Nancy Sinatra didn’t always dream of becoming a pop star. As a child growing up in New Jersey, she loved music, studiously tinkering away on the piano in her family home, but she wasn’t the kind of head-in-the-clouds kid who sang in front of the mirror with a hairbrush. The spotlight was destined to shine on her though, and stardom came calling in 1960, when, as a pretty, honey-voiced 20 year old, she appeared alongside her father on his network television special, The Frank Sinatra Timex Show: Welcome Home Elvis. She signed to Reprise Records the following year, but by 1965, Nancy, who had quit college to marry sixties heartthrob Tommy Sands, was adrift: divorced, on the brink of being dropped by her label and, too proud to ask her parents for money, penniless. She’d always been resourceful though, and within a year, Nancy Sinatra was an international phenomenon, with a starring film role, a number one hit record and a now-iconic look, complete with a coiffed blonde do, a covetable Carnaby Street wardrobe, and, of course, those infamous go-go boots.
Talking to her today, her childhood pragmatism seems fitting. Now 74, Nancy is as straight-shooting, candid and quick-witted as ever, and one gets the sense that her practical approach to her work has, over the years, spilled into her life. When things got tough for Nancy – including when Hugh Lambert, her beloved husband of 15 years and the father of her two daughters AJ and Amanda, died of cancer in 1985 – she invariably got tougher.
After an extended hiatus from music to raise her children, she handled her comeback with aplomb, gracing the cover of Playboy, collaborating with famous friends including Morrissey and Jarvis Cocker and capturing the hearts of a new generation when her cover of Cher’s Bang Bang soundtracked the opening scenes of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Vol. 1. As much an icon for her music, films and style, Nancy – once described by Rolling Stone as “groundbreaking, heartbreaking and eternally cool” – is a poster woman for resilience, self-respect and reinvention.
Phoning from Los Angeles where she’s spent the morning at her sister’s house with their extended family, Nancy, the eldest daughter of Frank and his first wife Nancy Barbato, says she’s uncomfortable following a complicated knee replacement operation eight months ago, but plans to “pop a couple of Advil” and put her feet up later. For now though, she’s happy to chat. “You’re my only plan today,” she says when I ask if I’ve called at a good time. “Fire away.”
Tell us about your current projects – what are you working on at the moment?
Well, 2015 is the hundredth anniversary of my dad’s birth, so we as a family are focused heavily on that with a lot of activities planned. He was born December 12, 1915, but the celebrations will run all year. My work is being put off until 2016 for that reason. They have a tour ready for me but I just couldn’t take it next year, it’s too much. I’m looking forward to it though – it will be Europe and the UK, and I think someone mentioned Russia, which would be great because I’ve never been.
Growing up, you were obviously surrounded by show business. Did you always want to be part of it?
I didn’t think about it in showbiz terms – I just loved music. I started classical piano when I was about six years old and continued until I was maybe 17. Then, when I started college, I had intended to do a music master’s but I fell in love and got married instead, like a fool, like a dummy [laughs]. I shouldn’t have done that. If I have any big regrets, that’s it, that I didn’t stay in school.
I guess you followed your heart though, and it all worked out in the end.
Yeah, I just got lucky. If I hadn’t have run into really brilliant songwriters and producers, I would not have the life that I have. I think it’s important for young people to have a back up. I knew nothing but music. And then my marriage didn’t last very long and there I was on my own, having to support myself and not knowing what to do. Luckily, my agent happened to call me and said, “I’ve got [producer] Roger Corman here and he needs someone for his next film. Come over now.” I knew who Roger Corman was, so I said, “sure, I’ve got a house to support.” My husband and I had bought it together and suddenly I was on my own and had to come up with $333, which was a lot of money in those days, for the mortgage payment. I didn’t have it and I didn’t want to go to my mum and dad, so I raced over to the agency’s office to meet Roger.
It was come as you are – I was in my faded blue jeans with rolled up cuffs, a red sweater and sneakers, and when I got there, Roger looked me up and down and said to my agent, “Okay.” I didn’t have to read or anything. At the same time, I was about to be dropped by my record label and the head of the A&R department put me in touch with Lee Hazlewood.
What are your memories of first meeting Lee?
He was completely different in those days – he wasn’t at all like the Barton Lee that you know about now. I’m trying to think how to describe him, so you can picture him. Clean cut, short hair, slender. Very sweet and very kind. When I look at our photos from then, and then the more recent, which are still very old but more recent than when we first met, I’m always surprised at the way we changed in such a hurry.
I went blonde, which was the most obvious change for me [laughs]. That was because of a woman named Amy Greene, who was married to the brilliant photographer Milton Greene. I was doing a photo shoot for Glamour magazine, and Amy [the beauty editor] was in charge of the makeovers. We went to the salon that was owned by Kenneth [Battelle], who was the number one A-list hair designer in New York. Amy took me to Kenneth’s colourist – her name was Rosemary –and said, “You’ve got to highlight her hair.” [Laughs.] So Rosemary highlighted the hair, Kenneth cut the hair and they made me over in a day or two. Then Milton shot some iconic photos and for one, Amy put me in a black and white outfit and I had on one black boot and one white boot. With the hair, the look caught on like wild fire. In between Amy, Kenneth, Rosemary and Mary Quant, who I had discovered early on when I was on a promotional tour in London, we created a wonderful look, although I don’t think I was given any credit for it. A little bit later, Jean Shrimpton and Twiggy, the girls of the ‘British Invasion’, got the credit for that look, but I always grin and think, “Oh yeah, I was there first.” [Laughs.] People don’t think about me in that way for some reason. When I look back over my work in the sixties and seventies and even up into the eighties and I see those wonderful photographs and the great fashions, I’m secure in the knowledge that I was a big part of that look. It was like a fashion revolution.
