Nancy Sinatra has one of the most famous surnames in America, but she has struggled to feel proudly American of late. It’s a couple of weeks away from the inauguration of Joe Biden, and the singer and film star is recalling Donald Trump’s preparations for his own inauguration in 2017: his first dance with his wife Melania would be to her father’s signature hit, My Way.
Sinatra was disgusted. Her father was no fan of Trump: according to Frank’s former manager, he told Trump to “go fuck himself” after the billionaire refused to meet Frank’s fee for a 1990 performance at an Atlantic City casino. Nancy, in a since deleted tweet to Trump, wrote: “Just remember the first line of the song.” My Way begins: “And now the end is near.”
“Yeah, I was probably too outspoken for my own good,” she says, on reflection, a huge American flag waving behind her in her Palm Springs garden. “But my passion was running so high.” She never utters Trump’s name in conversation. “I’ve always tried desperately never to mention it, and if I did it would have been with a lowercase ‘t’.”
Trump blasted out My Way again this month as he boarded Air Force One for the last time. Throughout his presidential term, Sinatra has advocated for progress on climate change, women’s rights and healthcare, and believes that Biden will change the US for the better. “We squeaked by [in the election]. I don’t know what I would have done if Biden had lost. It crossed my mind to move to another country.” The last four years, though, have taken a toll on her mental health. “I couldn’t believe that this great nation had sunk so low,” she says. “I’ll never forgive the people that voted for him, ever. I have an angry place inside of me now. I hope it doesn’t kill me.”
Sinatra is widowed, lives by herself and admits to feeling depressed “about everything”. Due to Covid-19, she has been isolated since March 2020. Her family celebrated her 80th birthday in June, but outside, adhering to social distancing. “It’s a long time to be alone,” she says. “No hugging, you know?”
She lost her second husband, Hugh Lambert, to cancer when he was 55, and their daughters, Amanda and AJ, now gently compel their mother to work – her new archival release Nancy Sinatra: Start Walkin’ 1965-1976 is their project alongside the US independent label Light in the Attic. The collection spans her solo releases, rarities and classics from her first two albums with her former collaborator Lee Hazlewood, the songwriter who changed her future. “I guess they think it represents a good time of my life,” she says.
Looking back seems heavy going at times for Sinatra; she sighs more than she does talking about the present. Most of the players are no longer alive, and the public perception of Sinatra’s artistry doesn’t necessarily tally with her memories: “People tend to put their own meaning to things.” Recently, her biggest smash These Boots Are Made For Walkin’ was an anthem for the Women’s March, and when it was released in 1966, it seemed to reject the prevailing pop trend of pining for male attention. Sinatra doesn’t recall having that on her mind. “I didn’t look at songs in that way,” she says. “The 60s were disruptive to say the least. There were protests. My songs were not deliberately chosen to reflect that, but they did anyway.”
Ironically, those who would politicise her songs now would have been the first to decry her music for its lack of political edge at the height of the Vietnam war and the civil rights movement. Sinatra recalls that the fun spirit and feeling of joy that accompanied the beginning of the 60s suddenly descended into fighting talk. “War songs took over,” she says. “There wasn’t much I could do about that. I wasn’t about to get into protest art. It wasn’t my thing. Entertainment was my thing.”
In 1966 and 1967, Sinatra travelled to Vietnam to perform for the US military. These Boots Are Made For Walkin’ was a No 1 hit and had become an anthem for the troops. “It was more about fun than what Joan Baez was doing,” she says of her performances, with a hint of resentment. Sinatra says she could have made music like Baez’s socially conscious folk, but chose to stick to pop. “It was important to be supportive of the people who were stuck in that war, and not go against what they were doing,” she says. “That would have been disheartening for them.” She was ostracised for it by her contemporaries. “I felt like an interloper,” she says. “When there were get-togethers with current hot musicians they did not treat me as an equal. It hurt. But I stuck to my guns. It might have hurt me in the long run. At least I was true to my beliefs and to the people I was concerned about.”
Sinatra was the first child born to Frank and his wife Nancy (nee Barbato) in Jersey City in 1940. As Frank’s solo career catapulted forward, the family moved to California. From there, Nancy’s sights were set on performance. “It was all I knew anyway,” she says, laughing. “I wasn’t about to go and do medicine!” Sinatra describes herself as a force in high school. She belonged to a YWCA (Young Women’s Christian Association) that put on annual song banquets – whether it was a Broadway number or Grieg’s Concerto in A Minor, Sinatra led the 50 or so women in her club. “I studied classical piano so I was able to write harmony parts for everybody,” she says. “We won every year.” When she was 17, she made her television debut on The Frank Sinatra Show. “His producers thought it would be a cute idea.”
In a 1960 episode of the show, Nancy was charged with welcoming Elvis Presley back from his military service in Germany. She had met Elvis before at Fort Dix, courtesy of her father, and wasn’t intimidated: “Elvis was lovely. What a great guy. What a sweet, polite, wonderful man.” When Nancy starred alongside him in the 1968 action flick Speedway, they became close – “He treated me as a good friend” – and on the night Lisa Marie Presley was born in February 1968, Elvis called Nancy with the news. “He said he felt so grateful that she was born into a loving, secure life. He mentioned how he felt pain for the babies born that same night in poverty. I knew what he meant.”
