Crystal Gayle had her first hit single, “I’ve Cried (The Blue Right Out of My Eyes),” in 1970, but it would be six years before she topped the country chart with “I’ll Get Over You” – and seven years till she released what would become her signature, “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue.” Forty years ago this week, on June 24th, 1977, “Brown Eyes” was the first single released from Gayle’s fourth LP, We Must Believe in Magic.
The younger sister of Loretta Lynn, Gayle was born Brenda Gail Webb and took her stage name, suggested by Lynn, from the Krystal’s hamburger chain. She also listened to another piece of advice from her “Coal Miner’s Daughter” sibling: don’t copy Lynn’s hard-country approach to singing.
Lynn needn’t have worried. Gayle’s sultry, expressive vocal style, though well-suited to country music, proved to be just as effective with pop standards, making her a natural to cross over in the late Seventies when country singles were routinely dotting the pop charts. Like “I’ll Get Over You” and “Brown Eyes,” both written by songwriter Richard Leigh. Leigh originally intended the latter for Welsh singer Shirley Bassey (best known for the James Bond theme “Goldfinger”), but when Gayle’s producer Allen Reynolds heard it, he insisted on giving the ballad to his vocalist.
It was the right move. “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue,” recorded live in one take, became a country-pop classic and made Gayle a global superstar, whose beauty and long tresses helped distinguish her from her peers. Soon, she was performing “Brown Eyes” on TV shows worldwide, including on the BBC’s long-running Val Doonican Show. (Watch that performance above.)
“Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” peaked at Number Two on the U.S. pop chart (behind Debby Boone’s “You Light Up My Life”) and was Gayle’s first and only Top Five hit in the U.K, although her later hit, “Talking in Your Sleep,” just missed the Top 10 there. As a bonus, this Doonican Show clip includes several biographical notes about Gayle, including a reference to her (then) knee-length hair, which 40 years later brushes the floor when the singer is onstage.
Of the song’s enduring quality, Gayle (who, for the record, has piercing blue eyes) told Rolling Stone Country, “It’s a timeless song and I always say I’m glad I got ahold of it.”
Gayle was the CMA’s Female Vocalist of the Year in 1977 and 1978, and won a Grammy for “Brown Eyes” in 1978. She was inducted as a member of the Grand Ole Opry by her influential sister Lynn earlier this year.