Friday, June 08, 2007

Happy Birthday Nancy Sinatra

Born into showbiz royalty on the 8th of June 1940 in Jersey City, New Jersey, Nancy Sinatra is 67 today.

Although Nancy began making records on father’s Reprise label in 1961 it is fair to say she didn’t really hit her commercial, or creative, stride until 1965 when Reprise records producer Jimmy Bowen coaxed a reluctant Lee Hazlewood to produce her.

Jimmy Bowen had tasted some chart success himself as a member of Buddy Knox’s Rhythm Orchids in 1957 with I’m Sticking With You, originally the flipside of Buddy Knox’s big seller Party Doll.

1957 was also the year that one Tommy Sands got his break. He was cast as the lead in a television play, The Singing Idol, and of the back of that had a hit with Teenage Crush. He was subsequently signed to Capitol, where he enjoyed several smaller hits. Sands’ was enlisted into the military, and on September 11 1960, dressed in his air force uniform, married a twenty year old Nancy Sinatra.

In December 1960 Frank Sinatra announced the formation of Reprise Records with an artist roster that included pals Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. Nancy joined the label in 1961, having previously appeared in her Dad’s 1960 show to welcome Elvis Presley home from the army.

Bowen joined Reprise in the early sixties where, never much of a singer, he enjoyed his greatest success as a producer, including in 1965, Houston a hit for Dean Martin penned by Bowen’s neighbour Lee Hazlewood.

Hazlewood had already enjoyed some success as a writer and producer first with Sandford Clark with whom he had written and recorded The Fool which sold 800,000 copies and later, as a producer, with Duane Eddy. In 1963 he had quit the music industry in disgust:

“Everything you heard on the radio was Beatles, Beatles, Beatles. Not only that, but they were hailed as innovators when they were doing things that were done four years earler by the Everly Brothers” he told a radio interviewer in 1968.

Bowen coaxed his neighbour out of premature retirement and, in 1965, Hazlewood produced the hit I’m a Fool for Hollywood brat pack Dino, Desi & Billy. Hazlewood did not enjoy his time working with Dean Martin and Desi Arnez’s spoilt sons and was not, therefore, particularly thrilled when approached to work with Nancy who he saw as just “another second generation act”.

"He was part Henry Higgins and part Sigmund Freud," recalled Nancy Sinatra, who had, by that time divorced Tommy Sands, for The New York Times in January this year. She continued "He was far from the country bumpkin people considered him at the time. I had a horrible crush on him, but he was married then."

Describing working with Nancy, Hazlewood wrote in the introduction to his clumsily titled book Lee Hazlewood’s The Pope's Daughter-His Fantasy Life with Nancy and Other Sinatra's:

“What’s it like to work with a Nancy Sinatra? It’s a visit to Disneyland, only your father owns all the rides. It’s an evening in the medicine cabinet of Edgar Allen Poe’s mother… It’s a Las Vegas stage, sitting on a two-dollar stool in front of a fifty-two-piece orchestra, next to a lady in a five thousand-dollar gown; you’re singing a little flat and wondering if the fly is open on your eight-dollar ‘jeans’. It’s Beauty and the Beast selling a ‘fix’ to the Mickey Mouse People. It’s frustrating, foolish, Falstaffian, freaky, fucked-up and fun.”

After several hitless years on Reprise Nancy was open to Hazlewood’s suggestions, some of which must have appeared a little out there to a showbiz princess:

"Sugar Town was about LSD, Some Velvet Morning is about drugs and sex, and we had a quirky thing going with that stuff. Sand is one of the sexiest songs ever made." she told The Guardian in April 2005.

Hazlewood changed Nancy’s singing style and it paid immediate dividends when So Long Babe became a modest chart hit:

“She was singing too high for one thing and for another she was trying to be Goody Two Shoes which was not her natural style.” said Lee in the sleevenotes to his solo 1966 album The Very Strange World Of Lee Hazlewood.

