Nancy & Lee (Light In The Attic Records)
By Eleni P. Austin
It must be tough to be an aspiring musician if your parent is a famous one. Does your pedigree help or hurt you? Sure, you might skip the ordeal of attempting to break into the music business, working a day job, trying to secure gigs at crap venues. Still, it’s a double-edged sword. Name recognition gets you in the door, but you’re immediately held to a higher standard.
Nancy Sinatra was born into musical royalty. The oldest child of Frank Sinatra and Nancy Barbato, she started life in New Jersey, but grew up in Los Angeles, with her younger siblings, Frank Jr. and Tina. She never assumed a music career was in the bag, despite her famous connection. She worked hard and studied music theory in school. She first began recording in her late teens, but her original producer, Tutti Camarata had enjoyed great success with Disney ingenue Annette Funicello, and he was intent on sending Nancy down that same saccharine path.
So, Nancy made a pact with her dad. If he signed her to his boutique label, Reprise Records, she would cover her own expenses and pay for her recording sessions. She released some promising songs, but things really clicked when her label president, Jimmy Bowen suggested she work with producer Lee Hazlewood.
Born in Mannford, Oklahoma, Barton Lee Hazlewood endured a peripatetic childhood bouncing from Oklahoma between Arkansas, Kansas and Louisiana. By his teen years he’d settled in Port Neches, Texas, where he soaked up the vibrant confluence of music styles, before enrolling at Southern Methodist University. Following a stint in the army during the Korean War, he abandoned his medical studies and became a disc jockey.
Pretty quickly, he began writing and producing music. His first taste of success came when he partnered with Rock guitarist Duane Eddy. The pair collaborated on a string of instrumental hits like “Rebel Rouser” and “(Dance With The) Guitar Man. He relocated to the West Coast and not long after was auditioning songs for Nancy.
Almost immediately, they hit big with Nancy’s iconic, signature song, “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’.” Released in early 1966, the song shot to #1 on the charts. For the next few years, she and Lee recorded several chart-toppers including “How Does That Grab You, Darlin,” “Sugar Town,” and the James Bond theme, “You Only Live Twice.” Several of Nancy’s early records were featured duets with Lee. They gathered them all together for the 1968 album, Nancy & Lee.
Last year, the reissue label, Light In The Attic chose to honor the 55th anniversary of “These Boots…” by releasing a career-defining retrospective, Nancy Sinatra: Start Walkin’ 1965-1976. Since then, they have been releasing expanded editions of her ground-breaking, glass ceiling-shattering, Reprise albums. Nancy & Lee is the latest in the series. The album opens tentatively with a dreamy rendition of “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling. A monster hit in 1964 for Blue-Eyed Soul duo, The Righteous Brothers, it featured Phil Spector’s patented Wall Of Sound production. In Nancy and Lee’s hands, the urgency is supplanted by a languid groove. Strummy acoustic guitar is matched by twinkly piano, rumbly bass, swelling strings and a subtle shuffle rhythm. Lee’s drowsy baritone sets the mood, Nancy seconds that emotion as they trade verses, with just a hint of drama; “You never close your eyes anymore when I kiss your lips, and there’s no tenderness like before in your fingertips, you’re trying hard not to show it, Baby, but Baby, Baby, I know it.” By the time they both get to the “whoa-o-whoah-o-whoahs,” it’s clear that they’re both over it, and it’s gone, gone, gone.
The album is dotted with idiosyncratic originals, and the pair tackle a few well-known songs as well. Both “Summer Wine” and “Sundown, Sundown” confirm that Lee, with some assistance from arranger Billy Strange, created a quiet/loud dynamic that predates both The Pixies and Nirvana. On the former, shivery strings and finger-cymbals underscore Nancy’s allure. As the tempo accelerates, the instrumentation leaps to attention, signaling Lee’s arrival. Humble-bragging about his silver spurs, it’s clear he’s met his match. She coyly beckons him to “take off your silver spurs and help me pass the time, and I will give to you summer wine.” There must be more to the ingredients than “Strawberries, cherries and an angel’s kiss in Spring,” because he sheepishly notes “When I woke up and the sun was shining in my eyes, my silver spurs were gone, my head was twice its size, she took my silver spurs, a dollar and a dime, and left me cravin’ for some more summer wine.”
