This is the 29th post in a weekly, yearlong series. Read about it here and see the list of previous songs here. A new post about a different song will be posted each Monday throughout 2016. You can listen to the songs in a Spotify playlist.
Sharon Lee Myers began playing country music when she was a teenager in the 1950s. She attracted the attention of rockabilly legend Eddie Cochran, who arranged for her to come to California to meet his girlfriend, singer-songwriter Sharon Sheeley. In 1960, Myers signed with Liberty Records using the name Jackie DeShannon, as the executives at Liberty did not think the name “Sharon Lee Myers” would sell records. She said that because of her low singing voice, she picked the name “Jackie” because it was gender-neutral.
DeShannon is now considered one of the first singer-songwriters of the rock and roll era. She opened for The Beatles, co-wrote songs with Jimmy Page and Randy Newman, and wrote songs for Marianne Faithfull, The Byrds, Brenda Lee, and The Searchers. She had hits with “Needles and Pins” by Sonny Bono and Jack Nitzsche and Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “What the World Needs Now Is Love.”
But one of DeShannon’s most recognizable songs was a song that many people didn’t know was hers.
In 1974, she teamed with singer-songwriter Donna Weiss on material for DeShannon’s next album, which would be called “New Arrangement.” Weiss had had some lyrics that she wanted help with turning into a song. DeShannon turned the lyrics into a song that name-dropped classic Hollywood stars. DeShannon said that of all the great Hollywood stars, the one who inspired her the most was Bette Davis. “The one thing that always stuck in my mind,” DeShannon said of Davis, “was the look in her eyes when Paul Henreid handed her a cigarette in ‘Now, Voyager.'”
DeShannon recorded a demo of that song she wrote with Weiss — “Bette Davis Eyes” — but because of disagreements with her producer, the rock version DeShannon wanted was scrapped. The version that ended up on the album was a jazz-shuffle that sounded like it belonged in a period piece about riverboats. The album was a commercial failure.
Years later, Weiss visited her friend Kim Carnes and shared some songs she thought she might like. Carnes, who had performed with Kenny Rogers, was also a songwriter, having written songs for Frank Sinatra and David Cassidy. Upon hearing the rock demo DeShannon had recorded, Carnes wanted to record “Bette Davis Eyes” herself. To give it a contemporary ’80s feel, her keyboard player Bill Cuomo wrote a synthesizer riff. Released in 1981, Carnes’ “Bette Davis Eyes” spent a total of nine weeks at Number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, and won the Grammy Awards for Song of the Year and Record of the Year. Additionally, the song hit Number 1 in 21 countries.
Not only did DeShannon like Carnes’ cover — “Her voice was perfect for it,” she said — but so did Davis herself. Davis sent Carnes a congratulatory note on the song, and in a 1981 interview with People Magazine, Davis said, “My grandson, Ashley, is very rock-and-roll conscious… He thinks it’s very funny his grandmother has a hit.”
Though Davis took the song with a sense of humor, the character in the song is not necessarily cast in a favorable light. The main subject of the song — the unnamed woman with “Bette Davis eyes” — is portrayed as a heartbreaker who uses people as sexual playthings and casts them aside:
And she’ll tease you
She’ll unease you
All the better just to please you
She’s precocious, and she knows just
What it takes to make a crow* blush
She got Greta Garbo’s standoff sighs
She’s got Bette Davis eyes
She’ll let you take her home
It whets her appetite
She’ll lay you on the throne
She got Bette Davis eyes
She’ll take a tumble on you
Roll you like you were dice
Until you come out blue
She’s got Bette Davis eyes
She’ll expose you, when she snows you
Off your feet with the crumbs she throws you
She’s ferocious, and she knows just
What it takes to make a crow* blush
All the boys think she’s a spy
She’s got Bette Davis eyes
(*DeShannon recorded it as “crow,” whereas Carnes sang “pro.”)
