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Arts + CultureMusicThe ferocious, precocious musical odyssey of 'Bette Davis Eyes'

The ferocious, precocious musical odyssey of ‘Bette Davis Eyes’

Sultry synth classic resurfaces with singer Katrina Woolverton and original producer Val Garay at helm

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On Friday, May 24th, Katrina Woolverton was on the waves, and walking on sunshine.

The singer, lawyer, and boater was cruising around the Marina in a Duffy, accompanied by her producer (San Francisco-born Val Garay) and a couple of dozen friends, blasting her latest single—an EDM cover of the long-beloved bop “Bette Davis Eyes”—from two speakers. 

It’s the first from her forthcoming still-untitled sophomore album, on deck for a 2025 release.

“Based on the song’s history, it seems everyone wants to cover ‘Bette Davis Eyes,’ and can we blame them?” asks Woolverton, rhetorically. “It is a fantastic song with great lyrics.” 

Since debuting five decades ago, the Donna Weiss and Jackie DeShannon-penned track has sparkled with Golden Age Hollywood glamour. No less brilliantly than the glittering, sun-kissed waves gently rocking the boat rented by Woolverton’s party that bright afternoon.

Comparing the song’s protagonist/antagonist to cinematic icons Greta Garbo, Jean Harlow, and, of course, Davis—a full 16 years before Madonna rapped their names in “Vogue”—helped create a beautifully vivid sketch of the bewitching vixen at the center of the track. 

Equally compelling are all the unknowns about the mysterious mantrap’s true identity. Is she a sex worker, a black widow, a spy? Without any definitive answers, listeners could only speculate.

“Bette Davis Eyes” was first recorded by DeShannon in 1975 as a rollicking blues-rock track but only made New Waves six years later, when in Garay’s skillful hands, it was molded into a sultry, synth-driven number for raspy-voiced yacht-rock singer Kim Carnes. 

The lead single from Carnes’ sixth and bestselling studio album Mistaken Identity was aided by its hypnotic Russell Mulcahy-directed music video: It hit No. 1 worldwide and went on to win “Song of the Year” and “Record of the Year” Grammys. Forty-three years later, it remains an enduring hit.

“It is such an iconic song, and these types of records always stand the test of time,” explains Garay, a Fog City native and son of the late Joaquin Garay, an acclaimed Latin singer, KFRC radio personality, and founder of Fisherman’s Wharf’s historical Copacabana night club, who in 2010 was posthumously recognized for his civic contributions when then-mayor Gavin Newsom designated June 20 “Joaquin Garay Day.”

“An example would be ‘Yesterday’ by the Beatles,” he adds. “That song has captured audiences for generations, and ‘Bette Davis Eyes’ has that same lasting attraction.”

Val Garay—who in 1966 relocated to Los Angeles to pursue a music career, making a name for himself as a studio engineer and producer for Bay Area legends Linda Ronstadt, Santana, Jefferson Starship’s Marty Balin, and The Motels—admits to being approached by myriad artists over the years eager to cover “Bette Davis Eyes.” 

Even Woolverton, a native Angeleno and child prodigy who beat future R&B star Aaliyah on “Star Search” in 1989, had been asking him for the opportunity since the two first collaborated on her debut album, 2011’s In the Blink of an Eye, with San Francisco songwriter-producer Bonnie Hayes in San Rafael. 

(These sessions produced three hit singles, including the bluesy “Shame On Me,” inspired by a dinner at The Slanted Door, and “OPM, Other People’s Money,” which Woolverton remembers performing at The Crib, the now-defunct LGBTQ+ dance party, where she first met her good friend, former Miss Trannyshack, Grand Duchess of San Francisco, and Empress of San Francisco, Pollo Del Mar.) 

But the producer was always hesitant to mess with his most prized single—until Woolverton reunited with him for the first time in over a decade to discuss collaborating on a new LP. The vocalist asked again, spurred by an epiphany she had had out on the bay—suddenly last summer—that an EDM cover of “Bette Davis Eyes” would slap.

“I pitched [my idea] to him and was thrilled to hear him reply, ‘Yes, let’s do it,’” says Woolverton. “I still couldn’t believe it until we had completed and dropped it on May 24.”

Producer Val Garay

“This song never fails to excite me, especially when doing it in a different lane,” Garay adds, as the song continues playing on a loop in the background. “The other thing that excites me is doing it with an amazing vocalist—and Katrina is a fantastic vocalist.”

The trick to a great cover, he says, is staying true to the previous version(s) while contemporizing the tune for modern audiences, which the producer admits is never smooth sailing. But the pair managed to stretch the song’s boundaries as far as they could—remaking it as an EDM track, for one—while still honoring the Carnes incarnation.

One notable change was reverting to the original DeShannon/Weiss lyric of “She’ll expose you when she blows you,” which Carnes had changed to ‘“snows you” to avoid any sexual innuendo. Garay boasts that Weiss is a big fan of the modification.

In the 15 years between collaborations, Garay can see the artistic growth in Woolverton, who’s since performed with Meat Loaf, Blues Traveler’s John Popper, and Goo Goo Dolls’ John Rzeznik, and is far more confident in the studio. 

“Besides, she has a great voice and understands the whole EDM world,” says the producer.

“Val is an icon,” Wolverton adds, always astounded by his decisiveness and technical wizardry in the studio. She regards the skillfulness with which he tracks vocals as “an anchor of the Val Garay Magic.” 

In the next five years, Woolverton hopes to be nominated for a Grammy, herself, write and sing an Oscar contender, and pen tracks with and for other artists. 

“I picture it in my mind’s eye, and so much more, all of it with an exhale and wish upon a shooting star,” she says. “I love making music and singing.” 

Like sailing, the singer says, as the boat returns to the dock, music is an inextricable part of her being.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

Joshua Rotter
Joshua Rotter
Joshua Rotter is a contributing writer for 48 Hills. He’s also written for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, SF Weekly, SF Examiner, SF Chronicle, and CNET.

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