MY FAVORITE SINATRA….NANCY IN ‘69 (Vocalist of the Month for 4/15: Nancy Sinatra)

THE BELIEVER MAGAZINE: It seems like the middle of the ’60s marked a distinct change in the demographics, subculture, and kinds of restaurants and clubs that filled Hollywood from what had been the popular landmarks during your father’s generation–like Ciro’s, the Trocadero, etc. Was there a reason that you weren’t part of this transformation? Was that your label’s decision?

NS: No, Reprise was very much into that scene. They had a lot of great artists join the label at that point. But I think most of the executives at the label looked at me as Frank’s daughter. They didn’t look at me as a fashion icon or an influence on the women’s movement or anything like that. The just tolerated the existence of me. And I know the result of it made me not welcome by my musical peers. I never felt I was part of [a scene], and they never accepted my music or me.

(Source: The Believer, July/August 2014)

FRANKANDNANCY

This month marks the centenary of Frank Sinatra’s birth and there have been plenty of celebratory markers, including Sinatra being named “Voice of the Century” by London’s Daily Mail and a new, much-lauded documentary on HBO. As in much of the past twenty years or so, deserved acknowledgment of Frank’s genius has come from across the political spectrum (you can get a sampling from conservative critic Terry Teachout (Commentary, The Wall Street Journalhere and The Daily Beast‘s Allen Barra here).

Me, I appreciate Frank a lot, both as a singer and an actor and, of course, he’s the greater artist and all that. No one’s going to put his daughter up for Voice of the Century.

But the last measure for a fan of singers is the listening they do and, when it comes down to it, I’ve always listened more to Nancy.

The famous Nancy, of course…the Nancy of “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’” and “Sugartown” and those strange, cool duets with Lee Hazlewood.

And the not-quite-so-well-known Nancy, too (I’m especially fond of her “Hard Hearted Hannah”…aka “the vamp of Sa-van-nah, G-A!”)

More than that, though, I’ve listened to this Nancy…the Nancy who is neither terribly hip or, outside of her hardcore fans, terribly well-known. The Nancy of Nancy:

NANCYALBUM

Along about now, I should make two things clear.

First, I don’t believe in “kitsch” or “camp” values. I don’t think art should be a shield, or an inside joke or a snigger. It works on you or it doesn’t. It gets around your defenses…Or it doesn’t.

Nancy’s music was hit and miss for me, to be sure, but I never thought “ah well, I really like that, but I better put it through the hipster strainer before I confess it to anybody.”

What I might or might not confess to others in any given moment has always depended on a number of factors (albeit fewer and fewer as I get older and older). But what I believe has always depended on how the object of belief struck me.

And only me.

I thought Nancy Sinatra was great back in the late seventies, the first time I heard “Sugartown” on a small-town radio station in the Florida Panhandle (’bout sixty miles from Tall-a-has-see, where it very definitely “also rains”).

The station played a very odd mix of current pop and country hits and threw in an oldie every hour or so that was always announced by a warm, friendly male voice that I later learned was computer-generated and named “Bruce.” (The oldies in question, incidentally, were a constant rotation of about a dozen songs–the four I remember are “Sugartown,” Lulu’s “Oh Me, Oh My” and Tanya Tucker’s “Lizzie and the Rainman” and Led Zeppelin’s “D’yer Mak’er,” all of which are still playing in my head no matter how long it’s been since I last heard them.)

I’ve thought she was great–no fooling or excusing–ever since.

Having said all that, I freely confess I bought the album above for the cover.

Three bucks at a record show? What, are you kidding? So what if it didn’t have any hits on it (all I knew of her at the moment) and so what if the idea of Nancy doing “Light My Fire” or “Big Boss Man” seemed a bit of a stretch even for a fan like me?

Didn’t matter. I wanted that record cover in my house!

Mind you, I didn’t even know about Nancy’s killer album covers back then (circa 1990 or so–long before she had registered any significant reverse-hip-cred from the likes of Morrissey, or her definitive version of “Bang, Bang” had provided the only piece of music ever played in a Quentin Tarantino film that promised something he couldn’t possibly either deliver or successfully take a crap on). I don’t think I had ever even seen this one. But I was buying that record of hers, even if I never played it more than once or ever bought another one.

To be honest I didn’t have terribly high expectations when I got it home and put it on the record player. See, I didn’t have camp values then, either. But I had the mistaken impression that certain things could never transcend camp. They were bound to be that, or they were bound to be nothing.

Like Nancy Sinatra doing “Big, Boss Man” for instance.

Boy was I wrong.

“Big Boss Man” was at the top of side two (back when you had to flip the darn things in the middle!), and I knew I was wrong long before then.

Side one started with “God Knows I Love You,” which is one of those old-fashioned romancers that, if it ever took place anywhere, did so as far from Hollywood High as anybody could get, and wasn’t likely to grab me less with each ensuing year of confirmed bachelorhood.

