meta-scriptLiving Legends: Nancy Sinatra Reflects On Creating "Power And Magic" In Studio, Developing A Legacy Beyond "Boots" & The Pop Stars She Wants To Work With | GRAMMY.com
Living Legends: Nancy Sinatra Reflects On Creating "Power And Magic" In Studio, Developing A Legacy Beyond "Boots" & The Pop Stars She Wants To Work With
Nancy Sinatra in the 1960s

Photo: David Sutton, courtesy of the David Sutton Collection

interview

Living Legends: Nancy Sinatra Reflects On Creating "Power And Magic" In Studio, Developing A Legacy Beyond "Boots" & The Pop Stars She Wants To Work With

Nancy Sinatra is more than "Boots" — the singer and actress has recorded over 20 albums during her six decade-long career. Sinatra spoke to GRAMMY.com about her canon of pop records, recording with Lee Hazlewood and her dream collaborators.

GRAMMYs/Sep 14, 2022 - 09:42 pm

Presented by GRAMMY.com, Living Legends is an editorial series that honors icons in music and celebrates their inimitable legacies and ongoing impact on culture. GRAMMY.com caught up with Nancy Sinatra, whose work is receiving the grand retrospective reissue treatment through Light in the Attic Records.

Nancy Sinatra is barefoot.

The woman whose most enduring hit is an ode to footwear — and the power of female — of course, doesn’t wear shoes inside her home in California’s low desert. But one need not speculate that she once had a closet full of supremely fashionable kicks.

In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Sinatra, now 82, was a fashion icon and actress with a powerful pop voice to boot — pun intended. While she may be most known for singing 1966's "These Boots Are Made For Walking" and the theme to You Only Live Twice, Nancy Sinatra has a sizable catalog which boasted new material through 2013.

Sixty-something years after "Boots," Sinatra is still being celebrated. Seattle reissue label Light in the Attic Records launched a retrospective effort on Sinatra's career in 2020, and has released multiple solo and duet albums since. In May, the label reissued the 1968 duet album Nancy and Lee, with additional tracks, for the first time.

But when Sinatra picked up the phone to chat about the release and her career over the summer, her mind was on more serious pursuits. Sinatra was in the middle of watching the January 6 hearings on the attack on the Capitol, and she had visions of the massacre at Uvalde. "It’s just a scary time in many ways," Sinatra says with more than a hint of sadness and exasperation.

We go back to another turbulent time: 1968. Vietnam raged, Nixon took office, the Chicago Democratic Convention became bloody, and the country mourned both MLK and RFK. Amid the turmoil, Sinatra was in studio with singer/songwriter Lee Hazlewood recording Nancy and Lee, the first of their three duet albums.

Lee and Nancy were paired together in a last-ditch effort by Reprise Records — a label owned by her father — to get Nancy a hit. It seemed an odd pairing; Hazlewood had been working with rock guitarist Duane Eddy and his productions effused a Western twang, while Sinatra was a pop icon who studied classical piano. Yet, the combination worked, and Hazlewood would write and produce several of Nancy’s efforts.

While the pair collaborated on several of Nancy's solo efforts prior — and worked together well into the '90s — Nancy and Lee is worth close examination for its stories in folk, country and pop traditions. Their first album of duets melds Hazlewood’s Johnny Cash-like vocals with Sinatra’s adaptable and often sugary-sweet timbre, is an unlikely masterpiece with a Wall of Sound quality.

Nancy spoke to GRAMMY.com about the album’s creation, her fruitful partnership with Hazlewood, and her list of fantasy collaborators.

From what we were discussing about January 6, let's bring it back to another time that was also very tumultuous. There was a lot going on in 1968 when Nancy and Lee came out. Did you feel that in the same way as you do today?

Yeah, you were either pro-war or anti-war, so it was politically challenging. I knew one thing: I was pro-troops. None of it was their fault; they were stuck, and they had to be supported. No doubt about that.

You've recorded so many records over your career; I'm curious why Nancy and Lee is so enduring in your mind.

You know, I wonder that too. I have to credit Lee, because he's the added factor in those recordings. The arranger was the same for most of my work. The songs were mostly written by Lee, so I don't know. Maybe it was the chemistry that people were attracted to, or Lee’s voice itself. I mean, nobody sounded like him; Johnny Cash was the closest vocally.

You’ve described your relationship with Lee as "beauty and the beast" and have said that your voices didn't blend, but you have this really distinctive vocal harmony; it sounds like you're having a lot of fun. How did you create that

There were times when we actually sang together on the mic, and there were other times when Lee was in the booth when I was singing.

He didn't like singing with somebody. He would prefer — even though they were duets, a contradiction in terms — to have us sing separately. Which is why we have that verse, chorus, verse, chorus thing most of the time. There were very few times that we actually sang together.

I think we did do ["Ladybird"] in the studio together. I think that the chemistry reflects that. It was fun.

Did you find that challenging?

No, it was a very comfortable process. The studio was familiar; we were all friends. The challenge was trying to create vocals that had power and magic to them. It wasn't easy to do, but Lee’s songs were really fairy tales — and telling stories was what we did.

It really does seem like you're having fun throughout the record, especially on "Greenwich Village Folk Song Salesman."

[Laughs] It was a piece of s, it was awful! It was just a crappy song.

Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood

Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood | Photo by Paul Ferrara, courtesy of Boots Enterprises

You were paired with Lee as sort of a last-ditch effort by Reprise Records, right?

The problem was I wasn’t selling in the United States. I sold a lot of the early bubblegum records around the world but nothing in this country. Jimmy Bowen, who was the head of the A&R department, wanted me to stay on the label. I mean, it was my dad's label after all, and it kind of would have been embarrassing if they had to let me go!

I don't know why Jimmy thought this — because Lee was not working with a vocalist; he was producing Duane Eddy. I guess Lee must’ve assured him he could do it. So [Jimmy] put us together, and it was just magic. The "beauty and the beast" thing came joking about how we sounded together. We were pretty self-deprecating.

Did you have to develop your creative relationship actively or was it instant magic?

It really was instantaneous. I had heard the record that Lee had made with Suzi Jane [Hokum, 1967’s “Summer Wine”] and I thought they were so cute.

It was something different about the two of us that captured the fancy and the imagination of the public. It’s weird how those things happen, those unexplained magical pairings.

Did you at least stay in touch with Lee until he passed? Were you friends?

Well, we were touring in ‘95 and he was part of our touring group. The only time we weren't in touch was when he disappeared and took off for Sweden at the height of our recording careers. I never understood that and I was hurt so.

One day he just up and left. [Aftward] I struggled, floundered. I made a few albums with Billy Strange.

Did you and Lee ever have to hash it out when he came back to the States?

No, not really. We got along on the surface, but deep down I think it's still a love-hate thing. I didn't hate anything specifically, except that he would disappear. [I loved] his talent.

Where were you personally in your musical taste and desires as a performer in the mid-60s? Your first two duet albums with Lee have really big pop production, country elements and even Baroque traits. "These Boots" has a country feel if you listen closely, and then you're putting out bubblegum songs.

I studied classical piano for 12 years as a kid. Frank Sinatra was my father and my friends were his friends. There was a lot of influence from that side of the musical spectrum. I also grew up with soul — LaVerne Baker and Ruth Brown were favorites of mine early on, and I loved Johnny Mathis better than anybody. I had an eclectic background, musically.

I guess it would only make sense considering your father and the musical world that was around him. Back to your collaboration with Lee — it was so fruitful, and I'm curious why if at all, this Nancy and Lee reissue is particularly special to you.

Well, first of all, Light In The Attic is incredible, they do amazing remastering work. To save these recordings means a great deal to me. I like the fact that they are protected and will be around for decades to come. After all, that's what we hope for with whatever work we do — we want to be remembered and valued in some way.

They are saving, in a brilliant way, a lot of my recordings. I hope that they go deeper into my catalog and pull out hidden gems that people haven't heard in years, or maybe never. Because I recorded so much rich material with great arrangers. It's exciting to think that that will be part of my legacy, not just "Boots" and "Sugartown."

A lot of press releases have highlighted the fact that you're personally involved in these reissues, and Light In The Attic has done quite a campaign over the past two years. How were you involved?

I actually was not involved. I was delightfully surprised when they launched this project. Both my daughters have been working to ensure that my legacy lives on. It's wonderful, they are amazing — AJ and Amanda — they're so helpful with this process.

Let's face it, this stuff could have just died in the world. But they're not letting it. They’re promoting it and the beauty of it all; it's really quite a remarkable collection. I'm excited that people will be able to hear things they may never have heard before.

You had such a prolific recording career, 20 albums or so overall. Is there a record, or records from your catalog from the deeper collection, that you are most proud of?

I love the self-titled album from 1995, where a lot of '80s artists contributed songs and actually performed them with me. My California Girl album, which is great fun; it was not an album, per se. It was recorded over a couple of decades and we just pulled it all together, realizing that there were so many songs about California in my catalog.

When did you move to California?

My parents moved to California from New Jersey when I was about 4 years old. I still live in California, in the low desert. It's a wonderful place. It's peaceful and mostly quiet. When you get to be my age, those are important things.

Speaking of neighbors — I read that you used to live near Morrissey and consider him a mentor. What was it like working with him?

Oh, he's just brilliant. He's very tender and kind and sweet and funny. He’s the main reason besides my two daughters that the Nancy Sinatra album came to life. He’s on the track "Let Me Kiss You." He wrote the song and sent me his recording of it, and that’s how the whole thing started. It was a real resurgence for me, which was a surprise that changed my life, really.

I was just a rumor before that came out. Whatever people thought of me was history. I was traveling with my little band and doing clubs and that sort of thing, nothing big. It's just a gift to have people — like Kim Gordon, for example — just approach me. My daughter AJ had to pull them in from everywhere, and they gave me these wonderful songs.

Wow, that must have made you feel so good. You also had another resurgence or when Kill Bill used your cover of "Bang Bang" prominently.

Yeah, that was thanks to Quentin Tarantino. He apparently had always wanted to use the song. I got messages from people saying they had no idea it was me on the soundtrack until they saw that credit on the screen.

[I remember recording it] very well. It was Billy Strange and me in the studio. We tried to do the occasional duet with his guitar and my voice; that one was an idea that we had batted around a little bit and then we decided to pull it off. It was quick; the wonderful, magical tracks tend to happen quickly.

I read somewhere that you would like to collaborate with Billie Eilish — why her? Is there anyone else you would like to collaborate with?

