Nancy kicks off the boots
Championed by Tarantino and courted by Morrissey, Nancy Sinatra has become the icon of a new generation. She tells Tim Geary about her rejuvenated career.
Before meeting Nancy Sinatra, I decided to remind myself of her sound. At Virgin Megastore in New York's Union Square, I asked an assistant to direct me towards the singer.
"You don't mean Frank Sinatra?" I was asked. No, Nancy; Frank's kid. The next assistant was more enthusiastic: "I love that song she did. Look in 'Vocals' next to Frank."
After a fruitless search there, I was finally guided to "Rock and Pop", where I bought the two remaining CDs. On the covers of both, Sinatra looks the quintessential 1960s sex kitten.
She has a long, blonde Barbie-doll hairstyle that puts the sex into the 1950s beehive, sphinx-like eyes lined with make-up, and pouting lips. Little wonder that Nancy was the pin-up of choice for an army of GI's in Vietnam.
I need to travel to Los Angeles to meet Nancy, flying the same route from New Jersey that Frank and his young family took 60 years ago. I've learned something from my trip to Virgin: not many people truly understand Nancy Sinatra or where she belongs.
Despite having 22 chart hits to her name including a legendary duet with her father (Somethin' Stupid), the title song of a James Bond movie (You Only Live Twice) and a hauntingly poetic cover of Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down) - which Quentin Tarantino used for the opening credits of Kill Bill Volume 1 - Nancy Sinatra is known, if at all, as the daughter of Frank once famous for "that song she did".
That song, These Boots Are Made For Walkin' was a monster hit in 1966 and fit so perfectly with the burgeoning feminism of its day that she has been anchored to it ever since, stuck in trademark leather boots that haven't done much walking in almost 40 years.
All that may be about to change. Next weekend, Nancy Sinatra will be performing her first ever concert in England as part of Meltdown, the influential annual music festival curated this year by Morrissey. Later this month, the first single from an upcoming album of songs (To Nancy with Love) sung by Nancy and written by musicians such as Jarvis Cocker, Elvis Costello and Bono, will be released.
"Morrissey wrote to me and said I have a song for you and if you sing it and we release it as a single, you'll be on the charts for the first time since 1972," Nancy tells me when we meet in LA. "I said, what time, where?"
It is little wonder she leapt at Morissey's offer. Although she retired from the music business in 1972 to raise a family, she has been looking for a way back for the past 10 years.
"What happens in the music business," she explains over a vodka martini in the Polo Lounge of the Beverly Hills Hotel, "is that if you step out of your little spot to do something else, the sand falls right into where you stood and you're gone, you're history."
"And then you try to get back, you peek your head up and say 'hello, I'm here, I'm trying to fill this little place again, will you let me do it?' But people don't care, which is OK because it's their turn to have their music, but it makes it very hard.
"Then all of a sudden, Quentin Tarantino comes along and puts a song from 40 years ago in one of his films and they've suddenly discovered you. That was a real gift that Quentin gave me."
Her gift from Morrissey could be larger still. It may turn people's focus away from Boots and "Nancy with the Laughing Face" (as Frank famously sang when she was only four) and towards Nancy the singer.
"Part of what I'm doing now," she tells me, "is pleading to get to the point where my peers will actually say 'Oh, yeah: OK!'"
Sinatra is haunted by the fact that she has never received recognition as a singer.
"My peers don't care. To them, I'm Frank's daughter and all I ever did right was to be born to him. I have never been accepted. I'll never make the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They're never going to let me in.
"They gave Barry Sadler the Grammy for Ballad of the Green Berets the same year that Boots came out. And who ever listens to that now?"
Laughing, she takes a sip of her martini and leans back in our booth.
"Does this sound cynical? I don't mean for it to – I'm really quite at peace with it all. I'm just being a realist."
It's hard to know what the realist should make of Nancy Sinatra. There are the unassailable numbers: those 22 hits including two number ones; seven movies such as Speedway with Elvis Presley and The Wild Angels with Peter Fonda; a career that began 40 years ago.
Frank's girl: Nancy Sinatra collects an award on behalf of her father in 1998
There were two siblings and two husbands and now there are two daughters, both married. Nancy herself turned 64 this week but she looks closer to 50.
But venture beyond the absolute and the water gets muddy. Given that most of Nancy's hits were the result of her collaboration with the maverick talent Lee Hazlewood, it is fair to question the extent of her contribution. Hazlewood was responsible for such hits as Boots and So Long Babe, Jackson and Summer Wine and Sinatra readily admits his influence.
"He defined the singer I am. He said, 'Don't sing like that any more!' I was singing about six notes higher than I had to, in a range that kept me up in a bubblegum sound. And he said, 'Nancy, that's over. You need to bite the words.'"
What Hazlewood did, in essence, was drag Nancy Sinatra out of the 1950s and into the 1960s by giving her voice an attitude.
"The black girls had been doing it for years," she says, "using a more masculine side, having the testosterone kick in, but the white girls hadn't caught on before me."
It worked, even though Nancy herself wasn't as tough as her image.
"I used to be called Nancy Nice Lady. Lee said 'get rid of that' so I became Nasty Jones, which is the nickname that he gave me."
Hazlewood recognised that there was too much Doris Day in Nancy and not enough Janis Joplin. Here was a girl, after all, who left college in the Sixties "to marry and have sex because I was raised Catholic and Italian".
Hazlewood certainly deserves credit for Sinatra's transformation but he is often given all the credit for Nancy's hits.
"That's a very interesting place to be," Sinatra says. "Lee's songs had been recorded by Lee and someone else but they weren't hits. I told him that a couple of years ago. I said, `Just face it, buddy, you didn't have any hits before me and you didn't have any hits after me so I must have brought something to the mix.'"