I was suspicious of it, to be sure. It was, like a lot of Nancy’s music, familiar, without being quite like anything else. There wasn’t anything to orient it to–to help me figure out whether it was actually good. It was dangerous because it made me want to develop a camp impulse just so I’d have somewhere to put it.

Nothing could make me more suspicious than that. Not then and, frankly, not now.

So, as my own brand of defense, I figured “well, it’s definitely got something” I wasn’t sure what, except that it probably drove the staff at Rolling Stone deeper into drugs and delusion.

That and the cover surely made it worth three bucks!

I might have been safe, then. That might have sufficed, if only the “one cut’s bound to be pretty good at least” syndrome had kicked in and the rest of the album had left me be.

Except…

On the very next track she plain-songed “Memories” into a completely different take on Elvis’ heavy (and gorgeous if, for once, actually a tad louche in the manner some critics were always pretending was his norm) sentiment.

That got me listening closer, thinking…well-l-l-l….

Well what?

Well, I didn’t think too long before I realized I was smack dab in the middle of my first great “easy listening for the midnight hours” album, and it was all the greater because it so obviously wasn’t easy at all.

How “not easy” has been made clearer by the decades since, when Nancy has been joined by Doris Day and Harry James’ soundtrack for Young Man With a Horn, Sam Cooke’s Night Beat, Charlie Rich’s Set Me Free, Louis Armstrong’s Favorites, and the odd item from Julie London as the handful of albums that fill that very particular smoky space.

I don’t mean those are the only albums I play after midnight or even the ones I play most. Just that those are the ones that suit a particular mood and, if you study those names, you can see it’s both the highest company a certain kind of singer can keep and the company is hardly rooted in genre or style, unless “Midnight Blues For One” really is its own style.

I don’t know what possessed Nancy Sinatra to make such an album in 1969, immediately upon her split with her hit-making producer Lee Hazlewood. Whatever it was, it wasn’t born of any impulse to follow the fashion. Torch albums by top-40 gals weren’t exactly the going thing in the Age of Aquarius, even if the top-40 gal was Frank Sinatra’s daughter.

So it was an act–or series of acts–that required some kind of artistic courage. And there’s a certain style of courage that always shines through, provided a proper measure of talent is also on hand. Courage is never enough by itself.

So, at the moment when her eternally hip father was, frankly, embarrassing himself trying to keep up with the times, Nancy reached straight across the broadest possible Pop spectrum and made that reach seem natural–ran the songs I already mentioned into the quiet seduction of “Just Bein’ Plain Old Me,” and a country-politan arrangement of “Here We Go Again” and a tender rendition of “My Dad (My Pa)” that provided a perfect setup for her to torch “Light My Fire” to within an inch of its life.

In other words, made the kind of effects her Dad was trying–and failing–to pull off at the time seem easy as pie.

And, like I say, that was all before she got to this…

…at which point I was a complete goner. ready to track down every Nancy Sinatra album in existence (which, given when and where I was getting ready to do this was, shall we say, a lot harder than it is now…and didn’t come close to landing me any more three-dollar deals either). I mean, plain-songing “Memories” was one thing and torching “Light My Fire” was another thing but plain-song-torching a number that already existed in truly great versions by Jimmy Reed, Elvis, Charlie Rich, Bobbie Gentry and maybe fifty or sixty other folks and making them all sound like they had missed the point…well…that was some kind of perverse genius and if I wasn’t quite past the point of caring who knew it then, I’m way past the point of caring who knows it now.

Frank found his stride again soon enough (turned out retiring, officially or unofficially, and coming back, officially or unofficially depending on how you left it, was the Career Move of the Century–it beat dying by miles and these days, you practically can’t find a big name in Show Biz who hasn’t tried it, up to and including Johnny Rotten.) Nancy, the meanwhile, soldiered on for a couple of years and started going decades between comebacks, always with some good things, but never quite hitting this height again.

Somewhere in those decades, she started to get hip. Not just quasi-hip but really hip, so much so that she finally reached the Quentin-Tarantino-has-you-in-his-movie-the-producer-from-the-Sopranos-is-on-the-phone-you’re-in-regular-rotation-on-Little-Steven’s-Underground-Garage-and-Greil-Marcus-is-calling-you “shockingly avant garde” stage, which is to say she had finally grabbed all the hipness and cultural currency our present world has to offer.

Which is great. On top of everything else, she always seemed like the sort of decent stick who deserved it and double for all the crap she undoubtedly had to put up with from what she nicely termed her “musical peers.”

Very few of those peers had the guts to truly go their own way when “being hip” was nowhere in sight. And these days, you don’t need to scour record shows or out-of-the-way vinyl bins in Florida beach towns to find a copy of Nancy. Right now you can go on Amazon and pick it up for a mere thirty bucks. Wait a week and maybe it will be a little more or a little less, but in any case, it will have a bunch of beautiful bonus tracks, which, unlike the bonus tracks on nearly every other reissue in existence, actually deepen and enhance the original concept and end with this, which we can all ponder as our overlords seek the newest excuse to send the next batch of twenty-year-olds into the next meat-grinder with the same old promise to make it come right this time.

