Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, 1976. Kim Carnes is recording Sailin’ (1976), her second album for A&M Records. Jerry Wexler, her dream producer, presides from behind the console. Session vocalists Julia Waters and Maxine Waters have flown in from Los Angeles to join Carnes on background vocals. The three have sung together on countless sessions, but this time something special happens when they harmonize on the title track. Singing a cappella, the seamless blend of their voices stops time. Only hours later, Carnes will have recorded all of her lead and background vocals for the entire album.
“I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed greater rapport with a singer,” Wexler later wrote in his autobiography Rhythm and the Blues: A Life in American Music (1993). “With Kim in the studio and me in the booth, the good feelings flowed back and forth almost mystically. A nod of my head and she understood what I was saying, where I was pointing her. She’s a fine musician, her sultry voice a marvelous instrument.” The legendary producer of icons like Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Dusty Springfield, and Bob Dylan simply stated what other esteemed producers, artists, musicians, and songwriters have known for years: Kim Carnes is exceptional.
“Sailin’” depicts the wanderlust of a seafaring dreamer. In a way, Carnes’ musical compass has navigated different currents throughout her career. Muscle Shoals is but one stop on a creative exploration marked by SoCal pop-rock, Nashville-based roots music, and detours to London’s New Romantic scene. Big Mama Thornton, Frank Sinatra, Tina Turner, Tim McGraw, and even the cast of Glee, are among Carnes’ fellow travelers who’ve each contoured her lyrics and melodies with their unique interpretations. Her self-penned duets with Kenny Rogers and Barbra Streisand have steered her songwriting to new vistas of creativity and imagination.
During the summer of 1981, however, Carnes reached a career milestone. Her recording of Donna Weiss and Jackie DeShannon’s “Bette Davis Eyes” crowned the Hot 100 for nine weeks while Mistaken Identity (1981) spent four weeks at number one on the Billboard 200. The New York Times declared “Bette Davis Eyes” the “pop-single phenomenon of the year” (26 July 1981) as the song soared to number one in more than two dozen countries around the world, and later won “Record of the Year” and “Song of the Year” at the Grammy Awards. Bette Davis herself forged a friendship with Carnes and quipped to People Magazine, “Not being a Rita Hayworth or a Jean Harlow, my eyes were probably my biggest asset” (6 July 1981).
“Bette Davis Eyes” is one of those rare recordings that both defines and transcends its time. Yet, the true measure of Carnes’ impressive longevity is a rich, vast body of work that underscores why music industry mavens have constantly sought her talent. In this exclusive interview with PopMatters, Carnes retraces the arc of a fascinating career that’s still flourishing. A few of her longtime collaborators join the conversation, while more than a dozen singers, songwriters, and musicians, from Melissa Etheridge to Giorgio Moroder, honor Carnes in a special postscript that illuminates the scope of her musical legacy.
“Distinctive In Her Own Right”
AM radio reflected a revolution in music during the mid-‘60s. The confluence of Motown and the British Invasion on the airwaves captivated teenage listeners. Growing up in Pasadena, California, Carnes had been singing and writing songs since she was three-years-old, but it was the radio dial that stoked her musical passion. She recalls, “My greatest influences were Smokey Robinson & the Miracles—Smokey above anybody—the Rolling Stones, anything Motown. Right after that, Bob Dylan was a huge influence when I started paying attention to what he was doing.”
Delaney & Bonnie records signaled a turning point for Carnes. “All of my heroes were always dudes, but when I heard Bonnie Bramlett sing, it changed everything,” she says. “I went, ‘A girl can sing like that’? She was a tremendous influence. I don’t think she has any idea how much of an influence she was on me. I thought, That’s how I want to sing. That’s soulful!”
Meanwhile, an October 1970 Billboard item stated that Amos Records founder Jimmy Bowen had launched a publishing division for his production company. As a former staff producer for Reprise Records, Bowen had secured a record deal for the First Edition and counted gold-selling number one smashes for Frank Sinatra (“Strangers in the Night”), Dean Martin (“Everybody Loves Somebody”), and Sinatra’s duet with daughter Nancy Sinatra (“Somethin’ Stupid”), among his many hit productions. Earlier that year, Bowen had also begun expanding his label’s roster through a new distribution deal with Bell Records.
