Nancy Sinatra: That's why the lady is a star

Nancy Sinatra was a one-hit wonder with a famous dad, but then Morrissey put her on her feet again, she tells Fiona Sturges
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

"When you get to my age, you can see the end of your life ahead," Nancy Sinatra tells me over tea at her London hotel. "It forces you to look back and say to yourself, 'Did I accomplish what I wanted to accomplish or do I still have work to do?' I decided there was work to do. My work was always about making great music, I just didn't get acknowledged for that. In spite of the fact that my songs have survived all this time, I'm still called a one-hit wonder. I want to change that before I leave this planet."

"When you get to my age, you can see the end of your life ahead," Nancy Sinatra tells me over tea at her London hotel. "It forces you to look back and say to yourself, 'Did I accomplish what I wanted to accomplish or do I still have work to do?' I decided there was work to do. My work was always about making great music, I just didn't get acknowledged for that. In spite of the fact that my songs have survived all this time, I'm still called a one-hit wonder. I want to change that before I leave this planet."

The hit to which she refers is, of course, "These Boots Were Made For Walkin'", a song that chimed with the growing emancipation of women in the Sixties and with which she will forever be associated. But there is another reason why Sinatra, who is now aged 64, believes she never got the credit she deserves - namely her surname. Being the daughter of the most famous singer of the 20th century, she says, "wasn't always easy. It certainly opened doors - I had a father with a record label, after all - but it closed a lot more. It meant I was never treated as an artist in my own right." And with that, it's clear that the subject is closed. As she tells me firmly but politely later on, she's done talking about Frank.

Looking at her CV, you realise that for a so-called underachiever, Sinatra has a lot of hits under her belt. Between 1966 and 1972, she had 22 Top Ten singles - as well as "Boots" there was "So Long Babe", "Sugar Town", "You Only Live Twice" (the theme tune to the James Bond film), and "Somethin' Stupid," the last of which she sang as a duet with her father. Meanwhile, her film career was no less auspicious, with lead roles alongside Peter Fonda in 1966's The Wild Angels and, most famously, with Elvis Presley in Speedway. In the decades since, she has been hailed as a great influence on a new wave of musicians, among them Deborah Harry, Sheryl Crowe and Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon. In an early interview, Madonna famously described her two oldest fantasies - "One was to be Nancy Sinatra; the other was to be a nun. I used to sing 'These Boots Are Made For Walkin'' in front of the mirror, in my uniform skirt."

"Young women still look to me as an example of what to do and what not to do," reflects Sinatra. "It's a heavy load sometimes, but I want them to see that just because you get older doesn't mean you have to sit down. But there's a difference between being loved for what you do and being loved because you're an icon. A lot of what people know about me is to do with photographs and fashion. They don't see the connection between the person sitting here and the fashion icon of the Sixties."

While Sinatra's sporadic attempts to restart her career have been fraught with problems - a nude photo-shoot for Playboy in the mid-Nineties didn't exactly help her bid to be taken seriously - lately she seems to be on a roll. Last year the director Quentin Tarantino chose her cover of the song "Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)" to accompany the opening credits to Kill Bill Vol I, while this summer she performed her first-ever concert in England as part of the South Bank's prestigious Meltdown Festival. Now Sinatra is releasing a new self-titled album featuring collaborations with a host of luminaries including Bono, Morrissey, Pete Yorn, Jon Spencer and Jarvis Cocker.

It was Nancy's daughter AJ's idea that she work with younger musicians. "I like to tease her and tell her she is dragging me into the new century," smiles Sinatra. "She kept saying, 'Mom, you're making the wrong kind of music, you need to tap into a whole different age group. My first question when she started mentioning people like Jarvis and Bono was, 'What would they want to do with me?'"

Though she took direction from AJ with regard to potential collaborators, Sinatra credits Morrissey for providing the impetus to make the album. "He told me not to give up on myself, and that I have a voice that is still worth hearing," she recalls. "I owe him so much."

They first met in 1995 when Sinatra was in London promoting her book. Morrissey called her at her hotel and asked if she could sign some records for him. Now Sinatra describes him as her "mentor" and, as if to prove it, points to a small badge on her lapel bearing his name. One of the reasons she was drawn to him, she says, was because of qualities he shares with her father. "When I told him that he said, 'You've got to be kidding me.' But there are people who live for Morrissey, just like they lived for my dad. On stage, they are very similar, too - the body language, the strong voice, that same magnetic quality. The way he thinks about a lyric when he sings it. It's spooky."

You might argue that Morrissey, who has given Sinatra the song "Let Me Kiss You" for her album despite having had plans to release it as a single himself, is fulfilling a similar role to that of Lee Hazlewood, her producer and sometime vocal foil in the Sixties. "Certainly I saw Lee as a mentor as well," agrees Sinatra, "though the difference is that he was hired by the record company. He promised Jimmy Bowen, the head of A&R at Reprise, that he would get me in the charts, or Jimmy would fire both of us. My career had been flagging for some time back then. Luckily we were successful. If it weren't for Lee, I wouldn't be the singer I am today. He taught me to sing lower and to sing tough."

In 1972, Sinatra put her career on hold in order to bring up her two children. "It's what you did then," she explains. "You got married and concentrated on your family. I was raised as a Catholic and as an Italian so there was no question of doing it any other way." Though she still thinks the decision was the right one, she notes that the comeback has been hard. "The music industry is very ruthless, now more than ever," she says. "People forget extremely quickly. Rather than picking up where you left off, you have to start all over again."

Sinatra has, in fact, had two records out in the past 10 years, though both have fallen victim to the financial problems of their respective labels. The first, One More Time, was released in 1995, just a few weeks before the record company, Cougar, went bust. "We went to pick up all my CDs from the distributors and they had already sold them on to trading meets, which is the industry equivalent of a garage sale. I was so angry. They wanted to get rid of everything quickly, to take the money and run." California Girl, from 2002, suffered a similar fate, with the label going into liquidation and the album being shelved.

Now Sinatra feels "blessed" that she's been given another chance. "For me at this point it's about surviving in the music business, and prevailing, hopefully, though that's not what keeps me doing it. At this stage, the odds of prevailing are very low."

Though Sinatra believes the success of "Boots" has overshadowed the rest of her career, she insists that she still gets a thrill from playing it live. "There's always someone there who's never seen my show before and in many cases the reason that they've paid their money is to hear that song live. I would never want to disappoint them. You know, I got an e-mail from a woman not long ago whose daughter is in elementary school. She said, 'Nancy, do you have any idea where I can buy go-go boots for my child, because she's performing "These Boots Were Made For Walkin'" in her school play.' I was touched that even now little children are hearing that song. Then, of course, I realised I was in the wrong game. I should have been in the boot business all along."

The album 'Nancy Sinatra' is out now on Sanctuary; the single "Let Me Kiss You" is out on Attack

Comments