What she brought was a face and a style perfect for their time. And she brought the Sinatra name, which opened doors and enabled her to invite stars such as Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr and Frank himself to the TV special, Movin' with Nancy, that she recorded in 1967. And even though she ruefully admits that "there are a lot of people who would laugh at the idea of me being a good singer," she brought real talent as a vocalist.
Listen to her belt out Hazlewood's Friday's Child; hold her own with a smiling sound as she counters the wayward spouse in Jackson or sing with ethereal softness in Some Velvet Morning. She has far too much talent to be relegated to a footnote in the history of pop.
Why, then, the blank face in Virgin? The snubs by her peers?
Nancy claims to know the answer. "I wasn't accepted because I didn't accept the drug culture that most of my peers were involved in," she says. "Now it's like a locked room."
For anyone who has listened to the lyrics in such songs as Sugartown or Some Velvet Morning or seen her tripping around in her Sixties specials, and for those who assumed every musician who touched a tambourine in the Sixties was on something, it's a shock to hear that Nancy didn't do drugs. "I swear to God," she continues.
"They were passing cocaine around at meetings and I just didn't want it. When I was doing Fallen Angels, Peter Fonda was talking about LSD and said, 'Come on, Nancy, you should try it, it's great - I just woke up on the shelf of the linen closet.'
"And I said, 'What? Are you crazy? No thanks. I was the square peg in the round hole, I guess. I was at a party three weeks prior to the murders at Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate's house and everyone was in the bedroom doing drugs except me. I was square. I'm still that way."
Sinatra's belief in a conspiracy of druggies seems a stretch but it illuminates a probable answer. It is fair to argue that Nancy had too much respect for both the reputation and the musical style of her father to be a drug-taking, rabble-rousing wild child of the 1970s.
Embracing Vietnam's anti-war movement (as she did) was one thing, but to embrace the whole counter-culture would have been something else entirely. Nancy's devotion to her Dad (and to the idea and reality of family) may have caused her to be left behind while her peers moved on.
Having been told not to ask direct questions about Frank Sinatra, it's not a theory that I can get Nancy to comment on, but you only need to watch her singing Wait Till You See Him in her TV special to recognise the closeness of their bond.
In this romantic song, Nancy is walking around a studio singing to oversized photographs of the man they called The Chairman of the Board, staring at him like a lover. A more rebellious soul would have done all she could to distance herself from her father.
And yet it was Frank's cronies whom Nancy invited to appear on the show; it was with Frank that she chose to sing Something Stupid (meanly labelled "the incest song" at the time) and it was on his Reprise label that she recorded her hits.
Even now, Nancy has bought a house in Palm Springs where Frank lived, "because there are a lot of memories there. Everything," she adds, "is connected with melancholy."
If it's melancholy that Nancy is after, who better for her to partner than Morrissey?
"I've had two mentors in my life," she tells me. "One is Lee, the other is Morrissey. I've told him: now he's responsible for saving my life he has to take care of me forever."
I asked Nancy why him, why now?
"I have no idea why, but my peers in your age group – and that's not a contradiction – are not only accepting of me but they appreciate what I've done and they tell me so. Morrissey wrote a really gorgeous song for me. I'm crazy for that man," she says, adding with what sounds like real excitement, "and he thinks I'm hip!"
Nancy Sinatra may be more hip now than she was at the height of her fame. Perhaps that's because it's been six years since her father died and 10 since her kids were out of college and she "realised it was time to pursue my own dreams".
Back then, she modelled for Playboy in an attempt to get publicity. Now, she has Morrissey and Meltdown and gigs in Europe that are "all exciting, all firsts".
Her recent fortune has, she says, made her feel "young at heart". She certainly looks great dressed in a hooded sweatshirt over a Harley T-shirt and wearing embroidered jeans and trainers. And for a woman born with the Sinatra name, she is remarkably self-effacing.
She likes to laugh at herself (at her acting career; her attempts at songwriting; her guess that her albums were in the "Oldies" section in Virgin). She is nurturing and maternal and remains Nice Lady Nancy, inviting me to her house in Beverly Hills without hesitation when I ask to hear the new song Morrissey has written for her.
Sinatra, who has been single since her husband died of cancer in 1985, lives in a house much more modest than one would expect. There are, of course, family photos and a few picture books of Sinatra and there's a director's chair with Frank's name on it, but there are no framed gold records or movie posters (besides a couple in her office) or explicit reminders of who she is. Instead, there are stuffed animals and painted leopards and, on the bar, the biggest bowl of sweets I've ever seen.
As she plays the recording of Let Me Kiss You, Nancy comments on the chorus and compliments the band on their skills and the songwriters on their talent and it's obvious then that she didn't do this for fame or money, but because music matters to her. Press her on a life lived among Hollywood celebrities and she tells you about the musicians in her life; about people who lived in the same world as her father.
Let Me Kiss You is obviously a Morrissey tune, but Sinatra, whose voice has mellowed beautifully, makes it her own. "It would be nice to be on the charts again," she says. "Nice to be recognised."
Because, right now, she is not recognised, at least not as she wants to be. As we were leaving the Beverly Hills Hotel, Nancy skipped across the carpet to introduce herself to actress Rosanna Arquette, to announce herself a fan. Arquette clamped a hand to her mouth and seemed star-struck.
"Nancy Sinatra, oh my God! I completely love you." She then announced that she was making a documentary with musicians such as Elvis Costello and she really wanted Nancy to be included. Cards were exchanged, and they parted.
"Yeah, well, let's see if she calls," said Nancy without any bitterness. "Because they always say that but, really, how hard is it to find me? I'm always here."
Nancy Sinatra performs as part of Morrissey's Meltdown at the RFH on June 20. Tickets www.rfh.org.uk