It must’ve been great to be a young Nancy Sinatra. She had father Frank’s DNA, the gilded singer’s music-biz connections, and an easy in with his record label, Reprise. On the other hand, it must’ve been awful to be a young Nancy Sinatra. She had to perform in the shadow of the 20th century’s most celebrated vocalist, an entertainer whose accomplishments she could never come close to matching. And she was a woman trying to assert a degree of autonomy in an industry and an era not conducive for female artists to do so.
Despite all of those hindrances, Nancy Sinatra carved out a nice little niche for herself as a quasi-kitsch pop-cult icon who parlayed a brief but brilliant creative partnership with Lee Hazlewood into at least three all-time classic songs—two of which are “Some Velvet Morning” and “Sand.” Sinatra’s 1966 debut album contains the other tune and, woman oh woman, has she ever gotten a lot of mileage out of those walkin’ boots. More on that later.
With the wily composer/producer Hazlewood, Sinatra transitioned out of her bubblegum image into something more sophisticated. Her debut album, which peaked at #5 in the US, was produced by Hazlewood and arranged by Billy Strange. It starts unpromisingly with “As Tears Go By,” the Andrew Loog Oldham-Jagger-Richards ballad. Done as a bossa nova with persistent, mellow shakers and rimshots as percussion, “Tears” proves that lachrymose melancholy is not Nancy’s best mode, although she really nailed it with her interpretation of Dolly Parton’s “Down From Dover” on Nancy & Lee.
“Day Tripper,” the first of two Beatles covers here, is Vegas-y but not annoying about it, with horns and women backing vocalists singing “ba da ba ba” in place of the famous guitar riff. The drums stomp like Motown’s Funk Brothers on steroids and I’m guessing Lee decided to sneak in the “Boots” bass line. When DJing, I like to follow this with Hazlewood’s “In Our Time,” which was his sly homage to “Day Tripper.” (Nancy did “In Our Time,” too, but with less pizzazz than Lee.) The other Beatles cut is “Run For Your Life.” Sinatra reverses genders on Lennon’s problematic, stalker-ish rocker from Rubber Soul as the musicians give it a proto-Austin Powers-esque treatment: brash horn charts, swinging piano, twanging guitar. Sinatra emphasizes every “little boy” with withering disdain, and that took ovaries at a time when the Beatles were indisputable gods.
The second best Hazlewood song on the record, “I Move Around” is one of Lee’s, uh, most moving songs. The backing “ooh”s and “ah”s are to swoon for and though the expensive session-player sheen that glazes these songs suggests a desire to win over mid-’60s squares, it can’t dim the song’s poignancy. Lee’s “So Long, Babe” is swanky country rock with a deceptive middle finger raised. You can imagine Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval drawing deep inspiration from this. A cover of the Knickerbockers’ sassy Nuggets standard “Lies” fits snugly in Sinatra’s wheelhouse, with its wronged romantic partner perspective. However, the backing vocals verge on Chipmunks-level hilarity.
And now for “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’.” Reviewing this song is like critiquing Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In logo or Johnny Carson’s nicotine chuckle or Richard Nixon’s jowls. It’s so ingrained in American Boomer consciousness that describing it seems superfluous—and that’s exactly why I’m writing about it. It’s music that makes the lizard brain wiggle, thanks largely to that descending, twangy double-bass line. “Boots” is perhaps the most seductive anthem of vengeance ever penned, and Sinatra owns it, her take-no-shit, deadpan delivery a distaff simulacrum of Hazlewood’s. The “Boots” single deservedly sold over a million copies.
Interestingly, the original plan was for Hazlewood to release “Boots” himself, but Sinatra suggested that she sing it to change the power dynamic to a vengeful woman, which at the time had a more radical charge than vice versa. She was so right. (Lee later did it, too, because those expensive vices of his weren’t going to pay for themselves.) “Boots” has been covered dozens of times, including by the Supremes, Megadeth, Billy Ray Cyrus, and Crispin Glover. And just by reading the title, you’ll have the song stuck in your head for hours. You’re welcome.
Light In The Attic Records recently kicked off a Nancy Sinatra reissue campaign by releasing the great 2xLP comp, Start Walkin’ 1965-1976. -Buckley Mayfield