I think she’s great! I’m too old for that now, but I think it would be fun. I’ve always loved Avril Lavigne and think she’s great, very fun. I also love Adam Lambert. He'd be a fabulous duet partner, and Bruno Mars… there’s a whole list of people, we could do a whole new album! Hello Bruno!

I also want to ask you about owning your masters; that is no small feat for any artist. Why is that important to you and how it's influenced your career over the decades?

Owning your masters is vital; that’s something that every musician should aim for. If there's a label involved, you've got to make a deal where at the end of a certain amount of time, the masters would revert to you. You have to have control of your work.

With "Bang Bang," for example, Quentin was able to have free reign because I owned it. He didn’t have to battle with a label.

Are you working on anything right now?

I have a book coming out that my daughter Amanda is pretty much responsible for. Because of Covid we got delayed by about a year, [but] it’s going to be a really wonderful picture book; it captures a lot of my career and my life and pictures. It's by David Willis [and is called] Nancy Sinatra: One For Your Dreams.

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Living Legends: Andrea Bocelli On His Favorite Duets & What Keeps Him Inspired 30 Years Later
Andrea Bocelli

Photo: Courtesy of Andrea Bocelli

interview

Living Legends: Andrea Bocelli On His Favorite Duets & What Keeps Him Inspired 30 Years Later

In an interview with GRAMMY.com, beloved vocalist Andrea Bocelli discusses his enduring success, the collaborative process, and releasing the deluxe edition of his new album, 'A Family Christmas.'

GRAMMYs/Dec 20, 2023 - 03:52 pm

As one of the world’s most beloved vocalists, the Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli has built a legendary career over 15 solo albums, a regular schedule of blockbuster tours and five GRAMMY nominations, most recently for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album for Si in 2020.

Originally setting his dreams onto a career as a soccer player, life set Bocelli on a new path after a mishap playing the sport resulted in the loss of his vision. Worldwide stardom came after his musical success in his native Italy, and since the release of his debut album in 1994, he’s staked a claim as one of the best-selling artists of all time. 

It’s a legacy that continues with the recent release of the deluxe edition of his album A Family Christmas. Originally released to acclaim last year, it features his children Virginia and Matteo; the updated version is composed of 10 new tracks, including the single “Let It Snow.”

Bocelli spoke to GRAMMY.com about the new album, his current nationwide tour and the album that first turned him into a global sensation: “The result went beyond my wildest dreams.” 

A Family Christmas features your kids Virginia and Matteo. Over the years, you also recorded blockbuster duets with everyone from Tony Bennett and Beyonce, Ed Sheeran and Celine Dion, among many others. Can you point out the most memorable duet of your career?

I wouldn’t mention one in particular, to not offend the others. As you know, I love duets; mixing voices is a challenge, a wager, a meeting of souls. Singing together, either opera or pop music, is always a gratifying experience. In my thirty-year career, I have had the honor to sing with extraordinary artists, from the already mentioned Celine Dion to Barbra Streisand, from Stevie Wonder to the unforgettable Tony Bennett. In the lyrical world, I hold close to my heart the memory and privilege of making music with Placido Domingo, Jose Carreras, and Luciano Pavarotti.

You were nominated for the Best New Artist GRAMMY in 1999. What do you remember about that show, and your introduction to America in general?

I remember, with great emotion, the duet that my dearest friend, Celine Dion, and I sang together, interpreting that little masterpiece that was “The Prayer”, written by another great friend of mine, David Foster. A very intense relationship with the United States was taking shape at the time, and then followed a continuous upward curve, to the extent that today I consider it my second home. This extraordinary country immediately showed me love!

You're currently on tour, and are known for your epic performances and specials, whether performing in Milan's Duomo or riding horseback across the country. How do you come up with these ideas? Is the idea to go bigger and bigger, or did these just happen organically? 

The source of my inspiration is always the same, and I can summarize it in one word: love. Love across the board: sensual love, love for life, for beauty, for the brotherhood that unites us, and for He who created us.

I believe that there is a purpose conceived for each one of us. Every life is a story that reflects a specific plan. Every woman, every man is born with a talent that is a gift by heavenly design. It is up to our conscience, to our free will to cultivate and honor it or vice versa squander it.

I personally tried to honor mine, making my voice available to share values, such as love, optimism and brotherhood. After that, everything is in the hands of our good Lord, so what I do is look up to the heavens every day and give thanks, ask for help, pray and whisper, “Your will be done.”

Romanza is one of the best selling albums of all time. When you were recording it, did you feel it was going to be something special — or did its success take you by surprise?

I experienced alternating feelings of hope and disappointment. People appreciated my singing and proved it to me consistently. It was show business itself that didn’t consider me a marketable “product.” I was often told, “you better find a new job.” There were so many potential opportunities lost by a breath, and considering the fact that I was no longer a young artist, at times my expectations of transforming this passion of mine into a profession were truly dim.

How did that change?

When Romanza was released, I, of course, aspired to find my own audience, be it in pop or opera. The result went beyond my wildest dreams, beyond my rosiest and most passionate expectations. This recording project holds within it a very important part of my own personal and professional story. To date, I find it hard to understand the reasons for such an overwhelming success, despite realizing that its songs still today, after so many years, are capable of communicating intense, uplifting emotions.

