Light In The Attic reintroduces Nancy Sinatra to a new generation with an excellent career overview
Nancy Sinatra needed a break. She’d signed to Reprise Records, the label founded by her father Frank, in 1961, with the proviso that she had to pull her own weight.
Her singles attracted attention overseas, but she couldn’t crack the US charts. “The music was pretty bubblegummy,” she told me in 1999 about her early work. “The titles even. My very first recording was called ‘Cuff Links and a Tie Clip.’ What does that tell you?”
Now time was running out on her contract. “They were trying to figure out what to do with me,” she said. “Because I never even got on the radio here. It’s like they put the records in their ‘round file’ when they saw them coming in! That’s what it felt like. ’Cause we’d work hard, we’d put out a new record, and we’d cross our fingers, and pray and hope like everybody else does. And nothing.”
Then Jimmy Bowen, Reprise’s head of A&R, decided to approach a true maverick of the music industry about working with Sinatra: Lee Hazlewood. At the time, Hazlewood was best known for his work with guitarist Duane Eddy. But he also had his own distinctive, idiosyncratic vision, a bohemian cowboy on the prowl. Hazlewood was intrigued by the thought of working with Sinatra, telling Bowen, “I will get her on the charts with our first single, or you can let both of us go.”
VIDEO: Nancy Sinatra performs “So Long Babe” on Hullabaloo (1965)
The bet paid off, and the first collaboration between the two, “So Long Babe,” released in the fall of 1965, kept Nancy’s foot in the door by climbing to No. 86. Hardly spectacular, but it was something to build on. “So the next time a new single would go into the stations, it would not go automatically in the trash,” she said. “They would have to at least look at it, and maybe somebody at a radio station would have to give it a listen. And so the next record was very, very important.”
And Nancy knew exactly what song she wanted for that next record. Among the songs Lee had played for her on his guitar was a short kiss-off number called “These Boots are Made for Walkin’.” “And I said, ‘That’s the one I want to do,’” she recalled. “And he said, ‘Well, I only have two verses.’ And I said, ‘I don’t really care; can’t you write a third verse? Because I think that is the hit song.’ And I didn’t know anything at all. And anybody who tells you they know a hit song is not really telling the truth. But I really felt with all my heart, and my whole being, that that was a hit song.’”
VIDEO: Nancy Sinatra “These Boots Are Made For Walkin'”
Nancy’s instincts were, of course, right on the money. “Boots,” released in December 1965, became a sensation, topping record charts around the world. It spawned a promo film that’s kitschy good fun, became a cultural touchstone, and will be Nancy’s signature song forevermore. Which makes it natural to reference the song in the title of her new compilation Start Walkin’: 1965-1976, that kicks off a Sinatra reissue program from Light in the Attic Records, which will see the release of expanded editions of the albums Boots, Nancy & Lee, and Nancy & Lee Again later in the year.
Start Walkin’ serves a teaser for what’s to come, featuring tracks from those three albums alongside other releases, presenting a comprehensive overview of the period when Nancy came into her own as a performer. “Boots,” “So Long Babe,” and “How Does That Grab You, Darlin’?’” (all written by Hazlewood) cast her as a newly independent woman of the swinging sixties, walking away from dead end relationships without a backwards glance. It was an attitude perfectly timed for the moment when rock had started to get more interesting.
She certainly recorded commercial fare, like the James Bond theme “You Only Live Twice,” and her chart-topping duet with her father, “Somethin’ Stupid” (the latter not on this collection). But Nancy and Lee also ventured into more mysterious, beguiling territory. In their first duet, “Summer Wine,” Nancy’s the wily seductress who leaves Lee with a hangover and without a dime in his pocket (or his silver spurs). In “Some Velvet Morning,” she’s the elusive “Phaedra,” the dream he can’t come to terms with losing. In “Lady Bird” they tease and joust with each other, his rich baritone perfectly paired with her high, clear voice. The music in all their songs underscores the drama; strings, a tinkling harpsicord, sophisticated horns. They’re the kind of songs that sweep you up into the story; shut your eyes and the images unfurl in your mind as if on a movie screen.
Most of Start Walkin’ is devoted to songs written by or performed with Hazlewood. The rest of the set is rounded out by tracks like her cover of Cher’s “Bang Bang” (Cher had the hit single, but Nancy’s version ended up in Kill Bill Volume 1) and tracks she describes in the liner notes as songs that “just got lost.” “Hook and Ladder” is a laidback number with a country feel (by Norman Greenbaum, of “Spirit in the Sky” fame). “Hello L.A., Bye Bye Birmingham” is a terrific song about a cross-country ramble, co-written by Delaney Bramlett and Mac Davis, Sinatra sounding coolly confident as she sets out on the road to fame and fortune. “Machine Gun Kelly” is a nice surprise, a previously unreleased track from the prolific pen of Danny Kortchmar, a droll recounting of the gangster’s life and crimes.
Start Walkin’ is a satisfying compilation because it digs beyond the hits, and doesn’t just treat Sinatra as a sexy ’60s pin up, but as a serious artist who made some of the most intriguing music of the era. Working with some of the best songwriters and top musicians of the time, Nancy Sinatra created an iconic persona for the ages. “Boots” was the breakthrough, and other delights were waiting just around the corner.