An Interview with Nancy Sinatra
Nancy Sinatra is one of the most fluid superstars of the last fifty years. As a singer, movie starlet, multimedia trendsetter, proto-feminist muse, and fashionista, Sinatra has maintained an undeniable presence in contemporary culture. Through a series of mythic collaborations with Lee Hazlewood, Mel Tillis, Elvis Presley, Bobby Darin, Morrissey, and her famous father, she popularized the form of the male-female duet in American rock and roll. Her susurrating vocal style, sourced and echoed a hundred times over by the likes of Kim Gordon, Britta Phillips, and Lana Del Rey, divined the best elements of European chansons, jazz-blues, and confectionary standards with a loping, almost sardonic drawl that belies her New Jersey birthright. Heard in baroque masterpieces like “How Does that Grab You, Darlin’?” and “Summer Wine,” this vocal persona (whose apocryphal description as a “fourteen-year-old who screws truck drivers” is attributed to Hazlewood) caused the producer to refer to her by the affectionate moniker “Nasty.” Her bleached bouffant and leather boots introduced a particularly Californian “go-go” aesthetic from Europe, immortalized in the Movin’ with Nancy TV specials and her omnipresent classic “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’.”
Nancy Sinatra’s career mirrors that of countless female artists who have come before and after her; namely, the fact that its prescience and influence have often been diminished (by both men and other women) because of her gender, and that its great successes are sometimes yoked unfairly to the men who surrounded her.
Ten years after her self-titled “comeback” album, and two decades since she last mounted a reunion tour with Hazlewood (who passed away, of cancer, in 2007), Sinatra continues to work in publishing, film, and music, and has produced two albums of unreleased material on her own Boots label: Cherry Smiles: The Rare Singles (2011) and Shifting Gears (2013). Just as their titles promise, Cherry Smiles is a fabulous collection of Nancy rarities from the vaults, while Shifting Gears, also dated from the early ’70s but painstakingly re-recorded and remastered, offers a parallax view of Nancy—neither the proto-punk cowgirl of the counterculture nor the reinvented indie-rock chanteuse of Nancy Sinatra (2004)—with stringladen renditions of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Jimmy Webb, and George Gershwin revealing just how incandescent and timeless her simpering voice is when wedded to the Great American Songbook.
As the fiftieth anniversary of “These Boots Were Made for Walking’” approaches, and rock and roll enters a seventh, geriatric decade, I spoke by telephone to one of its grand dames. Sinatra was a forthright and commanding conversationalist. She remains aware of her celebrated pedigree in popular music, and spoke of her aural and visual contributions to the medium, her second thoughts on the past, and her plans for the future.
THE BELIEVER: You were barely out of your teens when you made your television-singing debut on Timex’s Welcome Home Elvis special. Were you always comfortable with performing in front of a camera, or was there a learning curve for you?
NANCY SINATRA: I was always comfortable. There is a moment right before the red light comes on when you feel a little bit of nerves, but it passes quickly.
BLVR: There are many histories written of your father that explain his status as one of the first multimedia celebrities. Do you think you sensed that this new multimedia element would be essential for a musician to prosper?
NS: I actually wished that I had more of a sense of it. I was not smart enough to market myself the way I should have. I should have had a line of fashion or been more involved with companies that worked in fashion. I didn’t have any of that. I didn’t have any marketing savvy whatsoever. I knew what I wanted to do going in, but I just didn’t understand the benefits of marketing.
BLVR: During those early days with Reprise, when you began releasing the bubblegum singles, in the ’60s, were you singing professionally or spending time at any of the Hollywood/West Hollywood nightclubs? Were you performing live at all?
NS: The record company did send me on promotional tours, but usually I was going to other countries. They sent me to the UK, Germany, France; I can’t remember all the places we went. But it was strictly for record promotion. Had I had my wits about me, I would have insisted they arrange more appearances and concerts, but I just didn’t know. Just like it is now, you really make money only off of merchandise; you don’t make money on the show, because you’re paying for the traveling and the band and the per diems and everything. So the only way you’re going to make money is if you have products to sell at every venue.
BLVR: It seems like the middle of the ’60s marked a distinct change in the demographics, subculture, and kinds of restaurants and clubs that filled Hollywood from what had been the popular landmarks during your father’s generation—like Ciro’s, the Trocadero, etc. Was there a reason that you weren’t part of this transformation? Was that your label’s decision?
NS: No, Reprise was very much into that scene. They had a lot of great artists join the label at that point. But I think most of the executives at the label looked at me as Frank’s daughter. They didn’t look at me as a fashion icon or an influence on the women’s movement or anything like that. They just tolerated the existence of me. And I know the result of it made me not welcome by my musical peers. I never felt I was part of [a scene], and they never accepted my music or me.