Mike Settle was among Bowen’s new signings. An original member of the First Edition, he’d met Carnes, her husband Dave Ellingson, and First Edition frontman Kenny Rogers years earlier during their tenure in the New Christy Minstrels. “I played Mike some songs I’d written,” Carnes recalls. “He said, ‘You know what? I’m with Jimmy Bowen. He needs to hear you.’ We went to Jimmy’s and I played him a couple of songs on the piano. ‘I Won’t Call You Back’ was the first song I played for him. Bowen said, ‘I like what you’re doing. Why don’t you come up for dinner next week? I’m having a bunch of people. You can play me more songs.’
“We go up to dinner and the room is filled with songwriters and singers. We have this great dinner where weed is sprinkled on everything we ate! It’s about two in the morning. Everyone’s gone except for me, Dave, and Mike Settle. Bowen said, ‘Okay, now that we got the place to ourselves, sit down and play me some more stuff.’ I sat down, I looked at my hands on the piano, and went [pauses] ‘I can’t … I can’t play. I’m too stoned to play!’ He laughed so hard. He said, ‘Don’t worry about it. I love what you do.’ That is a moment I will never forget: I’m playing for somebody I want to be my first publisher and I’m too stoned to play the piano. Of course, Jimmy thought it was hysterical.”
A bright constellation of singer-songwriters orbited Bowen’s world. J.D. Souther and Glenn Frey, who recorded as Longbranch/Pennywhistle, released their eponymous debut on Amos in 1969. Two years later, Kenny Rogers produced Shiloh (1971) for Bowen’s label. The group featured Frey’s future bandmate, Don Henley. “Bowen has this wonderful sense that can’t be taught — spotting who he thought was going to do well,” says Carnes. “If you look at who was with his publishing company, every single person went on to not just be successful, but have huge success. He knew the difference.”
Sailin, 1976 (courtesy of A&M Records)
Carnes’ first glimmer of international success arrived by way of Vanishing Point (1971), a road film starring Barry Newman, Cleavon Little, Dean Jagger, John Amos, and (in the UK version) Charlotte Rampling. In fact, no less an auteur than Steven Spielberg would later cite Vanishing Point as one of his favorite films. Bowen produced the soundtrack, which included a tune by Delaney & Bonnie, and enlisted his roster of talent to write and record additional songs for the film.
After viewing a rough cut of Vanishing Point, Carnes penned “Sing Out for Jesus”. She says, “I don’t know where that song came from. I am not a religious person. When I play it for friends who know me now, they look at me and go, Huh?.” However, “Sing Out for Jesus” was destined for greatness when Big Mama Thornton cut it for the soundtrack and became the very first artist to record one of Carnes’ songs. “To have Big Mama Thornton sing my first cut? It just doesn’t get any better than that,” says Carnes, who has a vivid memory of the recording session:
“When she came in to do her vocal, she had her quote ‘boys’ with her. She started to sing it and it just wasn’t working. I’m thinking, This is Big Mama Thornton and this is my first cut. It has to work! Her boys came over to Bowen and said, ‘We’re going to take Big Mama out. We’ll be back soon.’ I thought, Are they ever coming back? [laughs]
“They came back in about half an hour. One of her boys carried a paper sack into the studio. She got in front of the mic and took the top off the bottle that was in the paper sack, which ended up being Old Grand Dad. She went gulp gulp gulp gulp … ahh!. She put the sack down and did the vocal. She just needed a little inspiration. She back-phrased so far. I was on the edge of my seat in the booth going, Is she going to make it to the end of the phrase? That was her great ability—to make it perfectly. Nobody else could do that. I was floored and thrilled. I’m still so proud that that was my first cut as a writer.”
Richard Sarafian’s Vanishing Point (1971) also brought the voice of Kim Carnes to movie-going audiences as a song called “Nobody Knows” played over the closing credits. Written by Mike Settle, it spotlighted a guttural, blues-infused performance from Carnes. “I had no idea how I was going to sing ‘Nobody Knows’ until I got in front of the mic,” she says. “This vocal came out. Everybody said, ‘Where did that come from?’ I just said, ‘I don’t know. I’m as surprised as anybody.’” Bowen prepared “Nobody Knows” for single release on Amos, crediting Carnes and her husband as “Kim & Dave” on the label.
