Principally, Kim Carnes is a songwriter, and she began at a remarkably young age. “The first song I wrote I recorded on my parents’ little tape recorder,” she once said. “I was three years old.” Music soon became her vocation. “If you write a lot of songs you never need a shrink. It’s your way of getting all your thoughts out. It’s definitely a window to your soul.”
She was born in Los Angeles, California, in 1945 to non-musical parents who didn’t necessarily understand her calling. Not that she was deterred. “I never had another thought in my mind that I wasn’t going to end up singing and writing songs forever. It was real clear.”
She spent the Sixties singing locally in Florida, enduring rejections from record labels that already had their “quota of girls”. In 1966, she joined the popular folk act the New Christy Minstrels, where she met her husband Dave Ellingson and fellow rookie Kenny Rogers, prior to the formation of his band, the First Edition.
In 1969 she came to the attention of Jimmy Bowen, a million-selling teen idol of the Fifties who’d moved into production for Frank Sinatra’s Reprise label. Bowen had brought Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood together for their legendary partnership, and in 1968 he founded his own label, Amos Records. In 1971 Amos provided the soundtrack to the post-Woodstock road action movie Vanishing Point that gave Carnes her first break. Alongside Mountain and Doug Dillard, Kim had two cuts on the tie-in LP. She duetted with Dave Ellingson on ‘Nobody Knows’ and, in her published debut, contributed her own song ‘Sing Out For Jesus’, which was performed by Big Mama Thornton.
The same year Amos released Rest Of Me, Carnes’s debut album. Rich in romantic Americana it including two mid-tempo originals, ‘I Won’t Call You Back’ and ‘Fell In Love With A Poet’, among covers such as Bobby Freeman’s ‘Do You Wanna Dance’ and the Bee Gees’ ‘To Love Somebody’. The title track, a torch ballad in the vein of ‘Stand By Me’, was written by Michael McGinnis and features a gospel choir backing. Fans of Carole King and Carly Simon will find much to enjoy here, and Kim’s voice is still sweet and smooth, with little trace of the husky delivery that became her trademark.
Another teen idol, this time the contemporary David Cassidy, provided Kim’s next break. Carnes and husband Ellingson wrote several songs with Cassidy for three of his albums released at the height of his fame, Rock Me Baby (1972) Dreams Are Nuthin’ More Than Wishes (1973) and Cassidy Live! (1974). The married couple also toured the world as the superstar’s opening act.
Success on her own terms began in 1975 when she signed to A&M for two LPs, by which time her voice had developed the rough edges that define her distinctive style. Her self-titled second album was released that year, to which she contributed the bulk of the bittersweet, reflective material, mostly as co-writer with Ellingson and others. When issued as a single ‘You’re A Part Of Me’ made No.34 on the Billboard Adult Contemporary Chart — while the better known version, Kim’s duet with Gene Cotton from a few years later, would hit No.6 on the same listing and No.36 in the Hot 100. Among the non-originals on Kim Carnes was Richard Kerr and Will Jennings’s much-covered ‘Somewhere In The Night’, popularized by Helen Reddy and Barry Manilow, among many others.
Sailin’ (1976) further mined the soft contemporary rock sound heard on Kim Carnes and that would continue throughout the Seventies. Jerry Wexler produced, with some sessions taking place at Muscle Shoals in Alabama and featuring that studio’s famous in-house rhythm section. Again, most songs were Carnes or Carnes-Ellingson originals, bolstered by two covers, Gerry Goffin and Barry Goldberg’s ‘It’s Not The Spotlight’ and Van Morrison’s ‘Warm Love’. There were no hit singles, but the closing track, ‘Love Comes From Unexpected Places’, was a leading prize winner at two major song festivals and was covered the following year by Barbra Streisand on her hugely successful Streisand Superman album, bringing Kim’s work to a much wider audience.
In 1978, Kim Carnes became the first artist signed to the new EMI International label, for whom she’d recorded seven albums in as many years. Carnes or Carnes-Ellingson originals would form the bulk of these soft/adult rock outings, with love, life and relationships emerging as a dominant lyrical theme. 1979’s St. Vincent’s Court provided Kim with her first taste of Billboard album chart success, albeit at the lowly peak of No.206. The single ‘Hurt So Bad’ fared better, reaching No.56 on the pop listing. But Kim’s stock was further enhanced when, prior to the album’s release, Barbra Streisand cherry-picked another of her songs, ‘Stay Away’, for inclusion on her million-seller, Songbird.