DeShannon’s jazz version evoked the piano and ragtime songs from a bygone era. Her cheerful vocals, when paired with the upbeat backing instrumentation, gave the song a happy tone. In contrast, Carnes’ raspy voice over the airy synthesizers sounded like a fair warning of a woman who could break your heart.
And it’s never clear exactly whose heart was broken. There are only two references to gender in the song: the pronoun “she” for the character with Bette Davis eyes, and the line, “All the boys think she’s a spy.” As such, Carnes could be singing the song merely as someone who has seen this woman hurt others, or as someone who has been burned herself. As such, the lyrics have been sung by men and women without sounding like any meaning has been changed.
French singer Sylvie Vartan, who we discussed when reviewing covers of “The Loco-Motion,” performed “Bette Davis Eyes” on her 1982 album, “Live In Las Vegas,” which also included a cover of Umberto Tozzi’s “Gloria.” Vartan’s version is faithful — too much so — to Carnes’, as it emulated the ethereal keyboards and Carnes’ husky vocals. It was Vartan’s backup singers who stood out, whose soft soulful voices contrasted Vartan’s rasp.
That same year, The Chipmunks — Alvin, Simon, and Theodore — covered “Bette Davis Eyes” for the album “Chipmunk Rock.” The cover sounded pretty much how you would expect it: just like the Carnes version, except with high pitch vocals over Cuomo’s synth track.
Because the Internet is the Internet, someone took a bunch of Chipmunks songs and slowed them down, because, well, just because. The slowed down version of The Chipmunks’ “Bette Davis Eyes” was darker, with one Soundcloud commenter remarking that it sounded like a mix between Type O Negative and Ministry.
Comedy pop group Big Daddy, who also covered “Nothing Compares 2 U,” recorded a version of “Bette Davis Eyes” for its album “What Really Happened to the Band of ’59.” Much like Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox does now, Big Daddy covered modern songs in a ’50s style, often pairing the words of one song with the instrumental of another track, forming a mashup cover of sorts. Big Daddy’s “Bette Davis Eyes” featured retro guitar licks reminiscent of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” and a high-pitched outro that sounded like The Four Seasons’ “Big Girls Don’t Cry.”
Actress Gwyneth Paltrow performed “Bette Davis Eyes” in the 2000 film, “Duets.” The backing track was mainly the same, with a slightly updated drum machine beat added. The instrumental differences were so subtle that it basically sounded the same, just with Paltrow singing instead of Carnes. It’s no reinvention, and there’s nothing about it that would make you want to listen to it over Carnes except for the novelty of hearing a famous actress sing it. That wears off in the first listen.
In 2006, Italian pop singer Gennaro Cosmo Parlato released an album of ’80s cover songs, many performed in a tango style. There’s a trace of the arrangement from Carnes’ version, though much of what makes this version interesting is the layering of horns and percussion. Parlato ended the song by singing the handclaps from the original, and as weird as that might seem, it worked.
Italian glam-punk band Thee S.T.P. recorded “Bette Davis Eyes” for “Punk Remake: Vol. 1,” a 2007 compilation that featured covers of Madonna, The Misfits, Shakira, Lou Reed, and Depeche Mode, among others. Thee S.T.P.’s song switches off between male and female vocals, and sounds more like Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer” than “Bette Davis Eyes.”
Oregon rock band Sexton Blake included “Bette Davis Eyes” on its 2007 album “Sexton Blake Plays the Hits!” Josh Hodges’ quiet vocals in the slowed-down version gave the track a sullen feel, as if he were reeling from having been heartbroken by the woman with the Bette Davis eyes.
Danish group Oliver North Boy Choir, which played electronica with a pop accessibility, recorded “Bette Davis Eyes” with airy synthesizers and equally ethereal vocals to match. The digital beeps and boops gave the song a definite electronica feel, but Camilla Florentz’s soft voice gave the song a more textured — and human — feel than a typical electronic song.