A week before Vanishing Point opened, Billboard highlighted “Nobody Knows” in its “Special Merit” column, citing the duo’s “top performance” (6 March 1971). Despite industry acclaim, the single missed the charts altogether. “I was so proud of that record, but it wasn’t a hit,” says Carnes. “There was so much praise of it that I just expected it to go flying up the charts. I thought, All I’ve got to do is make a record. It will be a big hit and I’ll be off and running. I learned a hard lesson quickly—don’t believe the hype. Don’t ever take anything for granted that it’s going to work.”
Nevertheless, Carnes closed 1971 with an important benchmark, the release of her full-length solo debut, Rest on Me (1971). The album showed the singer’s facility with a range of material, including hits by Anne Murray (“It Takes Time”) and the Bee Gees (“To Love Somebody”), as well as Bobby Freeman’s “Do You Wanna Dance” and Gerry Goffin-Carole King’s “To Love”. Carnes also lent nuanced performances to “Sweet Love Song to My Soul” and “One More River to Cross”, a pair of tunes written by Daniel Moore, who’d known Ellingson since their days in the Fairmount Singers.
Both of Carnes’ own songwriting efforts for the album, “I Won’t Call You Back” and “Fell In Love With a Poet”, furnished evocative showcases for her voice. “These nights alone just make my heartache grow,” she cried on the former, sketching the lyrics with anguish. She evoked a more wistful mood on the latter tune. “I was really finding my voice,” she says. “I was trying out different vocal styles. That’s why ‘Fell In Love With a Poet’ and ‘I Won’t Call You Back’ are the same person, but they’re different.”
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Track for track, Jimmy Bowen inspired Carnes to give her all, surrounding her with top studio musicians and orchestrating the songs with strings and horns. “Bowen’s very perceptive and extremely smart,” she says. “As a producer, he’s the artist’s best friend. He’d always say, ‘My job is to figure out who the real you is and get that out of you—your best songs, your best performances.’ I loved working with him.”
Industry trades championed Rest on Me upon its release in December 1971. “A fabulous album,” Cashbox declared in its review. Billboard viewed Rest on Me through the lens of singer-songwriters like Carole King and Carly Simon, calling Carnes “distinctive in her own right” (11 December 1971). Indeed, Amos Records had delivered an album packed with potential smashes.
Rest On Me may not have yielded any hits, especially since Amos was close to shuttering at the time of the album’s release, but it established Carnes as an important presence in LA’s fervent music scene. “Hollywood, in the ‘70s, was the mecca for songwriters,” she says. “If you were a writer or a publisher, you all eventually knew each other and hung out at the same places. We all shared demo time and sang on each other’s songs. The spirit was everybody rooting for everybody else.
“We would go to an Italian dive in Hollywood called Martoni’s. Everybody would go there, drink wine, and just talk about what we were doing and what we were writing. I remember going there after a session. Bowen said, ‘Kim, just keep doing what you’re doing. Keep getting cuts as a songwriter. Do what you love. It will happen someday, but it could take much longer than you’re expecting.’ He was exactly right.”
Over the next few years, Carnes’ songwriting career flourished as marquee acts began recording her songs on major labels. Kenny Rogers & the First Edition cut “Where Does Rosie Go” on Transition (1971). Nancy Sinatra’s Woman (1972) album featured her rendition of “Fell In Love With a Poet” and “It’s the Love That Keeps It All Together”, a tune that Carnes and Ellingson had previously recorded for Amos. Riding the wave of teen stardom, David Cassidy cut “Song for a Rainy Day” on Rock Me Baby (1972) and collaborated with Carnes and Ellingson for two songs on Dreams Are Nuthin’ More Than Wishes (1973), which topped the UK chart. One of Carnes’ most prestigious gigs duly followed: co-writing “You Turned My World Around” for Frank Sinatra on his nod to contemporary songwriters, Some Nice Things I’ve Missed (1974).