Further endorsement from a by-now established artist came with ‘Don’t Fall In Love With A Dreamer’, a husband-and-wife composition that Kim sang with old friend Kenny Rogers on his 1980 album Gideon — his fifth Billboard Country Chart No.1. When issued as a single, success was inevitable, and it hit No.4 in the Hot 100, No. 3 in Hot Country Singles and No.2 in the Adult Contemporary chart.
Such statistics helped propel Kim’s 1980 collection, Romance Dance to No.57. As usual, there were a few covers among the originals, and foreshadowing the success to come with someone else’s song, Kim Carnes enjoyed her first solo US Top 10 hit with her version of Smokey Robinson’s ‘More Love’, which reached 13 places higher than the Miracles’ 1967 original. Romance Dance was Kim’s most contemporary sounding album to date, with producer George Tobin adding synthesizers to the traditional rock palette.
While many tracks on Mistaken Identity from 1980 continued with Kim’s tried-and-tested soft rock template, producer Val Garay took further inspiration from ‘Warm Love’ and used synthesizers as the basis for several cuts. Most memorably, of course, on the new arrangement of ‘Bette Davis Eyes’, written by Jackie DeShannon and Donna Weiss. When matched to an innovative Russell Mulcahy-directed video that introduced the latest New Romantic fashions from Britain, plus dance moves borrowed from David Bowie, the song rocketed up the charts around the world, eclipsing Kim Carnes’ previous success — and much of what would follow — by factors of ten.
After a decade as a recording artist, Kim Carnes was suddenly a household name with accolades and awards in abundance. But the success proved hard to live up to and although her following album, 1982’s Voyeur, was also produced by Galary, it received a mixed welcome from critics and fans alike and it stalled in the charts almost everywhere apart from Scandinavia. It did boast a more consistently synth-based, arena-rock leaning sound than Mistaken Identity, but with a decade of stylish country-flavoured soft rock behind her, perhaps too few fashion conscious consumers saw Kim Carnes as a truly contemporary artist of the new wave to make the venture wholly believable.
Undeterred, Kim continued with her new synth-pop direction for Café Racers in 1983 and Barking At Airplanes in 1985, but the downward trend in sales continued, with the latter becoming one of the “lows” of which she’d speak. It wasn’t all bad, however, as ‘I’ll Be Where The Heart Is’ from Café Racers was included on the 1983 Flashdance soundtrack album, which went six-times platinum, notching up sales of seven million worldwide.
Light House, her last album for EMI, saw Kim Carnes return to the US charts in 1986, albeit peaking at a disappointing No.116. Not even the inclusion of two more Jackie DeShannon/Donna Weiss tunes, ‘Piece Of The Sky’ and ‘Only Lonely Love’, plus two others co-written by Weiss, could help reverse the trend.
Kim Carnes returned to her roots in 1988 for the country album, View From The House, made in Nashville for MCA. She reunited with producer Jimmy Bowen, the man behind her debut back in 1971, and said of her new/old direction: “The only way to get a thrill out of recording is to record live as opposed to running everything through a computer.” Positive reviews and a No.36 hit on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart proved that the move was a wise one.
The trend continued on 1991’s Checking Out The Ghosts, even if it was only released in Japan. Her most recent release, Chasin’ Wild Trains from 2004, was issued on the independent Sparky Dawg label in the States and was something of a full-circle for Kim Carnes. Critical praise likened it to a “female version of the Eagles going acoustic” — she’d rubbed shoulders with both Don Henley and Glenn Frey when they’d also recorded for Amos Records— while the front cover depicted the toy ‘honeymoon car’ from a childhood ‘marriage’ to the little boy next door, David Lindley, who himself grew up to be a respected musician, working with the likes of Warren Zevon and Jackson Browne.
