 73-year-old Bette Davis wrote to Carnes, DeShannon and Weiss to thank them for making her cool in the eyes of her granddaughter. Carnes later sang the song for Davis live as part of a tribute for the actress. The two became friends until Davis’ death in 1989.
There’s a theory that the “Bette Davis Eyes” lyrics contain drug references. “Pure as New York snow”? Maybe… While this is fun to ponder, and ties in with a certain 80s aesthetic, I’m not sure if the applied 1974 when the song was written. More likely, it’s simply a song about an alluring yet dangerous lady. Interesting, the only lyric that changed in the Carnes version was, “she knows just what it takes to make a pro blush”. While in DeShannon’s version, it’s a crow that blushes.
So there you have it. An 80s pop anthem first recorded by Jackie DeShannon in 1974, but made an international hit by Kim Carnes seven years later.
Read about more 1980s hits that were also covers here.