“She’s Like a Chameleon”
A string of high-profile collaborations fashioned a successful interlude between Café Racers and Carnes’ next solo album. David Foster got things started with the title track to Kenny Rogers’ What About Me (1984). Carnes says, “David called me and said, ‘We’ve got this song. It’s a love triangle. James Ingram and Kenny are the two males and you should be the girl.’ I said, ‘Send me the song.’ I loved ‘What About Me’ immediately. I could hear all our voices on it.” Written by Richard Marx and David Foster, “What About Me” was the ideal vehicle for each artist’s distinctive voice.
Released on RCA, “What About Me” debuted on the Hot 100 the second week of September ‘84 and seemed destined for number one. “It was zooming up the charts,” says Carnes. “It stopped at number 15 like the brakes were put on it. I saw James a couple of years later. I said, ‘I’m so puzzled. We had such a big ole hit going. Why did it stop at 15? What happened?’
“James said, ‘You don’t know? I was in the office with the head of promotion the day he got a call from a radio station in the south saying, We, and other stations, cannot play this record because we have too many complaints from listeners that it’s a love triangle with a black man, a white man, and a white woman. We can’t play it. We’re alienating our listeners.’ I just said, ‘Oh my God. Are you kidding?’ To say that that was the reason just floored me. That’s the ugly story. It bothers me horribly. The promotion staff knew that without those stations ‘What About Me’ would never hit the Top 10. The record company couldn’t do anything about it. You can’t make a station play something. All of that stuff still blows my mind.”
The racist policies of key radio stations in the South might have shielded “What About Me” from the national Top Ten, but the song prevailed on the Adult Contemporary chart where it crowned the number one spot the first week of November 1984.
Carnes’ next duet partner came as a complete surprise. She recounts the story, “I got a call one day from Jon Peters, who was managing Barbra Streisand at the time. He said, ‘I want you and Barbra to do a duet.’ While I was extremely flattered, I said, ‘Our voices and styles couldn’t be more different. I’ll try my best to see if I can write something, but right now I just can’t imagine it.’ Within the hour, I went to the piano. I sat down and I had to yell for someone to bring me a yellow legal pad and a pencil because I thought, If I get up and leave the piano, it’s going to go away! ‘Make No Mistake, He’s Mine’ wrote itself in that next two hours.
“You wish more songs would come through you. It’s the dream of a songwriter. ‘Make No Mistake’ came exactly when I needed it. I knew as I sang it that it was the perfect song for Barbra’s voice and for my voice. I could sing it the way I sing ballads. She could sing it the way she sings ballads. Nobody had to be another person. The next day, Bill and I went into the studio and made a demo. We sent it over to her and she loved it.”
Streisand invited Carnes and Cuomo to her house in Beverly Hills to rehearse the song. “It’s just the three of us,” says Cuomo. “I’m in her living room playing piano. I got Barbra and Kim singing. You could have hit me with a feather and knocked me off that piano stool! I’m listening to them sing and I’m thinking, Oh, man! This is going to be great. It was just fantastic. It was like they were whispering in your ear.” After working out the vocal parts, Cuomo and Carnes began the process of producing the track for Streisand’s Emotion (1984) album.
Columbia issued “Make No Mistake, He’s Mine” as a single in December 1984. While plenty of pop ballads populated the airwaves at that time, nothing surpassed the power of Barbra Streisand and Kim Carnes trading lines and harmonies over the song’s brilliantly orchestrated production. “She and Barbra sounded amazing together,” says Cuomo. “It was like silk and gravel, in a sense. It worked great. Some singers can harmonize with themselves and sound good as a background singer with themselves and some can’t. Kim could blend with anybody. She’s like a chameleon and yet she never loses her identity, so it’s not like you don’t know it’s Kim Carnes.”
“Make No Mistake, He’s Mine” spent ten weeks on the Hot 100 and peaked at number eight on the Adult Contemporary chart. Three years later, the song evolved into “Make No Mistake, She’s Mine” when Kenny Rogers asked Carnes for a duet that he could sing with Ronnie Milsap. Their version topped the country chart and won a Grammy for “Best Country Vocal Performance Duet”. In 2013, the song was even repurposed on Glee, with Santana (Naya Rivera) and Sam (Chord Overstreet) singing Carnes and Streisand’s respective parts. “I was thrilled with that,” says Carnes. “I think they did a great job with it. It’s been any combination you can think of!”
After her duets with Streisand, and Rogers and Ingram, Carnes returned to the dance floor for the MGM feature That’s Dancing! (1985). “David Niven Jr. was the producer,” she says. “I knew him. He was a big fan. He said. ‘I want you to write the theme.’” Carnes re-teamed with Martin Page and Brian Fairweather, the songwriting duo who’d co-written each of the U.S. singles from Café Racers, and wrote “Invitation to Dance” for the film.
MGM contacted a producer who’d recently had chart-topping success with both David Bowie and Madonna—Nile Rodgers. “I love that guy,” says Carnes. “I was such a fan from all of his CHIC days. I went to the Power Station in New York where I met Mick Jagger for the first time. He was there in the other studio. To me, Nile was the perfect person to produce ‘Invitation to Dance’. He just grooved to the solo in the middle of the record.” Carnes and Rodgers were a winning combination on the dance chart, where “Invitation to Dance” peaked at number thirteen in March 1985.
Two months earlier, Kim Carnes made chart history with her latest singles. For the week ending 19 January 1985, she became the first artist to lodge three hits on the Hot 100 as a solo artist (“Invitation to Dance”), duet partner (“Make No Mistake, He’s Mine”), and member of a trio (“What About Me”), simultaneously. Less than two weeks later, Carnes would also join a historic moment in pop music as a featured soloist in USA for Africa’s “We Are the World” (1985). Standing between Paul Simon and Michael Jackson, the singer was one of 45 music luminaries who gathered to aid famine relief in Ethiopia.
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