The latter opens with a swoony overture of strings and stentorian horns. Shadowy guitar, subtle keys, sinewy bass and a tick-tock beat follow suit. Prickly and insistent, Lee leaves no room for romance; “There’s no one in this world for me, there’s never gonna be.” Each verse punctuated by a staccato salvo of horns and strings. But somewhere in his subconscious, he can still hear Nancy’s honeyed entreaties; “Sundown, I miss you, Sundown, Sundown, I need you Sundown, come on, come on, come on, come on back to me.”
Recorded and released just a couple of months after Johnny and June’s epochal version (which reached #2 on the charts), these two offer-up a rollicking rendition of “Jackson.” Powered by frenetic harmonica, jittery bass, lonesome pedal steel, twangy guitar, a tambourine shake and a click-clack beat. This Hollywood hoedown feels all the more urgent, thanks to Nancy and Lee’s combative chemistry. A veritable swingers’ paradise, Jackson is where he thinks he’ll let down his hair, she dryly suggests he comb it first. Since the fires have cooled in their marital bed, he hits upon a salacious solution; “When I breeze into that city, people gonna stoop and bow, all them women gonna make me teach ‘em what they don’t know how, I’m goin’ to Jackson, you turn-a loose my coat, ‘cos I’m going to Jackson,” Nancy’s deadpan retort; “goodbye, that’s all she wrote.”
The albums best tracks stack back-to-back on side two, each one a sui generis Lee composition. “Some Velvet Morning” is probably their best known collaboration, it perfectly distills the duo’s symbiotic disharmony. Ethereal, ephemeral and enigmatic, the song opens with a symphonic wash of strings that cede the spotlight to fecund upright bass, gauzy guitars and a see-sawing beat. Lee’s declaratory phrasing on the verses collide headlong with Nancy’s dulcet chorus, which moves in ¾ time. Cryptic lyrics allude to the somber saga of “Phaedra” a princess in Greek mythology, or as Lee more eloquently explained it, “She was a sad-assed broad, the saddest of all the Greek goddesses. So, bless her heart, she deserves some notoriety, so I’ll put her in a song.”
“Sand” is anchored by zither-y percussive effects, vroom-y bass, a thumpy, tribal tattoo and trippy, Psychedelic guitars. Conversational in tone, Lee is the drawling cowpoke and Nancy is the guileless maiden fair; “Young woman, share your fire with me, my heart is cold, my soul is free, I am a stranger in your land, a wandering man, call me S and.” Naturally, her reply is equally demure; “Oh sir, my fire is very small, it will not warm thy heart at all, but thee may take me by the hand, hold me and I’ll call the Sand.” Predictably, he slips through her fingers, but the backwards, sitar-iffic guitar solo on the break is worth all of her hurt feelings.
“Lady Bird” positively goes for Baroque. Fluttery French horn lines up with sylvan strings, wily bass, willowy keys and junky percussion, all tethered to a galumphing gait. Lee remains earthbound as Nancy takes flight. The infectious melody accentuates her playful mien, as she calls the shots; “Winter lives in my heart, in the times we’re apart, summer sings a song or two, when he says ‘I love you true, my Lady Bird,’ yeah, I’m his Lady Bird.” On the break, woozy horns wrap around cascading piano notes, searing keys and a chunky beat.
Finally, “I’ve Been Down So Long, It Looks Like Up To Me,” weds sad-sack lyrics to a sunny melody propelled by ornate harpsichord clusters, a feathery horn fanfare, lithe bass lines and a clanky beat. Nancy narrates this loser’s lament as Lee wields the title like a punchline. It punctuates every verse, followed by a peppery horn-attack. One verse feels positively hallucinogenic; “I put my finger in his mind’s eye, and I’ve given him a reason now, to cry, I put his song of life in the wrong key, I’ve been down so long it looks up to me.” The ambling arrangement receives a jolt of energy with every propulsive horn run.
