They couldn’t have been more different. The son of an oil worker, the daughter of a platinum-selling singer and movie star. His voice rumbled like the engine of an 18-wheeler echoing through a tunnel, hers was sweeter and airier than sponge cake. But the disparate coupling of Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra ignited sonic sparks in the mid-1960s.
The now 80-year-old Sinatra has released a career-spanning retrospective called “Start Walkin’ 1965-1976” (Light in the Attic Records) that revisits the magic she created with, and without, Hazlewood. It’s the beginning of a spate of reissues this year from the singer, who put out a prolific amount of material between 1966 to 1968. For those who dismissed Sinatra as little more than a poster child for nepotism, she is ready to set the record straight.
“Start Walkin’” is not simply a greatest hits album by Frank Sinatra’s daughter. Nancy Sinatra rode, and also helped shape, the zeitgeist of the 1960s.
Sinatra will always be best known for the Hazlewood-penned “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’.” The story, which has oft been told, is that Hazlewood wrote “Boots” for himself. Sinatra heard it and decided it would be better sung by a woman. Millions agreed with her, and the song topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic. In the process she transformed her image from bubblegum brunette to bold, booted blonde.
The pairing also gave Hazlewood, 11 years Sinatra’s senior, an opportunity to unleash his psychedelic cowboy sensibilities into popular culture.
But “Boots” is not the star of “Start Walkin’.” For those unfamiliar with Sinatra’s catalog or her contributions to pop culture, this compilation is an eye-opener. First, you’ll learn the important lesson that “Boots” isn’t Sinatra’s only kiss-off song, nor is it her best.
“How Does that Grab You, Darlin’?” finds our heroine playfully telling her paramour that if he’s going to stray, she’s going to roam just as far. Sinatra brought the sexual revolution into Billboard’s Top 10, and she did it wearing nothing but an oversize sweater, a pair of go-go boots, and a smile.
In the winter of 1966, when Sinatra was stomping up the charts with a swagger, other female singers were chirping about “Downtown” and playing both “The Crying Game” and “The Name Game.” Meanwhile, Sinatra was kicking butt and taking names.
She handily demonstrated that she was much more than the offspring of Rat Pack royalty; she was a trailblazer. One of the first interracial kisses on US television occurred when Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. gave each other a peck on the cheek during her Emmy Award-winning 1967 television special “Movin’ With Nancy.” That same special acted as a precursor to MTV. An hour of music videos with no interstitial dialogue. Just Nancy by a waterfall ostensibly singing about LSD, in a hot air balloon, and all around Los Angeles singing with her guests.
Which brings us back to Sinatra and Hazlewood. The battle-of-the-sexes sparring between the two on “Jackson” (which they playfully sing on the television special) is like listening to a good-humored, bourbon-soaked couple bickering at a bar at 3 a.m. It exudes joy in a way that the Johnny and June Cash version of the song never quite seemed to capture, with Sinatra goading Hazlewood’s bravado through each verse.
There’s unexpected range to Sinatra’s music. She plays the role of hippie chick ingenue against Hazlewood’s drowsy cowboy in “Summer Wine,” “Sand,” and “Ladybird.” After back-to-back bombastic James Bond title songs from Shirley Bassey and Tom Jones, Sinatra’s take on “You Only Live Twice” coolly ushers in a new era of Bond themes. Whereas Bassey used vocal acrobatics and her sledgehammer voice, Sinatra sings “You Only Live Twice” as if she slipped into a silver lamé evening gown and sauntered into Sean Connery’s man cave.
“Start Walkin’” wisely opens with Sinatra’s take on “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down).” Cher may have had a bigger hit with the song. But unlike Cher, Sinatra sings it with nothing but a quivering tremolo guitar and a good deal of vocal vulnerability. Quentin Tarantino reintroduced the song to the world when he smartly used it in the opening scene of “Kill Bill Vol. 1.”
“Start Walkin’” shines a skillfully filtered light on Sinatra in all of her many guises: breezy California girl, proto pop feminist, and Hazlewood’s muse. It is a remarkably relevant time capsule and a tempting amuse-bouche to the Sinatra reissues yet to come.