Sometimes the stories behind the music world's most memorable songs can be almost as compelling as the tunes themselves. Such is the case with Crystal Gayle's 1977 Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue, a simple and short, yet incredibly beautiful song that peaked exactly 35 years ago this week.
Poor and Blessed
Gayle's rise to super stardom with 18 number one country songs started inauspiciously in Appalachian coal country. Brenda Gayle Webb was the last child born into a Paintsville, Kentucky family so poor that she had the distinction of being the only one of eight siblings actually born in a hospital. She had another more unique distinction - that of being the youngest sister of country music legend Loretta Lynn, nineteen years her senior. Lynn wrote her first charted song and came up with Gayle's stage name--after the Krystal hamburger restaurant. She also advised her sister that there already was one Loretta Lynn and that she should blaze her own path, and that she did.
After a few years of very limited success at Lynn's record label, Gayle switched to United Artists where she had the good fortune to team up with renowned producer Allen Reynolds, who was later key to the success of many other country artists including Garth Brooks. She also teamed with a wonderful songwriter named Richard Leigh, who wrote her first three country hits, including her first country number one song.
The Defining Hit That Almost Wasn't
Despite her and Leigh's success in the country music arena, Gayle was not well known to a wider audience and it almost stayed that way. Reynolds first heard Brown Eyes during a visit to Leigh's residence and was told it was about to get shopped to singing star Shirley Bassey. On Reynold's insistence it was played for a very excited Gayle who would go on to record it in Nashville in the Fall of 1977. Lyricist Hal David explained, "In writing I search for believability, simplicity, and emotional impact," and it is clear that Leigh accomplished all three in the defining hit of his and Gayle's careers.
As fate would have it Reynolds had to switch the pianist Charles Cochran to play "horns" on an electric piano on the track due to a stroke. The switch of pianists, however, created a nearly flawless, yet remarkably understated crisp arrangement of piano, strings, horns, and percussion that perfectly highlighted Gayle's sad, yet sultry style. The subtle, yet bluesy instrumentation not only backed her stunning vocals, but the piano in particular almost appeared to be conversing and responding to each heartfelt plea:
I didn't mean to treat you bad
Didn't know just what I had.
But honey now I do
Because the song and arrangement was so well matched to Gayle's range, emotion, and delivery the first vocal take became the one actually released the following month.
The blue eyed young beautiful woman with nearly floor length straight brown hair soon had the biggest hit of her career, a second country number one song, and a million selling single that stayed on the charts for six months. She also became the first female country soloist to score a platinum album and the song won her a Grammy award the following year. What the song did not do, however, was hit number one on the pop charts, despite a three week stay at number two, as Debby Boone's You Light Up My Life, topped the pop charts that fall for a record setting 10 weeks. Ironically, Boone also recorded a song by Leigh. Like other great songs that never hit number one, such as Elton John's Your Song (No. 8, 1970), John Lennon's Imagine (No. 3, 1971) or Billy Joel's Just The Way You Are (No. 3, 1978), the tune nonetheless, became a classic and was named by ASCAP in 1999 as one of the top ten most performed country songs of the century. Gayle, who has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, says she never tires of singing her trademark song. That is just fine for me and her legions of fans around the world who are still touched by this simple yet hauntingly beautiful melody some three decades later. Not bad for the coal miner's daughter whose dad regrettably never lived to witness his graceful youngest child's remarkable success.
Songwriter Richard Leigh's Version
Thank you to my son Gabriel for suggesting where to place the videos.