You Only Live Once: An Interview With Nancy Sinatra

[14 October 2009]

By Steve Horowitz

Giving a pop icon the respect she's due

Nancy Sinatra is one of the most important and influential musicians in rock history, but she has never gotten the respect she deserves.

The reasons for this are complex and reveal much about the times in which she emerged. Sinatra made her greatest impact on the charts during the late sixties. She had more than 20 charting hits between 1965 and 1972, a time when the role of women in society was going through some serious changes. Sinatra helped transform the image of women in popular song from the waif who pines for her true love to the tough gal who demands respect and attention.

Unlike Aretha Franklin, Joan Baez, and her more serious peers, Sinatra declared her independence with a smile and a hook (or maybe a whip would be more accurate). While she’s best known for her 1966 number one hit “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’,” Sinatra continued to develop her go-go boot persona on a number of other chart songs.

But Sinatra was no one-trick pony. She enjoyed other big successes and explored other types of music, from the romantic duet with her father “Somethin’ Stupid,” to the jazzy James Bond theme “You Only Live Twice,” to the sultry “Sugar Town.”  Sinatra’s sound was impossible to classify. While one could label Franklin as a “soul” artist and Baez as a “folk” musician and the other leading distaff artists of the day as one kind of singer or another, Sinatra embraced the wide range of pop music genres blossoming during this period.

This is something that’s best evidenced by her new album Cherry Smiles: The Rare Singles, a collection of obscure 45 sides as a digital-only release. The wonderful 14-track anthology includes a diverse selection of material that includes everything from covers of Neil Diamond’s “Glory Road,” Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine,” and the Charley Pride hit “Is Anybody Goin’ to San Antone,” to more outrageous titles, like the song about a prostitute (as sung by the daughter), “Annabell of Mobile,” the Faulkneresque gothic of “Dolly & Hawkeye,” and the schmaltzy “She Played Piano and He Beat the Drums,” to the more esoteric, like the obscure duet with Lee Hazelwood “Indian Summer.” 

Which brings us to Sinatra’s most extraordinary music: her remarkable collaborations with Lee Hazelwood. The contrast between her throaty and ethereal vocals with his low, leathery voice made them a memorable combination. Songs like “Summer Wine,” “Jackson,” “Lady Bird,” and “Some Velvet Morning” have become the touchstone by which other male/female duets are measured to this day.

Complicating matters was Sinatra’s good looks, especially in a bikini or a mini-skirt. One reason she was not taken seriously as a musician was because she flaunted her beauty. Because she was obviously well-endowed with attractive physical attributes, many thought Sinatra couldn’t be gifted musically. This type of sexism—can you imagine the same criticism of Jim Morrison?—was prevalent during Sinatra’s heyday. Sinatra’s image was featured in fashion magazines not to mention her iconographic album covers. In addition, she frequently appeared on television and in movies, including The Wild Angels with Peter Fonda and Speedway with Elvis Presley, so everyone knew what she looked like.

Plus, she was Frank’s daughter. Detractors presumed she succeeded only because she had access to the best songwriters, side-musicians, and producers of the time. Sinatra took advantage of these perks, but listening to her records reveals the depths of her talents. She knows how to inhabit and phrase a song. She delivers her lines with panache and an understanding of the material. She’s equal to, if not better than, many of the artists with whom she worked.

Sinatra gave up her career in 1972 to have children and raise a family. She made a few stabs at a comeback, including a duet album of country standards with Mel Tillis in the eighties, a return to rock album in the nineties (One More Time), and an eponymously titled Morrissey-produced disc in 2004 that featured such fan guest stars as Bono, Jarvis Cocker, Jim O’Rourke, and Thurston Moore.

Now with the release of Cherry Smiles, Sinatra seems very much at ease with her legacy.  During our interview, Sinatra touched on everything from granting Jessica Simpson permission to cover her most iconic hit to expressing her wish to work with Paul Simon to reminding us all to treasure our time with the ones we love ...

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What inspired you to put out Cherry Smiles? What made you decide to re-release the material now?

The truth is, I have a lot of good stuff that people haven’t heard for a whole bunch of reasons. For this first record, I was very specific. These tracks were singles that never found their way on albums. We discovered that we have enough stuff for two more CDs from cuts that never appeared as singles or on albums. I plan on calling them From the Vaults Volume I and II if I can get a label to release them.

I thought the singles were very eclectic. I put them together with an emphasis on the quality of the individual songs themselves rather than how they fit together as they came from different times, appeared on different labels, and had different players. One thing they share is that many tell a story.

I am a perfectionist. Many of the older songs had too much echo on them, which was the style back then, but doesn’t sound right now. We had to re-engineer some of them, like “Southern Lady,” to get rid of the layers and let the vocals breathe. It took years to get some of these songs to sound right.

“Southern Lady” is now one of my favorite cuts on the record. I like “Glory Road,” too. When Neil Diamond heard it he sent me a note that said, “You topped me,” which pleased me greatly. My least favorite track is “I’m Not a Girl Anymore,” not because of the lyric, although it has dated, but because it’s out of meter. That’s the classically trained musician in me talking.

Despite all the songs you have recorded over the years that found their way on to records or are in the vaults, are there any songs you wish you would have recorded but never gotten around to?

