“Bette Davis Eyes” by Kim Carnes (1981)

By the summer of 1981, I was already addicted to America’s Top Ten and Solid Gold. And “Bette Davis Eyes” was #1 on the charts for almost that entire summer. So I got very familiar.

Unlike a lot of songs that become cultural touchstones (and/or stay at the top of the charts forever), “Bette Davis Eyes” holds up. While the Bette Davis reference would cause anyone under thirty to be like “huh?”, it’s not essential to the enjoyment of the song. What is essential? That crazy synth arrangement, for one. It feels mysterious and almost spooky, and does a perfect job of setting the song’s mood.

And then there’s Kim Carnes. All of the other songs I’ve heard of hers have been dead boring, but “Bette Davis Eyes” is the perfect match of singer and song.  It was also massively influential-I don’t hear “Maneater” (subject matter) or “Time After Time” (arrangement) without “Bette Davis Eyes”. The late ‘70s/early ‘80s was the age of the raspy voiced female singer (see also: Stevie Nicks and Bonnie Tyler), and the end result (at least with this song) has a Rod Stewart’s voice meets Bob Dylan’s unorthodox phrasing vibe. Which then makes me think of what a Dylan version of “Bette Davis Eyes” would sound like. Sorry for putting that in your head, if you happen to be reading this.

When your video choreography involves mimicked slapping, you know you’ve got a winner.

NOT QUITE FIVE STARS…

“Betcha She Don’t Love You” by Evelyn King (1982): “Betcha She Don’t Love You” comes from the two-album period during which Evelyn “Champagne” King dropped her nickname, and (most likely coincidentally) enjoyed the most commercial success of her career. Same thing happened when Missy Elliott dropped the “Misdemeanor”. First single after the moniker adjustment? “Work It”.

Anyhoo, “Betcha She Don’t Love You” also finds the previously G-rated King (whose nickname was a tribute to her bubbly personality) doing a Sandy in “Grease” style heel turn. A year after happily proclaiming “I’m In Love”, Evelyn delivered this saucy come-on, an invitation to a dude to leave his lady and get some of that champagne. It’s delightfully suggestive, something Lil Kim apparently agreed with seeing as she covered it almost two decades later.

Evelyn’s productions came along very early in the 1-man synthesizer band evolution of pop and R&B music, and the musical background on “Betcha She Don’t Love You” is spare enough to compare favorably to Prince’s contemporary work.

“Betcha Wouldn’t Hurt Me” by Quincy Jones (1981): Stevie Wonder brings his A+ pen (and synthesizer) game to this one, while Patti Austin brings her A+ vocal game. It’s a perfectly in the pocket groove, danceable but not frantic. Easily the best track on 1981′s The Dude, an album that introduced the world to James Ingram. Very strange that both of Quincy’s ‘80s era proteges never really broke through to superstardom, even though Q was behind the decade’s best-selling album. Then again, it’s not like MJ brought anyone to megastardom, either.

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