Do you know right away how to musically interpret a song, or is there a process?

There is always a long, complex and challenging process of reflection and elaboration. There is a first phase of listening to the entire interpreted narrative of the song. Then comes the creative phase, alternating with an analytical phase for the end result, with a constant fine-tuning of the vocal and instrumental solutions.

I must say that I consider this deluxe version of the Christmas album, with extra songs, special for personal reasons. Mainly because I was able to work with my children. But also for its innovative recording, orchestral arrangements and the creative process. For each song, we started off with the piano using a felt to dampen the sound. Then it was overwritten by classical and pop instrumentation, always looking to create sculpted sounds for each individual piece. Everything was first sampled, then recorded with a full orchestra.

When it comes to putting the Christmas album specifically, how do you find fresh songs to cover and interpret?  The classics have been covered countless times.

After evaluating hundreds of songs, we chose [together with our record label team] the most intense; the ones capable of evoking the Christmas spirit we were looking for. It is, in some ways, an unusual selection, inspired by the sentiment of universal solidarity. It is a phonic kaleidoscope of international songs, alternating celebratory and festive tones with more intimate and reflective ones.

The album is the genuine musical product of a family dedicated to all families. In it are three voices, three stages of life, three inevitably different sensitivities (despite our strong emotional ties) competing in a mix of genres, but at the same time, looking to recreate that magical state of mind that Holy Christmas can give us. This is what A Family Christmas is about: an album that is markedly different from the one I released in 2009, because it has a more modern and diversified track, with original and bespoke arrangements, fully adapted to our different voices.

Speaking of covers, your version of "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" is very unique. Can you tell me the story behind choosing that, and the arrangement?

The atmosphere created with this arrangement, and through the timbre and expressiveness of Matteo's voice offer a truly different, and I hope, interesting rendering. A decisive contribution to creating this and other songs comes from two extraordinary professionals, Ross Cullum and Stephan Moccio. Both worked in all of the vocal recording sessions, with meticulous and very refined precision on the choice of tonality, rhythm, dynamics, the vocal range of the scores, and orchestral colors.

What songs get the biggest reaction on your current tour?

It's actually hard to give a ranking of my most liked songs. Of course, songs tied to the imminent Christmas festivities warm the heart and are received with joy. But warm reactions are also generated by my operatic repertory with its most famous and beloved arias, as do also my pop classics.

The U.S. public, that I have the honor to have frequented for a quarter of a century, is, to my mind, the ideal audience. It's upbeat, generous, ready to get involved. It's an audience that can still get emotional, can participate and be responsive to what is happening on stage. It can experience with healthy simplicity and enthusiasm the emotions generated by listening. 

You uniquely weave your charitable foundation in with your shows. What's it like trying to think of fresh ideas for your foundation? Do you have fun with it?

The Andrea Bocelli Foundation was established in 2011. With the mission to empower people and communities, we chose education as a true key to offer people and communities the opportunity to live to their full potential. We do so by trying to be innovative in approach and planning our work with a multi-disciplinary team of professionals and consultants coming from different backgrounds and aligned with global objectives, such as the UN 2030 Agenda. We use tools and informal disciplines like art or digital music and promote the development of cross-cutting skills. For this reason, the Permanent Mission of Italy to the United Nations invited us to bring our expertise and best practices to the UN this December in recognition of our work as meaningful and innovative.

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GRAMMY Rewind: Kendrick Lamar Honors Hip-Hop's Greats While Accepting Best Rap Album GRAMMY For 'To Pimp a Butterfly' In 2016
Kendrick Lamar

Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

video

GRAMMY Rewind: Kendrick Lamar Honors Hip-Hop's Greats While Accepting Best Rap Album GRAMMY For 'To Pimp a Butterfly' In 2016

Upon winning the GRAMMY for Best Rap Album for 'To Pimp a Butterfly,' Kendrick Lamar thanked those that helped him get to the stage, and the artists that blazed the trail for him.

GRAMMYs/Oct 13, 2023 - 06:01 pm

Updated Friday Oct. 13, 2023 to include info about Kendrick Lamar's most recent GRAMMY wins, as of the 2023 GRAMMYs.

A GRAMMY veteran these days, Kendrick Lamar has won 17 GRAMMYs and has received 47 GRAMMY nominations overall. A sizable chunk of his trophies came from the 58th annual GRAMMY Awards in 2016, when he walked away with five — including his first-ever win in the Best Rap Album category.

This installment of GRAMMY Rewind turns back the clock to 2016, revisiting Lamar's acceptance speech upon winning Best Rap Album for To Pimp A Butterfly. Though Lamar was alone on stage, he made it clear that he wouldn't be at the top of his game without the help of a broad support system. 

"First off, all glory to God, that's for sure," he said, kicking off a speech that went on to thank his parents, who he described as his "those who gave me the responsibility of knowing, of accepting the good with the bad."

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He also extended his love and gratitude to his fiancée, Whitney Alford, and shouted out his Top Dawg Entertainment labelmates. Lamar specifically praised Top Dawg's CEO, Anthony Tiffith, for finding and developing raw talent that might not otherwise get the chance to pursue their musical dreams.

"We'd never forget that: Taking these kids out of the projects, out of Compton, and putting them right here on this stage, to be the best that they can be," Lamar — a Compton native himself — continued, leading into an impassioned conclusion spotlighting some of the cornerstone rap albums that came before To Pimp a Butterfly.