Sinatra agrees that Elvis probably felt a kinship with her because she understood the difference between the superstar and the human being. For Nancy, living amid her father’s stratospheric success never dissuaded her from following that path. The only event that derailed her was her first marriage, to the pop star Tommy Sands in 1960. “I was old-fashioned. I married as a virgin. We were both way too young. You find that out, don’t you?” For five years of marriage she put her career on hold. She blames herself. “I made the stumbling block,” she says. “Had I had a sexual life prior, I would not have married. In those days you got married to have sex, sadly.”
She was then signed to Frank’s label, Reprise. “He always gave me a chance. He said: ‘I’ll put you on the label and you can stay there as long as you pay your own way.’ Meaning that if I released a record, it had to sell enough to pay for itself. He wasn’t stupid!” She hadn’t yet found her authentic voice, though. “I was singing in keys that were too high. I termed it Nancy Nice Lady. It just wasn’t me.” Her early Reprise records weren’t successful outside Japan and Europe, and she worried she wouldn’t fulfil her ambitions in America: “Especially in my position: the ‘daughter of’,” she says. “You have to work harder so that you’re not going to shame your family. Even as a teenager I felt I had to be more careful about my behaviour. If a group of us got into trouble, the newspapers would single me out for obvious reasons. I had to keep the name out of the newspapers.” What was she getting into trouble for? She laughs. “We didn’t, thank God.”
The divorce was her bridge to a new voice. Sinatra didn’t work that out herself – it was Hazlewood, who had made his name co-writing instrumental hits with the guitarist Duane Eddy. Folklore goes that Frank invited Hazlewood over to meet Nancy, but it was actually her producer Jimmy Bowen who made the connection. Hazlewood auditioned some songs, and there was an immediate spark. “It was Lee’s funkiness, I think,” says Sinatra. “That was impressive to me.”
The songwriter has been portrayed as a svengali: the man who told her to sing more like a 14-year-old who screwed truck drivers. Sinatra says that well-oiled line was never uttered around her. “He never said that,” she says. “What he said was: ‘You’ve been married and divorced – you should sing like that.’”
In the beginning, Hazlewood did most of the songwriting, a unique meld of seductive folk, lush orchestras and R&B-inflected pop on the likes of Summer Wine, Some Velvet Morning and Jackson. In time, “He gained respect for me and my abilities.” They graduated to more complicated arrangements for their second album, Nancy & Lee Again, released in 1972; Sinatra was liberated post-divorce, able to explore sex in sound without compromising her privacy. “It was very sexy,” she says of the sessions. “There was chemistry going constantly. The fact that we didn’t consummate the feelings added to the incredible sensuality of the recordings. They wouldn’t have survived all these decades if that tension hadn’t been there. People still talk about them, wondering, questioning.”
The maturity of the sound was matched by Sinatra’s head-to-toe makeover. She went blonde, and embraced the British fashion of mini-skirts and Mary Quant silhouettes. In such tumultuous socio-political climes, was that presentation Sinatra’s own act of protest? “It was a coincidence that I came of age at the same time as feminism,” she shrugs. “We complemented each other. People thought that I was doing things because of women’s lib. I wasn’t. It was freedom of expression – it was where I felt comfortable at the time being a woman. Up until that point I had been a girl, and there’s a big difference.” Back then, the word feminism meant autonomy and power to Sinatra, and it didn’t mean denying her share of the credit for her 20 chart hits between 1965 and 1972: “There were a lot of men involved!”
“Feminism is about a certain glory,” she says. “There is glory in being a woman. Women do all the work. The men support but their mothers birth them, raise them, hug them when they cry. Men needed to be put in their place. They mostly are now. They understand this is a shared universe.”
The men in Sinatra’s life didn’t always shine. Hazlewood abandoned her, moving to Europe without warning in the middle of their success. It wasn’t until 2004 that they reconvened on their third album. “I found it difficult to forgive him,” she says. “He didn’t just walk away. He walked away. He walked to Sweden!” It took time to patch things up. “I didn’t understand it. When he came back, he never explained it. He really hurt me.” On their final tour, Hazlewood turned to her in the dressing room and told her he was sick. “I said: ‘Do you know what’s wrong with you?’ And he said, ‘I have cancer.’ It was so flippant.” He died in 2007.
The resurgence of Sinatra’s career was also helped by Quentin Tarantino’s use in 2003 of her 1966 cover of Cher’s Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down) in Kill Bill. The song was an accident. At the end of every record, Sinatra and her arranger, Billy Strange, used to do duets; just his guitar and her voice. She started singing the riff. “It became such a classic, but it was a throwaway. I was stunned that Quentin Tarantino was interested. I’d never met him.” Artists ranging from Sonic Youth to Courtney Love, Jarvis Cocker and Lana Del Rey cite her as an influence, too. “I find that to be very humbling,” she says. “I admire Lana Del Rey. She’s great.”
Sinatra has some sage advice for this younger generation. “If young people have an opportunity, they have to examine it carefully. Don’t pooh-pooh it because it’s not the ideal situation.” She is looking forward to peace in the US again, but with cautious optimism. “I need to get over fighting back if I’m going to survive. Carrying that angst is not healthy. I hope we can get back to the freedoms we enjoy. I worry. I don’t want my granddaughters to grow up in a nation full of hate.” The flag flutters on behind her.
• Nancy Sinatra: Start Walkin’ 1965-1976 is released on Light in the Attic, 5 February, with a physical release 26 March. Further reissues are planned throughout 2021