Too many, you know I started doing this stuff back in 1901. Okay, well in any case I’ve had almost a 50 year career. There’s a lot of songs I’ve done live that I never got around to doing in the studio.

One song that comes to mind is Kasey Chambers’ “Barricades and Brickwalls.” My fans loved it when I was touring. Kasey is one of the great young musicians out there, but there are too [many] great musicians and too many songs to name.

You began in an era of 45 rpm singles, as the new album reveals, and the technology has changed. What are your thoughts on this?

This is a digital release. You began in an era of 45 rpm singles, as the new album reveals, and the technology has changed. What are your thoughts on this?

Yea, I have mixed emotions. I’m glad that songs are easily available on the computer. I download legally all the time. But I feel sorry for all the store owners. We have lost so many good stores around here (in the Hollywood area). There is nothing like the feel of a good record store or going in one and hearing what’s playing and coming out with something you never heard of before but now love.

The new release does have a duet with Lee Hazelwood (“Indian Summer”). He died just a few years ago. What are your thoughts about your work with him?

Lee and I had a love/hate relationship. It was a love relationship until he left for Sweden the first time in 1970 without giving me a word of warning. We were in the middle of an album. It took us a while to become friends again, but when we did we became better friends than before.

When Lee recorded his last album, Cake or Death, he sent me an early copy. But I couldn’t play it. It was crushing. He understood he was going to die. He knew so much about music and taught me so much.

Your duets with Lee are legendary. Every time an album of male/female duets comes out, comparisons are made to the work of you and Lee, like the new Peter Yorn/Scarlet Johannson release.

Peter Yorn hurt my feelings. We worked together on my last album and I read that he said “I didn’t get it” when talking about my music. I knew what I was doing! There’s a reason my duets with Lee hold up so well.

Not long ago a British newspaper (Daily Telegraph) named “Some Velvet Morning” as the best duet of all time. The writers ranked it higher than stuff by Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, higher than, well, I don’t want to name them all and I’m not saying we were better than everyone else, but Lee and I made wonderful music together. I’m proud of the work we did and a little tired of not getting credit for my contributions.

Why do you think your music doesn’t get the respect it deserves?

The public always loved our music, but there were some people who just didn’t take the work seriously, even back in the day. I was never part of that inner clique that critics praised, like Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, because I was sloughed off as an airhead. My music was different than theirs, but we worked hard at what we were doing and did it well.

I few years ago I was talking to Phil Spector about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He was on he Board of Governors and he told me, “You don’t have a prayer. It’ll never happen.” He didn’t go into details, but I knew what he meant. There are artists in there that do not have my track record, who have not accomplished what I have, but that doesn’t matter.

When I die, I already know what my obituary will be, “Frank’s daughter died with her boots on!” Ha.

Look, I never won a Grammy. The Movin’ with Nancy television shows introduced some of the earliest modern music videos, but they never won an Emmy. You don’t want to go through your life working your ass off, sweating through every release, thinking all of that was for naught.
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How do you feel when other artists claim you as an inspiration or cover your songs?

I love it and take it as a compliment.  I get a thrill seeing my music and my image live on.

When Jessica Simpson recorded her version of “These Boots are Made For Walkin’,” she called me and asked for permission. I told her yes, only if she contacted the original bass player Chuck Berghofer and paid him royalties for the bass line. Lee dictated the bass line to Chuck, but the way Chuck played it was psychotic! I called Chuck to make sure, and Jessica was honorable and kept her word. He got paid.

Mariah Carey copies my album covers. I know Zooey Deschanel just did “Sugar Town” in the movie 500 Days of Summer. I own my own masters and keep track.

Do you have any regrets about giving up your career to have a family?

Not one. I wouldn’t trade my time with my two kids for anything, although there was a time I used to feel so jealous of Linda Ronstadt!

Look, we only go through life once. I only met Michael Jackson once, but I regret I didn’t reach out to him when I had a chance. I sent flowers to Teddy Kennedy last year with a note, but we lost him before I said more. We have so many friends in life that we don’t have a chance to be with more, so we have to treasure our time with those we love. I have an ego about my music, but I know what’s important.

If you could have any musician write an album of songs for you to record today, who would it be?

Paul Simon. I even have the titles for the songs on the album, which in my mind I call Biography. They are songs about famous people, like Jane Fonda, Nellie Bly, Fred Astaire ... I love the songs he wrote not long ago for his wife Edie Brickell, and wish I could get him to write songs for me. I met him once at Carrie Fisher’s house a long time ago, and once at a songwriter’s banquet, but I don’t really know him, just his enormous talent.

And if not him, then Randy Newman; it’s almost a toss up, because they both are flawless musicians. I have an aversion to musical bullshit. I don’t want to hear it, and with those guys you never do. They walk on water in my book.

Steven Horowitz has a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Iowa, where he continues to teach a three-credit online course on "Rock and Roll in America". He has written for many different popular and academic publications including American Music, Paste and the Icon. Horowitz is a firm believer in Paul Goodman's neofunctional perspective on culture and that Sam Cooke was right, a change is gonna come.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/111744-you-only-live-once-an-interview-with-nancy-sinatra/