"Hip-hop. Ice Cube. This is for hip-hop," he said. "This is for Snoop Dogg, Doggystyle. This is for Illmatic, this is for Nas. We will live forever. Believe that."

To Pimp a Butterfly singles "Alright" and "These Walls" earned Lamar three more GRAMMYs that night, the former winning Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song and the latter taking Best Rap/Sung Collaboration (the song features Bilal, Anna Wise and Thundercat). He also won Best Music Video for the remix of Taylor Swift's "Bad Blood." 

Lamar has since won Best Rap Album two more times, taking home the golden gramophone in 2018 for his blockbuster LP DAMN., and in 2023 for his bold fifth album, Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers.

Watch Lamar's full acceptance speech above, and check back at GRAMMY.com every Friday for more GRAMMY Rewind episodes. 

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Living Legends: Frankie Valli On The Four Seasons' Biggest Hits, Impressing Bob Dylan And Inspiring Billy Joel & Elton John
Frankie Valli

Photo: Varela Media

interview

Living Legends: Frankie Valli On The Four Seasons' Biggest Hits, Impressing Bob Dylan And Inspiring Billy Joel & Elton John

Between a new box set and a Las Vegas residency, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons aren’t slowing down in 2023. Hear from the falsetto king himself about how hits like “Sherry” and “December, 1963 (Oh What A Night!) came to be — and how they live on.

GRAMMYs/Oct 3, 2023 - 02:53 pm

With one of the most recognizable voices in music, a generation-spanning array of hit songs and a life story that has become stuff of legend, Frankie Valli has staked a claim as one of the music industry's most indelible artists. One of the few acts that steadily navigated from the doo-wop age through the disco era, Valli's improbable trajectory with his group, the Four Seasons, was propeled by a golden ear for hits, aided by the songwriter/producer power duo Bob Gaudio and Bob Crewe.

That's not to say the 89-year-old is resting on his laurels. His astounding career is on full, vibrant display in the immense new box set aptly dubbed Working Our Way Back to You — The Ultimate Collection. Consisting of 45 discs of every song Valli and the Four Seasons ever recorded — from beloved hits to deep-cuts, demos and other rarities — the set also includes a biographical book filled to the brim with rare images that track their rise from a fledgling New Jersey singing group to Broadway sensations in the form of Jersey Boys.

In addition, later this month Vailli is heading to Las Vegas for a residency at Westgate Resort and Casino where he and the Four Seasons will be appearing until well into 2024.

Valli spoke to GRAMMY.com about his astounding run of hits, the artists he's influenced, the modern covers of his tracks and how his big year started off with a bang during GRAMMY weekend.

You were a surprise performer at the Clive Davis GRAMMY Gala earlier this year and, in a very special moment, everyone in the audience, from Cardi B to Joni Mitchell, jumped up and sang along with you to "Can't Take My Eyes Off Of You." What was that moment like for you?

Oh, it was incredible. I never expected it. When Clive first invited me, he said "I want to invite you to my GRAMMY party, but I want you to do a song." I said, "With the generation gap, should I really do a song?" But I was in shock when everybody stood up to sing along. 

It was a really a moment I'll never forget. It's a good thing we have people like Clive who really has an insight on what's happening and where it's going. 

That night, the Italian rock band Måneksin covered your song "Beggin'" which was their breakout hit. The band was just the latest in a long line of artists who have covered Four Seasons music, with "Can't Take My Eyes Off Of You" done by everyone from Lauryn Hill to Shawn Mendes, to name just two examples. What do you think of all of these artists wanting to cover your work?

It's quite complimentary. When you've been around a long time and people find value in what you've done, it just makes you feel good about what you've done.

In your career, you've also covered so many songs from Cole Porter's "I've Got You Under My Skin" to Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice (It's Alright)." How did you go about choosing which songs to cover, and how would you put your own spin on these classics to make them your own?

It was really more or less music that we listened to and we loved. We tried to pick songs that were very meaningful for us, but the trick was to be able to do them a little differently than they had been done. 

We were quite successful with it, we did it with songs like "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?" We did a version of "Book of Love" and so many others.

Your version of "Don't Think Twice (It's Alright)" is probably one of the most unusual songs in your vast discography considering its subject matter, your exaggerated falsetto, and those background harmonies. How did that come about? I also understand you heard from Bob Dylan himself about it.

We did it in a very campy way, and it really was quite by accident. I was in a studio, and the guy at the soundboard asked me to sing a little bit to get a level on me. So I was clowning around singing in a falsetto like that.

The next thing I know, the button clicks and I hear [Crewe and Gaudio's] voices saying, "Do it like that." I said, "Do what like what?" They said, "Sing it just the way you're singing it." I said, "Come on, you're kidding!" 

We did it and that version of it was a take-off on a singer named Rose Murphy, who had several hits. Many years later, I was shopping at Fred Segal in LA and Bob Dylan came up behind me and tapped me on the shoulder. We shook hands and he said, "I love the version of 'Don't Think Twice' that you guys did."

Speaking of your singular vocal stylings, I'm wondering how you and the group went about plotting how you'd all harmonize. For example, in a song like "Candy Girl," there's your iconic falsetto, and then suddenly we hear in a very low baritone voice the line "Our love is real!" Is something like that written out? How does it come together in the studio?

