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Overnight Sensation In Ten Years: The Rise Of Kim Carnes

After a decade of hard work, the Los Angeles native was on her way, as the ‘Mistaken Identity’ album followed ‘Bette Davis Eyes’ to the US chart summit.

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Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Her hair was Harlow gold, just like in “Bette Davis Eyes,” the song that helped Kim Carnes become an overnight sensation in ten years. The song amassed an epic total of nine weeks (in two spells) at No.1 on the Hot 100 for the singer-songwriter born on July 20, 1945. Its parent LP Mistaken Identity unseated Styx’s Paradise Theatre to begin a four-week run atop the US album chart on June 27, 1981.

Listen to Mistaken Identity right now.

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Los Angeles native Carnes had been releasing records for fully ten years, starting with 1971’s Rest On Me, when she came up with the album that would make her a platinum-selling celebrity in the US, and take her around the world.

Slow burning through the ’70s

She had gradually been building her audience all the way through the 1970s, scoring a top 40 Adult Contemporary hit in 1975 with “You’re A Part Of Me.” The following year, her third album Sailin’ was produced by no less of a studio and industry presence than Jerry Wexler.

A remake of “Part Of Me” with Gene Cotton became a top 40 pop hit in 1978. Two years on, there was the substantial acclaim of a top five duet with Kenny Rogers on the ballad “Don’t Fall In Love With A Dreamer.” Hot on its heels, Carnes’ Romance Dance album gave her a top ten US single of her own with a remake of the Smokey Robinson song he’d recorded with the Miracles in 1967, “More Love.”

If Kim could get the recipe right for her next album, the chance to break internationally was really there — especially with her distinctively gruff voice and her skill as both a songwriter and an interpreter. She did indeed get it right.

In March 1981, her version of Jackie DeShannon and Donna Weiss’ 1970s composition ‘Bette Davis Eyes’ made the US chart, and became a national and international sensation. Starting on 16 May, it topped the Hot 100 for an astounding nine weeks — an initial five, then another four after a rude but brief interruption by Stars On 45. The song then became a global hit, the most enduring number in the Kim Carnes songbook, and would be named both Record of the Year and Song of the Year at the following year’s Grammys.

Nothing mistaken about it

Mistaken Identity, produced by Val Garay, included another chart single, “Draw Of The Cards,” co-written by the pair with Dave Ellingson and Boll Cuomo. Carnes’ own title track retains its subtle power, as does her version of “When I’m Away From You,” written by Scottish rocker Frankie Miller.

She also showed she could switch gear, from the rocking ‘Break The Rules Tonite (Out Of School)’ to the reflective closing track “My Old Pals.” Carnes would go on to release many other fine albums, including the follow-up Voyeur and her one country chart entry, 1988’s View From The House.

“Bette Davis Eyes” is on Mistaken Identity, which can be bought here.

Follow the official Kim Carnes Best Of playlist, featuring “Bette Davis Eyes” among many great songs from her catalogue.

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