Kenny Rogers says he’s so delighted with the Top 5 success of Don’t Fall in Love with a Dreamer, his torrid duet with Kim Carnes, that “I don’t think we’ll record again together.” How’s that? Well, explains Kenny, his mission for Carnes, a New Christy Minstrels colleague of his in the ’60s, has been accomplished. “That song helped get Kim in the public eye, and now she can definitely stand on her own.”
Indeed. Her own follow-up single, More Love, has already cracked the Top 30, and the LP Romance Dance could turn gold, ending a decade-long losing streak of artful but uncommercial work. Says Rogers: “I’m thrilled for Kim—but not surprised.”
Among pros, Carnes, 33, had already made a songwriting rep with her partner and husband, Dave Ellingson, 38 (another ex-Minstrel). Their royalties from composing for Sinatra, Streisand, Rita Coolidge and Anne Murray kept them above L.A.’s poverty line. But Kim’s own renditions—she does sound like a mildly mentholated Rod Stewart—stiffed on three different labels.
“Everyone always said, ‘This album is the one,’ ” she recalls, but despite “huge expectations” there were only “close calls.” If it took Kenny Rogers’ Midas pipes to establish her as a performer, well, he owed her one. Kenny had commissioned Kim and Dave to write a concept album for him loosely hung on a “cowboy” theme. The result was Rogers’ fine, now platinum Gideon. When Kenny first heard Kim’s demo of Dreamer for the Gideon LP, he decided to pair up with her (instead of his regular country partner, Dottie West). “I always hoped he would ask me to sing it with him,” says Carnes. “We have a similar quality in our voices that I thought would sound good together.”
Kim began making up tunes by age 3. The only child of an L.A. attorney father and hospital administrator mother, she studied piano from age 5 to 14 and composed and performed songs in school plays. Her parents split when she was 13, but, Kim recalls, “It was a lot harder on them than me.” She reluctantly enrolled at USC, but dropped out after one semester to sing demos, commercials and backup vocals before joining the Minstrels in 1966.
Despite the happy 1980 result of that association, the beginning was difficult. “It was my first time on the road, and I was real lonesome,” she recalls. Kim adds: “I hated folk music.” In fact, she quit and rejoined the Minstrels three times in that first year. Rogers soon split to help form the First Edition, but Ellingson helped ease her through her hard times. Along the way Kim broke off her engagement to a Gl stationed in Germany and married Dave.
The couple then left the Minstrels and sang at the Santa Ynez Inn in Pacific Palisades for two years. In 1971 they signed a $125-a-week contract with producer-publisher Jimmy Bowen, whose stable of formative L.A. songwriters included Glen Frey of the Eagles and J.D. Souther. Kim also had to moonlight singing demos at $25 a session for other writers, but in 1974 the Carnes-Ellingson luck changed when Frank Sinatra recorded their You Turned My World Around.
Dave, who plays guitar and sings with Kim on her records and on the road, is also handy around their rambling three-bedroom home in Sherman Oaks. It was previously inhabited (and trashed in 1972) by a group reportedly part of the radical Weathermen. The Ellingsons have since Cape Cod-ified it with English antiques, flowered wallpaper, painted woodwork, brass beds and quilts. On weekends they and son Collin, 5, often retreat to their mountain cabin at Lake Arrowhead, a two-hour drive to the east.
But with Kim’s hits, an August tour opening for James Taylor and the predictable talk of a Gideon spin-off onto Broadway and film, getting away from it all is harder than ever. “We take our usual walk in the woods up at the cabin,” Kim laughs, “and Collin says, ‘Will you guys stop talking business?’ We try to, but there are a lot of good things to talk about now.”