It just comes naturally. A lot of credit goes to the fact that we were never chased away from a song because we didn't know what to do with it. We toyed with it until we found what we thought was right for it. There were no direct plans; everything was done from within the group. 

Nick Massi had his job doing a lot of the vocal arrangements, and Gaudio did most of them after Nick had left. We worked together until everybody was satisfied with it. Does it fit? Does it work? It's like a puzzle. You don't want to overdo anything, and you don't want to under-do.

So then let's say in a song like "Walk Like A Man" when the harmonies sing that iconic "Oo-Oooo-Oo-Oo-Oo-Oo-Oo-Ooooo." Where does that come from?

It comes from Bob Gaudio, who wrote the song to sound like that. The first three songs we did were more like a chant, and that's what we created to make what everybody knows as our sound. 

We wanted to be very easily identifiable. If you heard something by us on the radio, you knew that it was us. We were constantly looking for new ways and new things while having fun doing it. We weren't following or listening to anybody else on the radio; we weren't a copycat group. 

Billy Joel has gone on to say that a lot of the inspiration he got came from us. "I love you just the way you are" is the last line in "Rag Doll."

He also said that "Uptown Girl" was an homage to you. Musically it sounds like "Big Girls Don't Cry" but lyrically it's the opposite of "Rag Doll." What do you think when you hear a song like that?

First of all, I'm a big Billy Joel fan. There isn't anything he's ever done that I haven't liked. My favorite of everything is "Just The Way You Are." It sounds so honest and lyrically it's so right, it had to be a hit.

What about a song like "Bennie and the Jets"? It's been said that Elton John was directly inspired by you.

I loved it. He's another guy who has done very little wrong musically. He's an amazing writer and performer. 

You and the group have a lot of name songs: "Sherry," "Marlena," "Dawn." Was that conscious effort, or was it just natural?

It was natural. Bob wrote the songs… He and I have been partners now for over 50 years and he never ceases to amaze me. He's so tuned into everything that's going on, it's really amazing.

Is it true that "Sherry" was originally called "Jackie" in honor of Jackie Kennedy?

No, it was originally called "Perry." Before "Sherry," we weren't signed to a label, so this small independent company owned by a millionaire had a daughter named Perry. And that's what he wanted us to call it, but it was written to be "Sherry" and we just felt very strongly about that and kept it.

What did the owner think of that?

We ended up going with a different company. So we never heard much after that.

One of your biggest hits was "December 1963 (Oh What A Night!)." I always wondered if that was a random date, or if you chose it because that period was a unique moment in history: a month after the Kennedy assassination, but two months before the Beatles were on Ed Sullivan. 

It was originally a song with lyrics about the '20s, '30s and '40s. The lyrics were "Flippers flopping on the floor." It was a totally different song. When Bob brought it into the studio, he was disappointed we weren't crazy about it and he wanted to junk the song. We said, "No, you can come up with something better than this," and he rewrote it to fit the time. 

Is there one song that you thought should have been bigger than it was?

The funny thing about records during the days when we recorded, and the record business was as big as it was, to become a hit it was important that the record company do the legwork and get radio stations to play it, or try it for two weeks. I thought there was a lot of what we did that was overlooked because the record company wasn't that crazy about it. 

For example, I put the single "We're All Alone" out, and the record company didn't want to work it. I did mine with the London Symphony Orchestra. Later, Rita Coolidge came out with the same song and it went to No. 1. Sometimes things like that happen.

A song like "Can't Take My Eyes Off Of You" was in the can for two or three years. We had to force the record company to release it and hire independent promotion people to work the record and get it on the radio. 

"My Eyes Adored You" was recorded for Motown Records and that one was in the can for three years because they weren't too sure about it. Finally, when we left Motown, we asked if we can buy back the track, and they agreed for us to purchase it. We did and we brought it to every record company in the business and they all said no. 

Eventually, we found Larry Uttal with a brand new record company, Private Stock Records, and he said, "That'll be my first No. 1 record for my new company." And it was!  

From when you first started recording in the early '50s to when "Sherry" hit No. 1 was a period of nine years. That's a long time. Why did you stick with it? 

It was always music first. If I had no success at all, I'd probably still be doing music somewhere in New Jersey or New York. I knew exactly what I wanted to do and wanted to be. 

At first, I rejected the fact that I might have to do pop music, but as I started to do it and it became successful, I realized it was a music that people could understand. And what are you doing music for? You're doing it for people. Without an audience you wouldn't have anything. 

My love of music started out for the very first time with me seeing Frank Sinatra as a boy when my mom took me to the Paramount Theater in New York City. I couldn't believe what I was seeing and I was so inspired; I made up my mind that that's what I wanted to do. 

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Living Legends: Burning Spear On New Album, 'No Destroyer' & Taking Control Of His Music
Burning Spear

Photo: Al Pereira/WireImage

interview

Living Legends: Burning Spear On New Album, 'No Destroyer' & Taking Control Of His Music

Burning Spear is one of reggae’s most distinctive and esteemed voices. Fifty years into his career, the roots reggae artist continues to share messages of Rastafarianism and resistance, all through impeccably crafted rhythms.