BLVR: And was that more a result of your last name or your association with Reprise?
NS: Well, the [bubblegum] music didn’t help. It was crappy music. It was OK in its time because there were a lot of us doing it. Like Lesley Gore and Annette [Funicello] and me. We had great arrangers like Don Costa and Tutti Camarata, but it was just not quality stuff. They walked the edge between pop and rock, but they never fell over the edge into rock. And it’s sad, because we could have made much better records earlier on.
BLVR: You got to write a few songs around that time, didn’t you?
NS: Yeah, but that was an exercise in futility. They didn’t sell. But I tried, so what the hell.
BLVR: Let’s discuss your first meetings with Barton Lee Hazlewood. Lee said in an interview some years ago that you didn’t even talk about working together on his first visit to your parents’ house. After about forty minutes, in came your father. He introduced himself. An hour later, he came back without another word and shook Lee’s hand, saying, “I’m glad to hear that you guys are going to be working together.” What do you remember about this first meeting?
NS: I don’t remember any of that. Lee tended to embellish. My father had been in cahoots to make that evening happen. And it was clear. My dad wouldn’t have casually dropped by when my new record producer just happened to be there. It was a well-engineered meeting. The writing was on the wall that this was going to happen. Remember, Reprise was my father’s record label, and every time I did a recording session they had to pay for it. And every time I didn’t make the charts they lost money. So it was very important to my dad, not just as my dad, who wanted me to succeed, but as a businessman who didn’t really want to spend any more money on me unless I came through. I remember it being much more about the music than Lee remembered. [Reprise guitarist/arranger] Billy Strange and Lee were there and talking to me, and my father was in the next room within earshot. They were explaining to me what this music would sound like if I went along and recorded with them. They would play some of it on their guitars. And it was really just a ménage à trois. Because without Billy, it would not have been what it was. Billy was the one who really created that Nancy and Lee sound.
BLVR: At what point did Lee famously instruct you to start singing “like a fourteen-year-old girl who screws truck drivers”?
NS: I don’t know where that twisted version of what he said came from. I know that that’s been floating around in various forms for a long time. He said much more gently to me, “You’ve been married, you’ve been divorced, and people know that. They know that you know what’s going on in life, so you’ve got to behave on the record like you do know. Stop being such a little Goody Two-shoes.” And this fit very well with the kinds of songs he was getting me to sing. But this business of me being the first feminist, or whatever they called me in those days, was untrue. Because the women I admired were doing that stuff long before I was. There were the soul singers like Ruth Brown and LaVern Baker starting all that.
BLVR: Did you have to fight to earn respect in the maledominated atmosphere?
NS: I just remember it being great times. I remember being grateful to have found these guys. And I remember just doing what they told me to do. There was no dissention, no harsh words. Lee was always very kind to me. There was this warm, happy, almost sexy feeling during these sessions, and it showed in the music. Lee’s lyrics were the guiding light for us, because he wrote these wonderful fantasies. Billy took them and put them to music. And what I did was follow along. The beauty of it was that I added enough to it to make it happen. Lee had done a lot of this stuff with other people, and he didn’t get anywhere with it. Lee’s muse in those days was Suzi Jane Hokom. Suzi Jane sang on all those duets. And he sang with Ann-Margret and several other ladies. But it just didn’t have the magic that Nancy and Lee had. So I told him in no uncertain terms over the years that he really owes me a lot, too. He wasn’t the Svengali that he thought he was. So it was a symbiotic relationship that turned out some pretty damned special music. I’m proud of all of it and proud of my contributions to it.
BLVR: You mentioned once in an interview that Lee was a mix of Henry Higgins and Sigmund Freud, and that you viewed his songs as children’s stories that you performed like sex dreams. The music is so sensual and sexy that it’s hard to believe it was a simulation and not based on a real relationship.
NS: We were too smart for that. I think it’s clear in the music that we kept the sexual tension in the music and that that’s where it stayed. And that’s why it’s magic. I honestly believe that had we been having some rip-roaring affair, it would have petered out. We had tremendous respect for one another. I was going through a lot of changes at the time. I was getting a divorce [from musician Tommy Sands] when I met Lee. He was married and had children. When we celebrated a chart record, his wife, Naomi [Shackleford], was there. Billy’s wife, Betty, was there. Because I was getting all the attention, I made it a point to single them out. I never wanted them to feel threatened by that music. Because it was very sexual, and, like you say, it’s hard for people not to believe there was an affair going on. But there just wasn’t.
BLVR: Did the lyrical otherworldliness of these songs make them easier or harder to interpret, or was it just intuitive?
NS: It was honest. When you’re an actor—which is what you are when you’re recording songs, you’re acting a part—you just interpret the story. That’s what I’d do: just tell stories. I think the most difficult task I ever had was “Down from Dover,” the Dolly Parton song. Lee and I did a really fabulous duet of that song. That was the most difficult song for me vocally.