The following year Nancy traded those goody two shoes for boots.

Written in 1963 Hazlewood was initially reluctant to play These Boots Are Made For Walking for Nancy because in its early incarnation the song contained the word “fuck.”

“But Nancy was in love with the song. It really needed her, by the way, we changed it around and I wrote a third verse for it. Didn't have that until the day of the session because I had forgotten all about it." Hazlewood told Noel Mengel of the Courier Mail.

These Boots Are Made For Walking was an instant smash, backed by that legendary coterie of Los Angeles session musicians known as The Wrecking Crew, Nancy reached number 1 in February 1966.

More hits followed including How Does That Grab You Darlin’? and the aforementioned Sugar Town. The former, incidentally, provided the title for Nancy’s second album which included her version of Sonny Bono’s song Bang, Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down) that Quentin Tarantino used as the theme for the Kill Bill 1 opening credits.

Kill Bill was not Nancy’s first foray in to soundtracks. Tucked away on the flipside of the US single How Does That Grab You Darlin’? is The Last Of The Secret Agents. It was the title song to a spy spoof of the same name that starred comedy duo Marty Allen and Steve Rossi alongside Nancy. Produced and written by Hazlewood it is basically a reworked Boots with riffs from John Barry’s Thunderball theme welded on.

The following year Nancy had the opportunity to record a Bond theme proper when the producers of You Only Live Twice decided they didn’t like theme song as it was originally sung by one Julie Rogers so approached Frank Sinatra about the job. Sinatra Snr passed on it but suggested they use his daughter Nancy. It was not an easy gig.

"You Only Live Twice was a real stretch for Nancy," John Barry, the songs composer recalled for Eddi Fiegel's book John Barry A Sixties Theme, "as a song it's kind of all over the place, and the bridge is particularly difficult, so all in all it was a bit of a reach for her. whats now in the movie was made up of about twenty-four takes. It was a real masterpiece of editing. There was just no way we'd have got it in one take. She'd get one bit right the first time but then she'd get another bit wrong. So that was what we call 'a glue job'. She knew. She'd say 'That's a good bit there, you can cut that in, John, can't you?' She didn't have any illusions about it."

Still 1967 was a big year for Nancy, not only did she sing that years Bond theme but she conceived and produced an Emmy winning television special called Movin’ with Nancy. Besides featuring a great version of Lionel Bart's Who Will Buy? it saw the unveiling of Nancy and Lee’s undisputed masterpiece: Some Velvet Morning.

"I particularly love Some Velvet Morning. It's a beautiful song, but also melancholy and dark, because that was Lee. He was funny and clever and talented, but he also had a dark side, which added something special to the songs we did together."Nancy told New Zealand's The Sunday Star Times in April 2008

Nancy and Lee had first sang together the previous year on Summer Wine, the flipside of Sugar Town:

“We started together… out of absolute greed on my part.” Hazlewood told Richard Hawley for The Observer Monthly Music Magazine in October 2006.

Written for Movin’ with Nancy, a TV special, Hazlewood anticipated that Some Velvet Morning, a druggy reverie, would cause problems with the censor. He recalled in the sleeve notes to 2002 tribute album Total Lee- The Songs Of Lee Hazlewood:

“We did it and then you submit it to the censor at NBC and I thought, of course, they’re going to find something with this one that they don’t like, really they’re going to find something! The man questioned the line “and how she made it in”, I. N. and I said “No, it’s E.N.D”…And when I told the guy that he goes “Oh, well that’s fine then, that’s OK.” And I didn’t say what about anything . Somebody said “What is the song about?" and I said “It’s about three and a half minutes that’s about all I can tell you.” But it worked.”

Also in 1967 Frank Sinatra earned his first US gold record with the bizarro Somethin’ Stupid, a wildly inappropriate duet with Nancy produced by Bowen and Hazlewood. Nancy sounds cramped and miserable on the record, a sulky teen reluctantly singing along with dad. Perhaps, like me, she found the whole concept a bit creepy.