GRAMMYs/Sep 15, 2023 - 06:56 pm

Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music who are still going strong today. This week, GRAMMY.com spoke with reggae icon Burning Spear. His latest album, No Destroyer, is his first release in 15 years. 

Fifty years ago, venerable Jamaican artist Burning Spear released his debut album, Studio One Presents Burning Spear. While not as well-known as the WailersCatch A Fire and Burnin’ (both of which were also released in 1973), Burning Spear is nonetheless a pillar in the construction of roots reggae’s foundation. 

Produced by Clement "Sir Coxsone" Dodd and released on Dodd’s legendary Studio One label, the album’s solid rhythms are anchored in thunderous basslines (played by the Heptones’ Leroy Sibbles) and embellished with cascading horns that majestically frame Spear’s mesmerizingly intoned vocals.

Rife with mystical lyrics steeped in his Rastafarian way of life, uncompromising words of resistance, and supported by impeccably crafted bass-heavy reggae beats with flourishes of jazz and highlife accented horns, Burning Spear’s debut album ­­established him as one of reggae’s most distinctive and esteemed voices. Fifty years on, those characteristics resonate just as strongly on Spear’s latest release No Destroyer.

Recorded in 2011 at the Magic Shop in New York City, Spear decided to release No Destroyer — his first album since 2009’s GRAMMY-winning Jah Is Real — in August because "the time was right." 

"I think people will enjoy this album, I am saying things I never say before," Burning Spear told GRAMMY.com in a recent Zoom. "The people, the fans, will find something to hold on to, to take them places or to certain situations. The album shows you where you are coming from, your tribulations, the distance you are traveling. When I listen back to it, I didn’t quite know I was putting out all that energy, sending out lyrics not only connecting musically but connecting to all the people." 

Burning Spear announced his retirement in 2016, though his time away was brief. He returned in 2021 with a new single "Mommy," which honors women who hold their families together, especially in challenging times; "Mommy" was No Destroyer’s first single. In 2022 Spear returned to the concert stage and has since performed at festivals across the globe and onboard Damian Marley’s Welcome to Jamrock reggae cruise. 

"I wasn’t thinking about coming back but my wife, Sonia Rodney, thought I should do a few shows here and there, for the fans who have supported I man for so many years,"  Spear acknowledges."So I did some shows for the people who really wanted to see me again and it was great." Spear, however, has not performed in his native Jamaica in nearly 20 years. "I do go back to Jamaica to spend time and have a little fun but that is about it," he says. 

Born Winston Rodney in Jamaica’s rural St. Ann’s Bay, Winston took his moniker from African freedom fighter Jomo Kenyatta, who was previously known as the Burning Spear and later became the president of Kenya. Kenyatta and Spear were deeply influenced by the teachings of Marcus Garvey, the St. Ann Jamaica born pan-Africanist and fiery orator who preached self-reliance and political unification for all African descendants. Garvey’s teachings have exerted a tremendous influence on the Rastafari way of life and the United States’ civil rights movement.  

More so than any Rastafarian reggae artist, Spear has used his music to create an ongoing awareness of Garvey’s philosophies. Spear’s international breakthrough arrived with the release of his Marcus Garvey album in 1975; Spear has continued to invoke Garvey’s name on all of his subsequent albums. Prior to reggae becoming the island’s most recognized global export, Marcus Garvey "opened the door of Jamaica and spread Jamaica all over," sings Spear on the No Destroyer track "Jamaica."

"Marcus Garvey is our hero, he stood firm, he opened the gate for Jamaica, Rastafari spread the roots and the culture," offers Spear. "I would especially like Jamaican people to listen to the track 'Jamaica' and as Jamaicans of African descendents, question themselves. Of course, the whole world needs to listen to the album, too."

Burning Spear was referred to Studio One — largely considered Jamaica’s Motown due to the label’s consistent output of hit records and the many reggae luminaries who launched their careers there — by another St. Ann native: Bob Marley. Spear’s first single for Studio One, 1969’s "Door Peep Shall Not Enter," sounded unlike anything released by Dodd. Along with vocal trio the Abyssinians’ "Satta Massagana" issued the same year, Spear’s song was critical in shaping the Rastafarian roots reggae movement that came to prominence in the next decade. 

Spear’s spoken intro on "Door Peep" — "I and I, son of the Most-High, Jah Rastafari"— resounds like a direct announcement from the Messiah. The song’s biblically laced lyrics caution informers who attempt to interfere with Rastafarians, considered societal outcasts at the time in Jamaica; Spear’s repeated call to "Chant down Babylon," supported by Rupert Willington’s evocative, deep vocal tone, creates a spellbinding effect.

"When Mr. Dodd first heard 'Door Peep' he was astonished; for a man who’d been in the music business for so long, he never heard anything like that," Spear. recalls. "I went there on a Sunday and the next day I recorded it, my first song, my first time recording. Mr. Dodd made a lot of income off of that song. A lot."

Spear released another solid roots reggae set with Dodd, the soulful Rocking Time, in 1974. His next album, 1975’s Marcus Garvey is considered a benchmark of Jamaica’s 1970s roots reggae golden era. Marcus Garvey features Willington and Delroy Hinds’ sublime supporting vocals and the extraordinary musical accompaniment of the Black Disciples band. 

