Photo: Barry Feinstein Photography, Inc.
Living Legends: Roger McGuinn On The History Of The Byrds, His One-Man Show And Editing His Own Wikipedia Page
At 80, the former Byrds leader remains as curious as ever — puttering with gadgets, learning obscure folk songs, and playing songs and telling stories on the road. A new, photo-stuffed coffee-table book illuminates his early history like never before.
Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music still going strong today. This week, GRAMMY.com spoke with Roger McGuinn, a member of the Byrds and folk-rock pioneer who, at 80, remains active as a solo act. A new coffee-table book about the early history of the band, The Byrds: 1964-1967, is available now.
Roger McGuinn is still tinkering.
Decades ago, he helped codify the Rickenbacker 360/12 as a rock 'n' roll armament. He electrified his beloved folk music to make it jangle and chime. He wrote immortal odes to celestial voyages and alternate dimensions, and threw down incendiary "out" solos that would make John Coltrane proud. And that maximum-curious mind is still humming.
This is wholly apparent in his one-man show currently criss-crossing the East Coast. Therein, the 80-year-old former Byrd clarifies, contextualizes and canonizes his life story, perhaps working it out for himself just as much as he is for his audiences.
And as far as the folk canon that galvanized and mobilized him in the first place, he's far from finished with his decades-long analysis. On his website, he releases free-to-download interpretations of songs from the folk, gospel, sea-shanty, and calypso traditions, among others — under the umbrella of his "Folk Den Project."
On top of that, he remains a lifelong enthusiast for all things engineering, aviation, gadgets and science fiction. From the road, McGuinn explains that his engineer grandfather got him interested in all things that light up and whir.
"I take LEDs and put them in a little box with a switch on it and make them blink, just for fun," he tells GRAMMY.com. "I love taking things apart and trying to put them back together."
Fortunately for all of us, McGuinn isn't all that different from the man we learn about in The Byrds: 1964-1967, a lavish new coffee-table book that hit shelves on Sept. 20.
Featuring 400 pages of more than 500 illuminating photographs and an oral history courtesy of surviving Byrds McGuinn, Chris Hillman and David Crosby, the book is a definitive account of the band's genesis, commercial breakthroughs with "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "Turn! Turn! Turn!" and on-ramp to their eventual plunge into psychedelia.
In his post-Byrds life, McGuinn deepened in profound ways — not only in diving deeper into the folk tradition and honing his storytelling acumen, but focusing on his Christian ministry alongside his wife, Camilla. These days, he may have little interest in getting the old band back together, but he arguably remains their most active and public custodian — one one-man show at a time.
Read on for a history-spanning interview with the three-time GRAMMY nominee about the new book, his folkie origins, how he picked up the Rickenbacker, the importance of Gene Clark and Clarence White, and myriad other Byrdsy subjects.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Before we time-warp to 55 years ago, I think it's important to lead with a question about your life and work today. What's creatively percolating for you?
Well, I've been touring since [hesitates, chuckles] 1960! I'm still doing it at 80 years old. We're on a tour right now. We're going to play a theater in Brattleboro tomorrow night. I think it's a month-long tour; it's going to take us around to Easton. So, that's one thing.
When I'm home, I record; I've got a Folk Den Project that I do every month; I record a song and put it on the internet for a free download, in a section called The Folk Den on my website, McGuinn.com. It's a public service sponsored by UNC Chapel Hill.
I record other things. We've recorded CDs, but CDs are kind of a dying breed, so we've had to find some other way. The streaming thing is working out well.
For people who may know the Byrds, since they've been in the ether for so long, but haven't caught you live, what can they expect from you in performance?
I do a one-man show. I do, like, the life of Will Rogers, except it's not about Will Rogers; it's about me. [Chuckles.] I tell the story about how I was inspired early on in my teens to get a guitar; I played guitar in the Old Town School for Folk Music and got hired by the Limeliters and the Chad Mitchell Trio. [I played with] Bobby Darin and Judy Collins and became a studio musician and writer at the Brill Building in New York.
Tell me how The Byrds: 1964-1967 came to be. Why did it feel appropriate to tell the story of the band's early history mostly through photographs, with an oral history threaded through them?
I wasn't really on the inside of this, but Chris Hillman did an autobiography a couple of years ago for BMG Publishing. They acquired a number of photographs of the Byrds, and I guess they had so many, they couldn't use them all.
So, they said, "What are we going to do with these?" They decided to make a coffee-table book — 400 pages, 500 photos, printed with Italian paper. It's beautiful; it's a gorgeous edition.
Before we dig into this era of the band reflected in its pages, can you tell me about your early love of all things related to technology, outer space and sci-fi? To me, that's one of the most captivating facets of the band — that sense of far-out curiosity, that futuristic bent.