Rock group Morphology is a Voltron of sorts, comprising members of Milagro and Italian metal band Danger Zone. Morphology’s self-titled album from 2007 featured rock/metal reinterpretations of ’80s songs. The band’s take on “Bette Davis Eyes” was recognizable only by the lyrics. Instrumentally, it sounded like Soundgarden playing the “Beavis and Butt-Head” theme song.
Actress Leighton Meester, best known as Blair Waldorf from the TV show “Gossip Girl,” recorded a stripped-down version of “Bette Davis Eyes” in 2009. For an acoustic version, it was full of energy, such that it’s hard to listen to it without tapping your foot. Part of its fierce spirit comes from Meester’s delivery, as it’s apparent early on in this folksy cover that Meester had fun recording it.
Brandon Flowers, lead singer of The Killers, played “Bette Davis Eyes” on his 2010 solo tour. Flowers’ voice had almost an affected twang at parts, but this version was decidedly rock. The synth riff that Carnes’ keyboardist Cuomo had added was present in guitar form, and as such, Flowers live version sounded grittier than iconic version by Carnes.
If Sexton Blake’s “Bette Davis Eyes” was tinged with sadness, then Marble Sounds’ was soaking in it, providing even more of a gut punch. The melancholy guitars and staggering drums built up behind the somber vocals of Pieter Van Dessel, who sounded totally devastated. In comparison, the Sexton Blake version sounded poppy and upbeat.
Belgian dance band Milk Inc. covered “Bette Davis Eyes” on its 2013 album, “Undercover.” Simply put, it’s a Eurodance version of the Carnes version, sped up with some more bass and drum machine added. Danceable and catchy as it is, it did not reinterpret much that Carnes and Cuomo hadn’t reinterpreted 22 years earlier.
Despite Milk Inc.’s effort, it was Kylie Minogue’s “Bette Davis Eyes” that transformed the song into a modern dance track. Recorded for the 2014 compilation “Sounds of the 80s: Unique Covers of Classic Hits,” Minogue’s “Bette Davis Eyes” was just as poppy and danceable as her album “Kiss Me Once,” released that same year. Her upbeat revamp took Cuomo’s synth riff from Carnes’ version and sped it up, but also Kyliefied it with layers of airy synth and “ooh ah ooh” vocals. Like most of her songs, you can’t listen to this version and not picture 21-year-olds with blonde highlights dancing in a gay club.
An alternate, acoustic version by Minogue substituted the electronic flourishes with piano and a jangly guitar. Surprisingly, the song lost none of its energy, in part because so much of what made the song enjoyable was Minogue’s playful delivery.
It’s worth pointing out that the original by DeShannon barely factored into our discussion of the rest of the covers. The various covers of “Bette Davis Eyes” are interesting reinterpretations, but most of them are interpreting the version by Carnes, not DeShannon. It’s as if Carnes’ cover not only eclipsed the original but erased it and became the new original.
Carnes’ “Bette Davis Eyes” is of a special class of cover songs: cover songs that many people never knew were covers. We’ve discussed a fair number already. Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” was one of the biggest successes of 1990, but its original version — written by Prince for his pet project, The Family — was never released as a single. Kenny Rogers’ version of “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” with the First Edition has become the iconic version of that song, such that even the guy who wrote it was forced by his record label to record it in the style of Rogers’ version. Most casual fans of Madonna would be shocked to learn that her “Ray of Light” was a remake of a 1971 folk song. Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” and Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” were both two of the biggest hits of the 1980s, but they were not the original version of those songs, either.
Part of the fun of digging into cover songs is blowing your friends’ minds, and one of the most satisfying ways to blow someone’s mind is telling them that a famous song is actually a cover. Chances are, you didn’t know Carnes’ version was a cover, and you’re going to tell at least one other person about it this week. And you’ll enjoy the look on that person’s face as much as I enjoy knowing you have that same look on your face now.
You can listen to these songs and previously discussed cover songs in a Spotify playlist.