While most of the album sounds as though it could have been recorded during the 21st century, a few songs haven’t aged so gracefully. While the arrangement on “Elusive Dreams,” walking bass lines, rat-a-tat drums, Folky guitar and lush strings, still resonates, the lyrics evoke a “Stand By Your Man” subservience that that feels dated and slightly misogynist. There’s a novelty appeal to “Greenwich Village Folk Song Salesman” that quickly wears out its welcome. Despite the Country underpinnings, Storybook Children comes across treacly and somewhat corny.
Back in 1968, the record officially closed with “I’ve Been Down So Long….,” but for this reissue, Light In The Attic tacked on a couple of unreleased tracks. First up, Nancy and Lee throw caution to the wind and completely reconfigure The Kinks’ “Tired Of Waiting For You.” Breezy strings, slinky piano, Latin percussion and whispery vocals lock into a relax-fit Cha-Cha-Cha rhythm. Rather than trade verses, their dissonant harmonies wash over the cosmopolitan arrangement.
Equally wonderful is their version “Love Is Strange,” written by Bo Diddley under a pseudonym, it was originally a hit for Mickey & Sylvia in 1956. Once again, Nancy and Lee keep the melodic chassis intact, stripping it for parts and completely rebuilding the arrangement. The song opens with a raucous drum solo that crests over a brassy fanfare, popping bass lines, stuttery keys, slithery guitars and a conga-riffic beat. By the time they arrive at the flirty call-and-response section of the song, Lee is only too happy to push the boundaries of Swingin’ ‘60s decorum. When his lover-girl doesn’t answer immediately, he threatens to start without her. It’s a devilish finish to a great record.
Although many of these songs were originally found on different Nancy albums like Movin’ With Nancy, How Does That Grab You and Nancy In London, they fit together seamlessly on this collection. Produced by Lee and arranged by the protean Billy Strange, the instrumentation was provided by famed members of The Wrecking Crew, the ad hoc group of musicians that played behind everyone from The Byrds and The Beach Boys to Sammy Davis, Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra. These sessions included legendary bassists Chuck Berghofer and Carol Kaye, drummers Hal Blaine and Buddy Harmon, guitarists Glen Campbell, Al Casey, Donnie Owens and Donnie “Dirt” Lanier. Larry Knectel and Don Randi handled keys and Julius Wechter added percussion.
Of course, Nancy steadily made music until the mid ‘70s when she settled down and had a family. She returned to the recording studio nearly 20 years later, since then, she’s released several well-received albums. Her songs have never gone out of style. In 2004 she recorded a self-titled effort that found her collaborating with a younger generation of admirers like Morrissey, Pulp front-man Jarvis Cocker, Pete Yorn and Little Steven, As well as Bono and Edge from U2.
Lee toggled between his solo career and production chores, splitting his time between California and Europe. As the decades wore on his music also became revered by younger musicians like Nick Cave, Tindersticks and Lambchop. He and Nancy reunited occasionally, and he released a final album, Cake Or Death, in 2006. He passed away a year later, following a valiant battle with terminal cancer. Still, his music is constantly being rediscovered thanks to collections like Strung Out On Something New: The Reprise Recordings, as well as Light In The Attic’s exhaustive retrospective sets like 2012’s The LHI Years: Singles, Nudes & Backsides (1968-71), 2013’s There’s a Dream I’ve Been Saving: 1966-1971 and 2018’s demo collection Miles From L.A.: 1955-56.
As much as Sonny & Cher and Johnny & June, Nancy & Lee created indelible music that was definitely ahead of its time. Her sophistication and finesse paired perfectly with his gritty and gruff machismo. All of their collaborations were shot through with humor and grace, which is why these recordings remain timeless. Nancy Sinatra took chances and blurred musical lines, mixing Country, Rock, Psychedelia and Jazz. She valued Lee’s opinion, but never deferred to him. Simply put, she was ahead of her time. It might be corny to say it, but you’re already thinking it. Nancy did it her way.