Well, I got into it when I was living in Chicago. My grandfather had been an engineer for the Deering Company or something — I'm not sure of the company — but he was instrumental in building bridges over the Chicago River.
He was always in engineering, and he used to take me to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago every Sunday. That's where I developed my love of technology. I'd push buttons, things would light up and whir, and I'd go, "Wow! That's cool!"
That's where it all came from. I've just got a little bit of engineering in my blood.
Are you still a tinkerer to this day?
Oh, yeah. Absolutely. I love taking things apart and trying to put them back together. [Chuckles.] Building little things. It's a lifelong hobby.
The Byrds in Chicago, 1965. Photo: Jim Dickson Archive, courtesy of Henry Diltz Photography
This coffee-table book goes pretty deep into the band's synthesis of influences, from folk music to the Beatles. But I'm most interested in how the Byrds were almost predicated on a single instrument; that's a rare concept. What attracted you to the bell-like sound of the Rickenbacker so early on?
I was a 12-string player back in the folk days. I got my first 12-string guitar in Chicago in 1957; I believe it was a Regal 12-string. I was interested in the 12-string because of Lead Belly and Pete Seeger and Bob Gibson, who was kind of an acolyte of Pete Seeger.
When I was a studio musician in New York, I was the go-to guy for acoustic 12-string for a lot of folk acts. I was the musical director on Judy Collins' third album [1963's Judy Collins #3]; I played on the demo of "The Sound of Silence" for Paul Simon. The Irish Rovers, a lot of folk acts.
So, I was already a 12-string player, and when the Beatles came out, I was enthralled with [them] because they were using folk-music chords in their rock 'n' roll. I noticed that George Harrison had a Rickenbacker electric 12-string, and I'd never seen one of those before. It was a new instrument at the time; in fact, his was only the second one ever made. The first one went to somebody named Suzi [Arden], who was in a group in Las Vegas, doing lounge acts.
When I found out about the Rickenbacker electric 12-string, I went to a music store and traded in my acoustic 12-string that Bobby Darin had given me and a five-string, long-necked banjo — a Pete Seeger style — and I got the Rickenbacker electric 12.
It was just such a great-sounding instrument. I played it eight hours a day!
Roger McGuinn performing with the Byrds in 1965. Photo: Barry Feinstein Photography
I don't think most people grasp how much of a pressure cooker the mid-1960s pop market was like; we hear stories about the Beatles needing to rush out Rubber Soul by Christmas, and so forth. The Turn! Turn! Turn! album came out only six months after Mr. Tambourine Man. Did you guys feel that crunch, that market demand?
We had a contract with Columbia where we had to do an album every six months, so it really did put the pressure on. We came out of the box with a No. 1 hit, and we had to live up to that. Fortunately, "Turn! Turn! Turn!" became a No. 1 as well.
It was a lot of pressure. We had Gene Clark as the main writer; he was doing great. Then, when he left, it was more difficult to come up with enough material for a good album. Every six months — that was part of the contract.
Gene is often framed as the tragic figure of the band, but The Byrds: 1964-1967 lays out what a force he was; he was the most prolific writer in the band. How would you describe his role in the creative machinery early on?
Well, he was obviously the main songwriter. He and I started the group; we started writing songs together, and he and I wrote some songs. Then, Crosby came along, and he wasn't really writing songs at that point.
We were doing some outside material, like Dylan and Seeger, and Gene kept writing every day. He must have written 30 songs a month; some of them were really good, so we ended up using those.
The Byrds in Beverly Hills, 1965. Photo: Jim Dickson Archive, courtesy of Henry Diltz Photography
The book closes right at that jumping-off point into 1968's The Notorious Byrd Brothers, which means we go deep on that delicious transitional period, with songs like "5D" and your cover of Dylan's "My Back Pages." Those are probably my two favorite Byrds tracks; can you share any memories regarding them?
"5D": I wrote that while I'd been reading a little book called 1, 2, 3, 4, More, More, More, More [by Don Landis]. It was about multiple dimensions — kind of like string theory, or something. I thought that'd be an interesting subject for a song.
"My Back Pages": Jim Dickson had been the Byrds' manager, and we'd fired him. One day, I was in L.A., driving up La Cienega, and came to a stoplight, and Dickson pulled up next to me and rolled down the window. He said, "Hey, Jim!" — that was me — "You guys ought to record Dylan's 'My Back Pages!'"