Words: Andy Davis
Mistaken Identity should have established Kim Carnes as a huge international star. Her Rod Stewart rasp, affiliation with Kenny Rogers, management by Ken Kragen when he was arguably at his peak, makes one wonder why the across-the-board success of "Bette Davis Eyes" couldn't be duplicated. Three years after the success of this album, Tina Turner actually did conquer the world, the various producers on Private Dancer weaving enough different textures to make for a multi-dimensional masterpiece. Too many cooks made for wonderful stew. Val Garay certainly did a good job on Mistaken Identity, more defined than his work with Marty Balin on the Lucky album a year after this, an album which, for that great artist, wasn't very...lucky. It's not that the other Donna Weiss/Jackie DeShannon tune, "Hit and Run," which follows "Bette Davis Eyes," doesn't have a good performance; it does. The problem with the Mistaken Identity album is that everything on it stands in the shadows of a masterpiece. The country risqué of the Jackie DeShannon original from New Arrangement has as extraordinary a re-working as Lou Reed's "Rock & Roll" got from Bob Ezrin when Mitch Ryder got to make it his underground anthem. Carnes is just brilliant on her solo composition, "Mistaken Identity, and it is subtle and smart enough to have crossed over to adult contemporary and jazz formats. Frankie Miller's "When I'm Away From You" sounds like Rod Stewart doing "True Blue" -- those upfront snare drums and a hook as strong as an undertow. Perhaps this should have been the follow-up to "Bette Davis Eyes" rather than "Draw of the Cards," which followed and lingered around the Top 30. Not a place to be for the follow-up to a monster smash. This is an evolution from her work on A&M, and certainly far removed from the New Christy Minstrels. The album comes with photographs galore on the innersleeve, all the lyrics, and tons of credits. Her first hit on EMI about ten months earlier was the fantastic reworking of "More Love," and that elegant pop gem was the type of thing needed to propel this to the status Private Dancer attained for Turner, that Physical garnered for Olivia Newton-John. "Draw of the Cards" plays like a mellow dance number, aimed at a new wave audience when -- well, face it, her biggest smash before "Bette Davis Eyes" was the mellow "Don't Fall in Love With a Dreamer." There is absolutely no pun intended to say this album is more of an identity crisis than a mistaken identity. Wendy Waldman, Carnes, and her husband, Dave Ellingson, craft "Break the Rules Tonite (Out of School)," but it is just too much of a diversion on an album that tests the waters of different rock genres. Flirting with Leslie West-style hard rock is not as appealing to her audience as the beautifully crafted Tom Snow/Dean Pitchford tune "Don't Call It Love." Her other solo composition, "Miss You Tonite," is more the style we expect, and Carnes' beautiful piano work on Richard Stekol's "My Old Pals" brings the album to a proper conclusion. If only this big and talented team could have come up with another couple of brilliant new arrangements as they did with "Bette Davis Eyes." The name Kim should be up there with Olivia, Tina, and Grace, and it wasn't for lack of talent that superstardom didn't occur.
Words: Joe Viglione
Drawing heavily on her early-'80s peak, when she spent nine weeks at number one with "Bette Davis Eyes," Gypsy Honeymoon: The Best of Kim Carnes may not be a definitive collection, but it nevertheless is a first-rate one, containing the majority of her best-known songs. There's "Bette Davis Eyes," plus "Don't Fall in Love With a Dreamer," "More Love," "Mistaken Identity," and "Crazy in the Night (Barking at Airplanes)." While "Draw of the Cards" and "Voyeur" should have been here, this still winds up being a fairly satisfying collection for most casual fans.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Essential is a beautifully remastered 16-track overview of singer and songwriter Kim Carnes' eight years with EMI. Though she recorded two fine albums for A&M before, and a number of solid if underappreciated offerings for a number of labels after, Ms. Carnes is best known for the seven records she made for EMI between 1979 and 1986. Of course, her biggest hits are here: the ubiquitous pop classic "Bette Davis Eyes," "Cry Like a Baby," and "Don't Fall in Love with a Dreamer" (in duet with Kenny Rogers). But deeper than this are lesser-known but nonetheless excellent songs such as "I'd Lie to You for Your Love," "Abadabadango," "I Pretend," "Chain Letter," and the Faces-esque "It Hurts So Bad," all of them done in an nearly astonishing range of subgenres of rock and pop. What makes them work, obviously, is the iconic and instantly recognizable grain in Carnes' voice. It is at once smoldering in its passion yet simultaneously reflects a noir-ish, femme fatale's sense of cool. Her ability to choose or write songs that highlighted the many smoky shades in that voice is uncanny. These cuts represent the very best of seven albums -- though hardcore fans will always argue with the producer's choices. The only shame is that EMI didn't cross license songs from her periods with A&M, MCA, or even other labels (all of which have real merit), to make it a double. We can always hope that some enterprising independent will do so in the future. Ultimately, Kim Carnes' Essential reveals that while her moment in the pop spotlight was relatively brief, her depth as an artist preceded and outlasted it exponentially.
Words: Thom Jurek