BLVR: What made it the most challenging?
NS: It’s highly emotional. It’s one of Dolly’s best songs. And I wanted to do justice to it. I had to play the role of this girl who’s waiting for this guy who’s impregnated her to come down from Dover and give this child a name. It was a very dramatic story, and it moved me to tears. When I was crying at the very end of the take, Lee was celebrating in the booth. And he kept that take. But that’s what happens when you’re acting a part. You get wrapped up in it.
BLVR: I want to ask you about “Some Velvet Morning.” It has been lauded as one of the great duets of all time. Did you ever hear another version of that song or any of those classic duets you thought captured the original’s sense of magic or otherworldliness?
NS: Not really. I appreciated the other interpretations. And I admire a lot of people who did them. But I’m not in love with them the way that I’m in love with Nancy and Lee. I think a lot of that is due to Billy. Billy’s work on that recording was extraordinary. He did what Lee told him to do, followed the guidelines of what he wanted to hear as a producer. But a lot of the magic on that record, a lot of the credit, has to be given to Billy Strange. He was kind of like the unsung hero of those recordings.
BLVR: Let’s discuss your iconic fashions of the ’60s. You’ve mentioned in other interviews that much of the go-go style resulted from your travels to London, where you fell in love with the Youthquake culture and Mary Quant’s clothing.
NS: Mary Quant came into my life during the bubblegum years. All those clothes that I wore in the early ’60s were [hers]. I brought them from London to Los Angeles and wore them all around. At that point nobody knew what a miniskirt was, so I’d get people throwing me lines like “The tennis court is over there,” stuff like that. They didn’t get it; they didn’t catch on to what the fashion statement was. It wasn’t until Twiggy made a big splash in the States, and then Jean Shrimpton, that that whole look came to be. Mary Quant was, I think, way ahead of her time: she was a fashion genius. And the fact that I ran into her when I was in London promoting those silly songs—God’s hand must have been on my shoulder. I was at the right place at the right time. Little did I know that I would run into a song called “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” and that I already had the outfits. I didn’t have to go shopping for them.
BLVR: During your time in New York and Europe, did you befriend other fashion/music icons to whom you are often compared—like Jane Birkin, Monica Vitti, Anna Karina, and Edie Sedgwick?
NS: I remember meeting Claudia Cardinale. And she sent me a Pucci outfit as a gift. I wore a lot of Pucci outfits in the ’60s. And Laura Aponte, which was a little more traditional. I was so skinny; I was only about ninety pounds, and I was always looking for clothes that made me look a little less skinny. Laura Aponte made these knit things that by their very nature were thicker. In Paris I fell in love with the fashions of Courrèges. They’re just fabulous. What else? I took my mother to Givenchy and we each had an outfit made. And we went to Chanel, of course. Beautiful, beautiful clothes. I wish I could have stayed in them forever, but I wasn’t ninety pounds for long.
BLVR: Were there particular women whose aesthetics you most admired at the time?
NS: I loved Brigitte Bardot. I copied her hair a lot. I copied Doris Day by cutting my hair off like she did. Marilyn Monroe was another one; I wanted to be like her so badly. Interesting that they’re all blonds and I was a brunette. Peggy Lee, but that was as I got older and more into singing. Everything was so eclectic for me in the ’50s. The ’50s were a great time to grow up.
BLVR: Was the sex-kitten persona you created a selfconscious decision to get “sexed up,” or was it just a desire to dress up? Were you aware of what a public sex symbol you became?
NS: It was just fashion. And this photographer named Ron Joy dictated it. He came to a filming of The Hollywood Palace that I was doing. He was hired by some magazine to come and photograph me. Ron literally held my hand and walked me through that whole scene. He took hundreds of pictures of me. He had shown me pictures of Raquel Welch in a magazine and said, “This is what I want to do for you.” And I became his muse. So he took these photos and sent them to magazines all over the world, and that’s how I ended up on all the different covers in all the different countries. It was all due to Ron’s beautiful photographs.
BLVR: You played shows in Las Vegas sporadically from 1969, beginning with a residence right after Elvis’s first major comeback.
NS: That was at the International, which has been the Hilton for decades now. It had a huge showroom that held something like fifteen hundred people. The first person to open that room was Barbra Streisand, the second person was Elvis, and the third person was me.
BLVR: Do you remember what caused the professional split between you and Lee following Nancy and Lee Again, after which he moved permanently to Sweden? I read that you were very upset at his departure and didn’t talk to him for many years.