So thanks, Nancy. Thanks, on the hundredth anniversary of your legendary dad’s birth, for staying true to something other than a moment of turbulence and helping see me and ever how many others through the long decades of increasingly discomforting numbness that have descended upon us ever since.

 

SO WHAT WAS 1960 REALLY LIKE?….I MEAN, JUST MUSICALLY SPEAKING.

“Nineteen hundred and sixty was probably the worst year that pop has been through. Everyone had gone to the moon. Elvis had been penned off in the army and came back to appal us with ballads. Little Richard had got religion. Chuck Berry was in jail. Buddy Holly was dead. Very soon, Eddie Cochran was killed in his car crash. It was a wholesale plague, a wipeout.”

(The always prone to understatement, but undeniably trenchant, Nik Cohn’s opening paragraph to the chapter titled “Rue Morgue, 1960″ in Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom, 1970)

When Cohn wrote these words he was basically summing up what a lot of third-rate romancers–mostly male, mostly white, mostly collegiate whether or not they had yet been to college (or would ever go)–had been saying and writing since, well, 1960.

1960 sucked and blew. Well, really that whole 1958 (the fall!) to 1963 (waiting for the Beatles to save us all!) period had sucked and blown.

But 1960?

That was the worst, the nadir (good collegiate word), the pits (as the actual greasers might have put it).

1960 was spiritual death. The bottom that had to be reached some time before the resurrection (Beatlemania!…or more accurately, the highly inventive new-chord-progressions-and-the-truth music and supremely witty collective style of the Beatles demonstrated in their respective persons, since mania was a highly unstable state, particularly redolent of suspicion as it was likely to be the specific province of screaming girls, who collegians and greasers both knew could give you cooties) could properly occur.

So the story goes. Give Cohn credit. He nailed the entire ethos in a few clipped lines.

Like I said. Trenchant.

That’s what you call controlling the narrative.

Well, you know I like to put these little narratives under a microscope once in a while, so I can’t really say if it was entirely a coincidence that–having just completed a re-read of Cohn’s classic account of rock’s early years–I took the occasion of my weekend drive (itself, the occasion for laying a Mother’s Day rose on a headstone) to pull out the mighty Bear Family’s Blowing the Fuse: 31 R&B Classics That Rocked the Jukebox In 1960 for company.

Let me just say that if 1960 was the bottom of the pop barrel (as opposed to the political barrel, which really was dire in many respects) I wish we could go back there.

Bobby Bland, Jerry Butler, James Brown, Etta James, Fats Domino, Brook Benton, Ike and Tina, Gary U.S. Bonds, Jimmy Reed, Jackie Wilson, one-offs the likes of “Stay,” or “Something’s On Your Mind,” or “Let the Little Girl Dance,” or “Ooh Poo Pah Doo” (wait til the spell checker get’s hold of that one!).

And all of that’s before you get to the real kicker, which involves Howlin’ Wolf’s “Spoonful” (the only cut here that wasn’t an R&B hit, and virtually the only one that didn’t cross over to the Pop charts) running straight into the Shirelles’ “Tonight’s the Night,” followed by a teen-ager named Jimmy Charles giving a perfect imitation of the era’s white teen idols on “A Million to One” and a young woman who called herself Sugar Pie DeSanto (whose then producer/hustler husband went on to become a bank robber after they divorced–baby that was rock and roll) doing a straight cop, arrangement wise, on the Everly Brothers (who, of course, were still crossing over regularly to the R&B charts, though these sort of collections never acknowledge such things–not even when they are done by the Bear Family. The Nik Cohn’s of the world have had their effect).

1960, incidentally, was the year Cash Box, the other major trade magazine that competed with Billboard, suspended it’s R&B Chart for a time because the overlap between R&B and Pop, barely noticeable before rock and roll, was by then so great there seemed little point in keeping them separated. (Billboard would follow with a similar experiment in late 1963–that experiment lasted a bit longer than Cash Box‘s but was  nonetheless ended a little over a year later once the Beatles and the British Invasion had safely re-segregated the charts and more or less ended the post-racial dream which had caused so much panic sweat to rise from the thin, tender skin of Nik Cohn and the Future of Rock Criticism in the dread days of 1960, when black people and girls and, well, black girl people, were starting to litter up the pop charts and the hallways of the Brill Building like nobody’s business.)

Oh well. I guess one man’s “worst year that pop has been through” is another man’s extremely interesting times.

But the next time you hear that America needed the Beatles because of the Kennedy assassination or some such rigmarole (or better yet, to “rediscover” the black music which the British Invasion in fact shoved back to the sideline), just remember the carefully modulated warning later rendered by Pete Townshend, that most British of all prophets, when he said something to the effect of not getting fooled again.

Sugar Pie DeSanto “I Want to Know” (Studio recording…Reaching the bottom no doubt.)