That’s A Cover? explores cover songs that you may have thought were originals.
Bette Davis, like many of her powerhouse characters, was breaking glass ceilings all over the place throughout her acting career. She was the first woman to win the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute and be the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. She was also no stranger to scandal. Her first husband made much less than her in a week (he didn’t love that), and she sued Warner Brothers for putting her in sub-par movies. She’s been quite the inspiration, and throughout the years many close-ups feature those distinctive eyes that have been immortalized in song.
Kim Carnes won Record and Song of the Year at the Grammys for “Bette Davis Eyes.” It held the peak Billboard Hot 100 spot for nine weeks and ended up being the best-selling single of 1981. The song has been featured in many movies and television shows (anyone hear it first in Austenland? No? Just me?). But guess what–it isn’t even the original!
Jackie DeShannon released “Bette Davis Eyes” in 1975, six years earlier. DeShannon c0-wrote it with Donna Weiss, who actually ended up as a backup vocalist on a couple of Carnes’ albums. You may know DeShannon from her big hits “What the World Needs Now Is Love” and “Put a Little Love in Your Heart.”
Even though DeShannon’s and Carnes’s versions are pretty different from one another, they both got Bette Davis’s stamp of approval. In her book This ‘n’ That, she wrote, “When I heard the lyrics – ‘She’ll expose you when she snows you / Off your feet with the crumbs that she throws you’ – I dashed off a note saying, ‘How did you know so much about me?'” She appreciated that the song kept her relevant to the youths, and thanked Carnes, DeShannon, and Weiss for making her “a part of modern history.”
Let’s look at both songs, starting with the “Bette Davis Eyes” many of us know and love. The distinctive synth line opens the song and repeats throughout. A foot-stomping bass drum gives us the beat to strut to, and then claps (or slaps, if you are watching the video) give us further encouragement. Carnes’ vocals are slightly raspy, but assertive, as she describes the elusive woman of everyone’s dreams. Do we admire her? Do we envy her? Do we want to be her? All of the above!
But now let’s give the original a listen.
First things first: no synths here! Horns take over the beginning, and that iconic riff is nowhere to be found. The beginning maintains plenty of sass; DeShannon’s version just takes a more jaunty and jazzy approach than Carnes’s assertive style. With a walking bass, backup vocals, and piano, there is still plenty to love about this original. But wow, what a difference in homages to those eyes.
Now that we’ve learned this song’s history, we’ll hear five more takes on “Bette Davis Eyes” tomorrow. Stay tuned!