The magnificent title track was originally intended for exclusive play on producer Lawrence "Jack Ruby" Lindo’s Hi Power sound system. However, the song was so popular at Ruby’s dances, he released it as a single and it became an immediate hit. Spear followed that with another stirring reggae anthem, the haunting lament, "Slavery Days"; the Marcus Garvey album soared to the top of the Jamaican charts, which led to a deal for its wider release via Island Records.

Burning Spear would go on to release Man in the Hills, again featuring Willington and Hinds, for Island. Yet his subsequent albums on the label throughout the 1970s were released as a solo artist. Spear released albums for a variety of labels throughout the 1980s before signing to Island again, issuing just two albums with them in the early 1990s.

Spear contends he didn’t make money from any of these recordings, and only started to see returns when he and his wife took control of his catalog circa 2002 and began releasing Spear’s music through their Burning Music Productions.

 "When I started out, a lot of us was getting nothing from what we been doing musically," Spear explained. "People listening to all those beautiful songs thinking that we, the artists and musicians, were well taken care of but we were not."

Spear rails against the shady deals and corruption within the music industry on several of No Destroyer’s tracks. "Independent" is Spear’s story of persevering despite experiencing many unethical business transactions; "No Fool" lashes out at record companies "committing fraud and they think they are so smart." "They Think" calls out individuals who doubted that Spear could succeed as an independent artist. "Talk" takes aim at the "musical sharks" who "eat up the small fish," whom he dismisses with the unyielding refrain: "No more slave trade, no more surrender."  

"Sometimes we as artists can’t explain ourselves just by talking. Through the music we explain how much we hurt, the things that hurt us, what’s been done to us," Spear says. "As artists and players of instruments, we have to talk of these things, so the world will hear fully what we’ve been through in the music industry, things I have gone up against, things that shouldn’t have taken place, but they happened."

Like so many young Jamaican artists in the 1970s and 1980s, Spear perhaps did not have a full understanding of the international record deals he was signing. More than likely, it was never explained that the advances artists receive are intended to cover the cost of recording their albums and that money must be recouped by the label from album sales before an artist will receive any revenue. During that era, recording companies owned the master recordings and required artists to give them their publishing rights, too.

After decades of receiving little financial returns for his albums, Spear and Sonia sought to identify the specific barriers that prevented the money from coming in. Sonia taught herself the nuances of the music business by reading books, attending seminars and talking to seasoned professionals. One of the first things she did was launch a Burning Spear merchandise line, which immediately generated revenue. They also learned how to manufacture their own albums/CDs, and handled their own distribution. 

"We started making connections with other people, give them our works on consignment and right away we see that independence is not so easy. There are a lot of sharks, unreasonable people with dirty business practices who come at you because you are independent, saying, ‘how dare you be independent,’" Spear says.

Spear now owns the copyrights to most of his songs. After some research and a subsequent lawsuit, he bought back some of the copyrights to his earlier music from the estate of a deceased former manager who had never purchased those rights. Spear is especially proud of his 2009 Best Reggae Album GRAMMY Award for Jah Is Real, a significant accomplishment for Burning Music Productions.

No Destroyer also addresses the struggles endured by musicians that came up with Spear, while recognizing their efforts in establishing reggae as a globally embraced music. "Robert Nesta Marley built his foundation the hard way," sings Spear on "Open The Gate." The song also honors Culture, Alton Ellis, Gregory Isaacs, Sugar Minott, ska pioneers the Skatalites, Peter Tosh

and Delroy Wilson, among the many Jamaican music legends who "opened the gate for reggae music."

"The artists and musicians who were there before us and those who were there before them, opened the gate and the gate is still open, or else you wouldn’t have a new generation of reggae music," Spear remarks. "It was just the love of reggae music, coming from mento, ska, rocksteady, (that kept us going). We all went through the same thing before we stood strong and saw that we weren’t being taken care of properly."

Spear’s taking control of his music and becoming an independent artist is a present day fulfillment of the self-reliance Marcus Garvey advocated for over a century ago. In his concluding comments, Spear appealed to the authorities to clear Marcus Garvey’s name of all criminal charges. Garvey had been a target of the J. Edgar Hoover-led FBI for several years and aAs his following increased — on Aug. 1, 1920, an estimated 25,000 delegates gathered at Manhattan’s Madison Square Garden for the first international convention of Garvey’s Negro Universal Improvement Association — the FBI intensified their efforts to subdue him. 

In 1923, Garvey was convicted of mail fraud in the United States after his Black Star Line shipping company — founded with the aim of providing passage for Africans in the diaspora who wanted to return to the continent — sent out advertisements showing a steamship that the company was in the process of purchasing (but didn’t yet own.) Garvey was fined $1,000 and received a five-year prison sentence that was later commuted; he was then deported to Jamaica. Garvey’s descendants, political leaders and others have petitioned President Biden for a posthumous presidential pardon, following an unsuccessful petitioning of President Obama.

"Marcus Garvey’s record should be set free," declares Spear. He also implored Jamaica’s government to institute a public holiday honoring Garvey and include him in the curriculum for all Jamaican students.

"I am a musician; I don’t want to sound like a politician, but the time is right for a Garvey subject in school. We want the upcoming generation to have a full understanding of who Marcus Garvey was and what he stood up for," he says. "Jamaica must come together and make sure that it is done. The time is right to let the people’s voices be heard."

So, too, the time is right for Burning Spear’s voice to be heard, again.

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