NS: I didn’t see him to be able to speak with him for many years. He wanted out and he just got out—thoroughly. He just disappeared. It wasn’t that crushing to me, because we weren’t getting anywhere anymore musically. Where he made his mistake right off is that he didn’t include other composers; he didn’t try to bring in writers who would have kept our string of hits going. He wanted to do everything himself. Even the best burn out. And he burned out. Maybe he thought he was doing me a favor by leaving, and he didn’t know the best way to say goodbye. But it was typical of his behavior toward me. When we got together years later to do Nancy and Lee 3, everything was much more difficult because we were so much older. I had much more musical knowledge, and it was hard for him to accept that. It was hard for him to tolerate.
BLVR: How long was the gap between the time that he left and when you spoke again?
NS: We really didn’t work together again until that [reunion] tour, in ’95. That’s when he told me [that he had cancer], in a trailer dressing room when we were doing this bus tour—and if you are going to get back together with somebody, bus tours are the worst. We were in some town, I don’t even remember which, and I said, “Barton, what’s wrong with you?” Finally, he said, “Ah, hell, I’ve got cancer.” It was like pulling it out of him. That tour was difficult. Although when he walked out onstage, I’d start singing, “Strawberries, cherries…” then he’d start his part, “I’d walk in town,” the spotlight would come over him, and the roof would fall in. The crowd was just so happy to see him. And he didn’t let them down. We got through the tour and then did the album. And I saw him one last time on his last birthday at his girlfriend, Jeanne [Kelley]’s, house in Las Vegas. We sang a chorus of “Jackson,” and that was the last time I saw him. It was very sad.
BLVR: For your “comeback” album, Nancy Sinatra (2004), your daughter A. J. Lambert played a big role in organizing younger artists who contributed to the track list. As it turned out, you were a massive inspiration for several generations of musicians who considered you one of the greatest vocalists of your time—Morrissey, Jarvis Cocker, Dean Wareham, Kim Gordon, Lana Del Rey, and Courtney Love. Why do you think there is such a strong polarity in your music that led it to be rejected by your contemporaries but universally loved by younger musicians?
NS: It’s a lack of prejudice. They don’t think of Frank Sinatra when they listen to Nancy. They had respect for me as a separate person, and, of course, a great respect for Lee Hazlewood. I can’t seem to get out of this trap. I’m either Frank’s daughter or the person who sang with Lee Hazlewood. That’s OK; I don’t begrudge the men in my life. They helped me tremendously. I’m very glad that I saw it and could take advantage of working with Lee. But I don’t know, honestly, if any other woman singing in those days would have tolerated the treatment from Lee that I put up with over the years. We had the classic love/hate relationship. I’m not ashamed to say that. I think Lee would say the same thing. He’s the one who wrote [the book] The Pope’s Daughter and “Nancy and Me.” He was a very smart guy. He was not the stupid, ignorant hillbilly that he pretended to be.
BLVR: While we are on the subject of the Nancy Sinatra album, I wanted to ask you about your decade-long friendship with Morrissey. Do you recall how you first met each other?
NS: He came to my hotel while I was in London on a book tour. The front desk called me up and said, “There’s a person here named Morrissey who wants to see you.” I had never met him before, so I said, “Send him up.” He showed up with arms full of my 45s and LPs, sheet music: whatever he had he was carrying for me to sign. He was just adorable. The only reason I knew of him was because my children were Smiths fans. There was a poster of Morrissey hanging in my house for fifteen years. Probably, the next time I heard from him he was inviting me to tea at his house. He told me if I did “Let Me Kiss You” that I’d be back on the charts. And he was right. It was a perfect marriage of his track and my vocals.
BLVR: We’ve come to accept that the female image and body are afforded much more scrutiny in the film and music industries than those of their male counterparts, particularly as they age. Do you think women have to work harder in order to satisfy the needs of a fickle music public as their careers move beyond the moment of novelty?
NS: The fickle music public is fourteen years old, and when you’re seventy you can’t gauge your work from the fourteen-year-olds. As for the male/female thing, I don’t care about that. Mick Jagger is still Mick Jagger, because he’s out there doing it. I think perhaps it’s easier for a man, in that regard, to continue to work on the road. But young women certainly know where it’s at. They certainly don’t need any help from us old fogeys. Some of the rockers like Pink, Joan Jett, Pat Benatar, Avril Lavigne: they can continue to work as long as they want. I suppose I could put some tours together if I wanted to. I just don’t know what the marketplace is like for a person in her seventies. I’ve thought about it before and I decided if I do it, I’m going to call it “My ’70s Tour.”
BLVR: How is interpreting a Gershwin, Rodgers and Hammerstein, or Jimmy Webb tune different from singing a modern pop song?
NS: Your performance should be honest whether it’s rock, country, folk, rap or the Great American Songbook. All the best interpreters of songs are truthful—with themselves and with their audience. If you don’t believe, then your listeners won’t believe, either.