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“When I saw that you were going to call from Billboard, I was reminiscing about the first time I was on the charts,” Nancy Sinatra tells Billboard over the phone. “I think I was No. 89 or something. It barely made it. [It was called] ‘So Long Babe.’”
The 83-year-old pop legend has a sharp memory. Her first Billboard Hot 100 hit, “So Long Babe,” hit No. 86 – just three spots away from her guess. Of course, that shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who follows her on X (formerly known as Twitter). Sinatra regularly weighs in on everything from politics (she’s NOT a fan of the guy who tried to reverse the results of a democratic election, FYI) to AI to her celebrity pals’ birthdays.
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Although she’s effectively retired from music, she’s more than happy to reflect on her lengthy career as Light in the Attic releases a new compilation of her work, Keep Walkin’: Singles, Demos & Rarities 1965-1978, on vinyl and CD. “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in,” she jokes, making a Godfather reference which is doubly funny, considering that her father Frank famously berated series author Mario Puzo.
Here, Nancy Sinatra chats with Billboard about everything from finding her voice on the Hot 100-topping “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’,” her up-and-down acting career and how her daughters’ “tenacity” keeps her music alive.
When you started releasing music, you had a string of singles that didn’t chart. Eventually, working with Lee Hazlewood yielded you a career-defining breakthrough, “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’.” Did working with him feel different?
Very much so. That early stuff was what we used to call bubblegum. I was a nervous wreck [on “Boots”]. I was eager to please because I knew I was going to be dropped from the label if I didn’t do something important enough to make the charts. It was nerve-racking.
After working with him for a bit, were you able to relax?
It got better. The fact that we had a chart record right away was the impetus to keep going. It gave me the confidence to know I was going in the right direction.
With “Boots,” you’re singing in a deeper register than on your earlier stuff. That must have been a conscious decision with your new direction.
Absolutely. Each song dictates the vocal approach. The fact that the music was so completely different, the vocals just followed suit.
You and Lee had another classic with “Some Velvet Morning.” It’s a very strange song – what did you think of it when you first came across it?
I had no idea what it was about. I don’t know if Lee even had an idea either. Later on, in retrospect, he said something about Phaedra [from Greek mythology], that he wanted to pay tribute to Phaedra. That’s a bunch of bull. That never came up in all the years we’d performed. Never once. It was a lucky marriage of vocal sounds, strange as it may seem, and arrangement. He dictated the change in time signatures that occurs in the song. Lee asked Billy [Strange] to do that.
How was working with the Wrecking Crew’s Billy Strange? He’s a legend in his own right.
He was like a big brother. He was one of the best people I’ve ever known in my life. I still miss him so much.
Light In the Attic has done a few reissues of your material. I gather your daughter was the impetus behind that connection.
It’s incredible how my kids have helped me so much. Both of my daughters are very much responsible for these incarnations of mine. I keep bouncing back and it’s because of their tenacity, AJ and Amanda. I’m very blessed.
Do you think about these songs a lot in your day-to-day life?
I don’t, but I’m on Twitter constantly to keep in touch with the public, and they remind me every day of the songs. But the funny thing is they don’t know the half of it. There’s so much they’ve never heard. I’m hoping if we’re blessed enough to succeed with the first couple projects, they will dig deeper into my catalog because there are so many songs that should be heard. They have access to all of my master tapes. Between the Light in the Attic reissues and the book, I feel like I’m reborn again, again. The book is called One for Your Dreams, the phrase from “You Only Live Twice.” David Wills is the author. It’s a picture book with all of the iconic photographs by Ron Joy and stories to go with them.
Since you mentioned the Bond theme, I’m curious, do you keep up with the film series?
I love Daniel Craig. I’m crazy about him. He’s so good, he’s such a good Bond. Did he really die in the last one?
In No Time to Die? I feel like… no.
They blew him up, for heaven’s sake!
Yeah, but he can get out of anything.
I hope so.
When you said people on Twitter don’t know the half of it, what are you referring to? What era?
There was an album called Nancy Sinatra that had artists like Kim Gordon, Morrissey, Pete Yorn — that was another gift from my daughter AJ. She put that together. She said, “Mom, I know so many people who love your music and we should take advantage of that and get songs written by them.” And they did, they came up with songs, which was so sweet. Whether I like it or not, they’re bringing me back all the time. But the songs people are not talking about are very versatile. There’s my California Girl album; I did an album called Cherry Smiles that was a lot of rare singles nobody’s heard. There’s a lot of interesting music that’s recorded that hopefully Light in the Attic will discover. I guess we have to be pretty successful with what we’re doing before they commit to doing anything else. But I’m grateful and humbled. It’s such a gift to me at this time in my life.
Do you miss recording or performing?
Every day of my life. It’s true what they say about how it’s in your blood.
Would you ever get back into it?
No, I’m too old now. I wouldn’t be able to tour. I suppose men can do it but I don’t know about women my age who tour. Do you? Dolly Parton is a lot younger than me and she does still tour.
You also did movies back in the day but didn’t stick with it. Were you less passionate about acting than music?
I was such a crappy actor. It never grabbed me. I made what I like to call my epic films and I stopped. (laughs)
I caught one on TCM that featured you performing, a movie called The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini from 1966.
Oh, that is so horrible. I made a couple of fun ones. The Last of the Secret Agents? was a fun movie. The Wild Angels made me No. 1 at the box office. I had a run-in with a couple of fun movies. I’m very lucky.
Do you have any personal favorites of your own songs?
I like a song called “100 Years,” it’s a Lee Hazlewood song. I also like a song called “Cuando calienta el sol” which is on my California Girl album which is just me and a guitar player called Daryl Curaco. I do lean toward the guitar/vocal duets, I think they’re quite lovely and special. “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” was one of them.
And that song, of course, got a second life thanks to Kill Bill.
Isn’t that the truth? That’s what I mean. In spite of me, I keep getting brought back. Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.
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