What did you love about getting dressed up in those days?
I had the most incredible access to clothes. Every time I went to New York, I would go to Saks Fifth Avenue. Each designer was in a section, and I would just shop, probably for two or three hours. They were quite used to me in there and I would just pull stuff out and say, “Charge it to me please,” and then I would try everything on wherever I was staying. Then I would have someone bring them back to the store. But I kept the ones that were absolutely fabulous and oh my goodness, they were! Then I’d go on an occasional trip to Paris, picking up something at Courrèges, having something made at Chanel – I was a kid in a candy store. My mother raised me to appreciate the beauty of fabrics and there are no better fabrics than the ones Courrèges or Chanel or Yves Saint Laurent were using.
Do you still have all your clothes from that time?
Unfortunately not. I didn’t keep very many. There were a few pieces I did hang on to because they were more precious than others, and they’ve been in storage. My daughter Amanda has been looking at them and maybe trying them on. She’s so much taller than I, but she has great legs so she can wear everything a lot shorter. I was lucky that I wore boots because boots covered up any kind of big knee situations [laughs].
So you had an iconic style, and then you came out with an iconic song. Tell us about ‘These Boots Are Made for Walking’.
I knew it was a hit. I knew it when I heard it. Lee played it for me on his guitar. We were at my mother’s house, where I was living at the time, in between houses after my divorce, and Lee and Billy Strange came over. They played several songs that day, but I kept saying, “I want the one about the boots.” So we did that one. With that quarter tone descending bass line, it was such a unique, classic track.
Perhaps owing to Boots, you were once described as ‘America’s first tough-talking female popstar’. Does that resonate with you?
Well the ‘star’ part maybe, because I certainly was propelled up into the stratosphere, but ‘first’– in terms of leading the way for women, I don’t think that’s true. I remember growing up admiring black women who were so strong and wonderful like LaVern Baker and Ruth Brown. They were way ahead of me and I think they started that ball rolling enough for me to hear it and want to continue it. A lot of people call Boots an anthem. I don’t. I think it was more of a tongue-in-cheek song. The reason it worked was because it was a girl singing it. When a guy, including Lee, sang it, it didn’t make any sense. It had to be a woman. Because it’s cute and fun and flirty, even though it means business. You know, “You’re not going to mess around with me, buddy,” kind of thing. But I’m given way too much credit for that. Not enough credit for the style and too much credit for the music-popstar-first-tough-lady whatever you want to call it, in my opinion.
What was it like growing up in the Sinatra household?
Totally normal, you know. Mum, dad, kids. It was great.
Do you enjoy listening to your father’s music now?
It’s hard for me still because I miss him a lot, but I do a show on [Sirius XM] satellite radio every Sunday called Dancing for Frank and the channel is called Siriusly Sinatra. We try very hard to keep the legend alive and the legacy going. It’s a three-hour programme and it’s about 55 songs, so it’s a lot of listening, a lot of torture, a lot of tears and a lot of memories, but I am committed to doing this for him and I will continue as long as I’m breathing.
What’s the greatest lesson you learned from your father?
I think probably to be aware of everything around you. Just know what’s going on behind you. In the military, pilots say, “Check your six,” and he taught me that. To be aware at all times so you won’t get caught off guard. Business wise, his greatest advice was to own your own masters.
What about the greatest lesson from your mother?
My mother was the biggest influence in my life and still is. She taught me consistency, and she’s the one who gave me the strength to continue after a divorce and I guess she built me up and gave me enough fortitude to keep me on track when I was on my own later on. She also taught me that after you wash very long hair, to comb it out from the ends to the scalp, not the other way around.
She’s a pragmatic, wonderful, smart and funny woman and she’s still trucking – she’ll be 100 years old in a few years. She showed me by example that no matter what happens to you in your life, you can survive if you’re determined to survive.
You’ve experienced great love and great loss in your life. How do you stay resilient through everything?
Well, my husband died when we had been married for 15 years and my girls were nine and 11. That was a tragedy for us. I didn’t know how to raise two little girls by myself. It was very hard. But you do it because you have to do it. It’s amazing what you can do when you’re faced with having to do something. You just muster up the courage and you do it. And my girls are fabulous. They’re young women now. They’re both married to terrific guys and I have two great sons-in-law and my little granddaughter. I’m a lucky lady.
Your Playboy cover in 1995 was groundbreaking because you were 54 at the time. How did it come about?
I needed help. I wanted to get an album out but we didn’t have any distribution; I had no label. We’d done all this wonderful work and I had no place to go with it. So when Playboy was interested, I was excited. My dad, when I told him about it, said, “Double the money! You wanna do it, double it.” [Laughs.]
They couldn’t double it, but I did have enough money from it to get the record out there. They gave me a wonderful promotional tour and I was able to make enough of a splash to book a tour of little rock clubs and make a bit of noise. I had stopped working for quite a while to raise my kids – I didn’t feel like I could do music and be a mother and do them both well, so I was a parent first. Afterwards, I wanted to get back into my music, so long story short, Playboy was the leg up I needed to get that album out. Everything picked up from there and I had a second career, of sorts.
I would never put pictures of myself in public that I wouldn’t want to be in public. That’s just crazy. This business of tweeting stuff and putting private stuff on Facebook? That’s insane! The first rule of life is to respect yourself and if you don’t, who will? I needed Playboy – I wasn’t ashamed to take advantage of the opportunity they offered me.
What are your hopes and dreams for the future?
First I’d like to be pain free. I feel as though I’ve aged several years during my knee replacement because of this chronic pain and it shows on my face, it shows in the way I walk. I just want to get healthy again and then get back to my music and out to the people.