In 1968 Nancy appeared as Susan Jacks, a part originally intended for Petula Clark, in the movie Speedway with Elvis Presley. She had a solo number, Your Groovy Self, making her the only singer ever to have a solo song appear on an Elvis soundtrack (prior to his death).

In 1970 Hazlewood decided to up sticks and move to Sweden, shattering the partnership with Nancy.

"It was crazy," Sinatra said in The New York Times . "And he really left me in the lurch. He kept shooting himself in the foot all the time, and I never knew why. He was always his own worst enemy."

Nancy never really went away though. She recorded throughout the 70’s and 80’s including, in 1981, a country album with Mel Tillis called Mel and Nancy but she never again recaptured the brilliance of those late Sixties Reprise recordings.

"I knew this music was unique when we were making it and the proof is that 40 years on, people are still listening to it." she told The Guardian in 2005.

In 1995 Nancy relaunched herself with the One More Time album and, at 54 years of age, a Playboy photoshoot which according to her website “demonstrated once again that sexuality and feminism are not mutually exclusive”.

In 2004 Nancy’s career underwent something of a revival as she was discovered by a new generation of fans, including Morrissey who invited her to take part in Meltdown at the Royal Festival Hall that year. It was Nancy’s debut live performance in London.

I saw Nancy that night and well remember the hysteria that greeted Sugar Town. You can view some of it here courtesy of Richard Gibson.

In May last year Nancy's Sinatra’s star was added to the Hollywood Walk of Fame and next month Nancy will be presented with the President’s Award For Excellence In The Arts by National President John Rowan.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

10 Records That Changed The World Part 1

The June issue of Mojo magazine featured a list of 100 Records That Changed The World.

Inspired by this Testify presents, in two parts, 10 records NOT included in the Mojo list that, nontheless, changed the world.

Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys – Ida Red

No list of influential records is complete without reference to Bob Wills. Together with Milton Brown, Wills was a founding member of the Fort Worth Doughboys and their sole recording, Sunbonnet Sue/ Nancy Jane in February 1932, provided the blueprint for a hybrid form of dance music that became known as Western Swing.

Incorporating elements of Big Band music, old time fiddle music and the blues Western Swing was a raucous sound that caught the ear of, amongst others, Chuck Berry.

Berry’s audition tape for the Chess brothers featured his take on an old traditional number called Ida Red.

As Berry recalled in his 1987 autobiography: “I’d heard it (Ida Red) sung long before when I was a teenager and thought it was rhythmic and amusing to hear. I’d sung it in the yard gatherings and parties around home when I was first learning to strum the guitar in my high-school days.”

Probably the earliest recording of this song was by Fiddlin' Powers & Family on August 19, 1924 (issued December 1924). Bob Wills' first recording of Ida Red, and the one which provided the inspiration for Berry, was in November 29, 1938 in Dallas, although it wasn’t issued until October the following year. Wills cut another, souped up, version in 1950 called Ida Red Likes The Boogie.

Leonard Chess suggested Berry write new lyrics for Ida Red and speed it up a bit and thus the rock ‘n’ roll staple Maybellene was born.

Also listening to Bob Wills was Elvis Presley whose 1954 Sun recording of Milk Cow Blues grafted verses from Wills’ 1946 recording Brain Cloudy Blues onto Kokomo Arnold’s original.

Bill Haley and his Comets - Rock Around The Clock

Prior to 1951 Haley had recorded Western Swing inflected country songs.

Then, in 1951, Bill Haley and the Saddlemen cut a version of Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats kickin’ R&B track Rocket 88.

The following year he changed the band personnel and christened them the Comets and, in 1953, with Crazy Man Crazy, recorded the first white rock hit.

On the strength of this they were signed to Decca in 1954 and (We’re Gonna) Rock Around The Clock was released in May of that year. It was a flop.

Until, that is, the movie Blackboard Jungle was released in 1955. Intended as an examination of delinquency in America’s city schools Blackboard Jungle was the first film to use a rock ‘n’ roll song as part of its soundtrack.

