The Last Word: Nancy Sinatra on What Her Father Taught Her and How She Saved 'These Boots Are Made for Walkin”
Nancy Sinatra wasn’t planning on revisiting her old hits. The singer, who ruled the Sixties with dark psychedelic-pop classics like “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” and “Bang Bang,” walked away from the music business in the Seventies to focus on raising her daughters and supporting progressive causes. She stopped touring in the early 2000s, though she’s recorded occasionally since. “I guess I didn’t have an agent, I didn’t have anybody promoting anything,” she says. “If you’re an artist who used to be famous, you kind of need a leg up — you need somebody to represent you, to book places for you. I didn’t have any of that. So it just kind of petered out.”
But now Sinatra, 80, has someone in her corner: her daughter Amanda Erlinger, who approached her mom about putting together a collection of her work beginning in the mid-1960s, when she stepped out of the shadows of her father, Frank, and released “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’.” It was one of many inventive tracks she recorded with collaborator Lee Hazlewood — including “Some Velvet Morning” and “You Only Live Twice” — that influenced everyone from Sonic Youth to Lana Del Rey. The new collection, Start Walkin’ 1965–1976, out February 5th, is the beginning of a year-long campaign by the Seattle label Light in the Attic that will also include reissues of 1966’s Boots and 1968’s Nancy & Lee. “I don’t know what possessed her, to be honest,” says Nancy of her daughter’s devotion to the series. “She was driven to get this project done, bless her heart. I’m thrilled. Because it’s a good feeling to know that at least some of my work isn’t gonna die, you know?”
Sinatra spoke to Rolling Stone while locked down at her home in Palm Springs. She’s passing the time on Twitter, railing against Trump and in favor of unions. “It’s just such a good way to find a lot of people to commiserate with,” she says. “It’s relief to know there are people like me out there.”
What’s your earliest memory of performing?
Probably when I was 18. I did The Ed Sullivan Show. And I did a Shirley Temple song in a big straw hat. I wore overalls. My hair was very dark brunette. It was just awful. It was live TV, in front of millions of people. I must have been out of my mind.
How did you wind up making music that was so far away from that — these really cool, moody, psychedelic songs?
I call the early recordings “Nancy Nice Lady.” Those records were produced by Tutti Camarata, who was the guy who produced Annette Funicello’s records. My Nancy Nice Lady records sold enough to keep me on the label. And then when they were no longer selling, the label was gonna drop me. [They] said, “You know what? We’re gonna put you with Lee Hazlewood.”
He changed everything for me. He pretended to be this country shitkicker, know-nothing kind of guy, but he was highly educated. An Army veteran. A very worldly person who knew what he was doing. He used to do what he called the “dumb sound” for my records. Dumb meaning uncomplicated. It consisted mainly of rhythm section, the drummer, the bass, three guitars all kind of chugging along. And it created a whole different thing for me.
He wrote “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’.” He was originally planning to sing it, right?
That’s true. I just told him the truth: that I didn’t think it was good for a man to sing it, that it sounded kind of ugly, and that a girl should sing it and it would be better. And he realized I was right.
Your style, with miniskirts and sweaters, became extremely influential. Where did it come from?
The look came from a trip I made to London. I went to Carnaby Street, which was the place to shop in those days. And there was a store called Mary Quant. She had, for me, the first miniskirts. I had never seen them before. They were nowhere to be found in the United States. And I just knew the miniskirt was going to catch on. I didn’t have minidresses, so I used long sweaters instead. The “Boots” video with the black-wool sweater was my first attempt at a minidress. The How Does That Grab You? album cover has another long sweater. And they became kind of iconic. I guess that they were different and they were daring and were on the cutting edge of what was to become the miniskirt.
It’s pretty cute, but it was an accident. I guess if I had any good instinct at all, it was about the fact that miniskirts would be a smash hit and would last forever. I mean, they’ve never gone away.
What’s the best piece of advice you got early in your career?
Well, my dad was pretty good at advice. And he gave me the advice about owning my own masters. He started Reprise, his label, because he was unable to own his masters at Capitol Records. And he made it possible for all the artists on Reprise to own their own masters after a certain period of time. I heard Taylor Swift’s masters were sold again. That’s a shame. I would say to young people: Don’t despair, hold on to your dreams, and don’t let anybody else own them.
You acted with Elvis in 1968’s Speedway. What was that like?
We were like brother and sister. Priscilla was pregnant when we were making the movie, and I gave her a baby shower. He called me the night Lisa Marie was born. And he said he felt that she was so blessed, but that he felt bad that the babies born in the ghetto were not as blessed. He was a very thoughtful, sensitive person.
What did you learn from your father from watching him perform every night?
He was a genius. He enjoyed it. He made the audience feel at home. The biggest thing I learned was consistency. He was meticulous about how he dressed. His shoes were always spotless. He was so professional.
What was he like at the dinner table?
He was quiet. And fun, sometimes funny — just like any other dad with his kids.
You’ve always been politically outspoken. How did you become an activist?
Anger, I think. I just get so mad. … In the Sixties, the Vietnam War was gearing up, and it affected everybody in my life. You had to take a side. I think people are as passionate now as they were in the Sixties. The Black Lives Matter movement is fabulous. … And it’s cleansing, because people have to have their voices heard, or you go nuts. If you can’t express your feelings and if you can’t be heard, how awful is that?
What did you think when Lana Del Rey said she wants to be a “gangster Nancy Sinatra”?
She’s a sweetheart. I haven’t met her, but she gave me such a gift by saying what she said, putting my stuff back out there.
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