It pitted solid decent English teacher Rick Dadier (Glen Ford) against North Manual High Schools teenage rabble,as the opening credits faded (We’re Gonna) Rock Around The Clock blared out over images of general juvenile delinquency. By the time the movies chief juvenile delinquent, Artie West (Vic Morrow), was seen trashing the beloved jazz records of a liberal maths teacher the link between rock ‘n’ roll and a kind of violent nihilism had been forged. By the end of 1955 (We’re Gonna) Rock Around The Clock had sold six million copies.

Johnny Ace – Pledging My Love

Recorded with the Johnny Otis Orchestra Pledging My Love was Johnny Ace’s seventh record and was released in the first week of 1955. It reached number 1 in the R&B charts immediately and hit the pop top twenty in February.

It was also rock ’n’ roll’s first posthumous hit. On December 24th 1954 backstage at the Houston City Auditorium Johnny Ace became the founding member of what Kurt Cobain’s mother called “that stupid club”, apparently whilst playing Russian roulette. He was only 25 years of age.

Hound Dog chanteuse Big Mama Thornton, who witnessed the event, recalled: “that kinky hair of his shot straight out like porcupine quills”. (whilst Johnny Otis noted: “He was used to playing a kind of controlled Russian roulette, but this time he made a fatal mistake because the hammer fell on a loaded chamber” Well, duh!).

Elvis Presley was a fan and had Johnny Ace’s 1955 single in his record collection.

In June 1977 when RCA issued the single Way Down, as a taster for the Moody Blue album nobody could have known it would be the last single released during Elvis Presley’s lifetime. On its flipside was Elvis’ cover of Pledging My Love.

Carl Perkins – Blue Suede Shoes

Carl Perkins was an aspiring musician playing a tough Hank Williams inspired brand of honky tonk in the bars of Jackson, Tennessee in 1954, when his wife first heard Presley’s recording That’s All Right (Mama). She was moved to comment “Carl, that sounds just like y’all”

When Perkins found out that it was recorded in Memphis, a short drive away from Jackson, he went to Sun studios and waited and waited until Sam Phillips, the labels founder and Elvis’ first mentor, agreed to see him.

Perkins classic was inspired by a real incident. As Perkins recalled on the 706 ReUnion album:
“I heard a boy tell a girl, he said ‘Uh- Uh don’t step on my suede’s, I was playing a little club in Jackson, Tennessee.”

The song was recorded on December 19th 1955 and was issued in January the following year with Honey Don’t on the flip side.

Blue Suede Shoes went to number 1 in the Country charts, number 2 in the Pop charts and then on March 17th 1956 Carl Perkins made history, and sold over a million records in the process, when he became the first country artist to reach the national Rhythm and Blues chart.

Wanda Jackson – Honey Bop

Following the success of (We’re Gonna) Rock Around The Clock and Blue Suede Shoes the floodgates opened.

Former country singer Jackson became the first girl singer, inspired by Presley’s example, to cut an out and out rock ’n’ roll record.

Having already dabbled with rock ‘n’ roll with I Gotta Know, a song which featured as much country as it did rock ‘n’ roll, Wanda went the whole hog in September 1956 with Honey Bop which, incidentally, was co-written by Mae Axton, who had also co- written Heartbreak Hotel. Although by no means Jackson’s finest work and not particularly commercially successful it nevertheless blazed the trail that other women would follow.

It is a disgrace that the Rock ‘n ‘ Roll Hall Of Fame is yet to recognise Jackson’s pioneering contribution to the music it purports to support.

Regular readers of Testify (ho-ho) already know what a fan of Wanda Jackson I am and it only remains for me to remind you of Wanda Weekend at The Luminaire next month.
You can read the rest of this list here.

The picture accompanying this post shows Wanda Jackson and Bob Wills at the Showboat in Las Vegas in 1959, some show eh?