I said, "Thank you." It had been a while since the Byrds had a Top 20 hit. So, I went home, got the record out, and listened to the song. It was in 3/4 time, and I had to rearrange it for rock 'n' roll. So, I did, and it became — I think it was No. 22. I'm not sure. [Writer's note: The song peaked at No. 30 on the Billboard Hot 100.]
I feel like "5D" fell into that space where, for decades, people presumed it was about drugs. No such thing: it's the product of a curious mind, which you still possess.
Exactly. It was more of a spiritual thing than a drug thing.
A lot of people don't grasp how incredible, in my opinion, the band remained in the late '60s and early '70s after so many lineup changes; just recently, I was wigging out to the 16-minute live version of "Eight Miles High" on 1970's (Untitled). What do you remember of this time? Are these happy memories for you?
Well, [Byrds guitarist and mandolinist] Clarence White and I were good friends, and we loved playing together. He was probably the best guitar player we ever had. It was like having Jimi Hendrix or Eric Clapton in your band, or something.
I remember one time at the Whisky, Jimi Hendrix came backstage, and he went running right over to Clarence and shook his hand. The first time we played at Fillmore East with Clarence and the band, there was a big difference between the way it had been with the audience reaction [and the way it was then].
The audience was used to a certain level of Byrds musicianship, and when Clarence came out there, he just slayed them. He was just incredible.
We lost Clarence too young, just like Gene. What was it like to have those guys in the room?
Well, they didn't hang out in the same room. [Chuckles.]
I know — separately, I mean!
Clarence and I hung out more than Gene and I did. Gene was kind of off to himself; he had his life. But Clarence and I were on the road together, and we'd hang out more. Clarence was just a really nice guy and a brilliant guitar player.
What misconceptions still float around regarding the Byrds and your role therein that you'd like to correct, if any?
Oh, I don't really need to fix history. I tried that once on Wikipedia. Somebody put out some stuff on there that wasn't correct, so I went on Wikipedia and corrected it. And they banned me, because some 15-year-old kid in Canada had changed it!
Oh my gosh. Do you remember what the falsehood was?
I think it had something to do with the Subud religion. I'm not sure. [Writer's note: McGuinn changed his name from Jim to Roger in 1967 during a period of experimentation with Subud.]
[McGuinn's wife, Camilla, interjects in the background.] Oh! I forgot that. My wife says I had friends who went on and corrected it for me.
That's good to hear. The historical record can become distorted. A lie travels around the world before the truth is still putting on its shoes, as they say.
Right, we've heard that saying. I think Henry Ford said, "History is bunk."
Photo: Mark Sullivan/WireImage.com
An Evening With Chris Hillman
Country-rock pioneer visits the GRAMMY Museum
Country-rock pioneer Chris Hillman was featured in the GRAMMY Museum's An Evening With series on May 20, taking questions from an intimate audience of 200 and providing an acoustic performance of a few selects from his influential musical catalog including "Wait A Minute" and "Heaven's Lullaby."
GRAMMY Foundation and MusiCares Vice President Scott Goldman took the audience through a conversation with Hillman, who was later joined by Desert Rose Band's Herb Pedersen, as he discussed his musical catalog, cowboy life, seminal collaborations, and his career trajectory.
A Los Angeles native, Hillman is known as a key developer of the country-rock genre. He's performed and recorded as a member of the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers and the Desert Rose Band. While with the Byrds he topped the Billboard Hot 100 with the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame inducted "Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is A Season)," which he also performed at the GRAMMY Museum. Hillman also reached No. 1 on the Country Singles chart while with the Desert Rose Band with "I Still Believe In You" and "He's Back And I'm Blue" in 1988. His most recent solo work, The Other Side, was released in 2005.
Upcoming events at the GRAMMY Museum include a release party for Rock & Roll Playground with Melissa Green (June 12), An Evening With Dr. John (June 14) and The Drop: Robert Randolph (June 22).
For more information on the GRAMMY Museum, visit www.grammymuseum.org.
Click on the "GRAMMY Museum events" tag below for links to other GRAMMY News stories in this series.
Photo: Brian Cooke
Living Legends: How Roxy Music Went From "Inspired Amateurs" To Art Rock Pioneers
Fifty years after their debut, Roxy Music's eight studio albums have been reissued and the band is embarking on a tour. GRAMMY.com spoke with guitarist Phil Manzanera about the band's art rock origins and long tail of influence.
Roxy Music has always been a few steps ahead, and a few degrees to the side, of many of its contemporaries. Helmed by GRAMMY-nominated vocalist/songwriter Bryan Ferry along with Phil Manzanera, Andy Mackay and Paul Thompson (with Brian Eno as an early member), the British group is credited with birthing the art rock movement by infusing glam into rock '70s. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Roxy Music's eponymous debut album.
Inspired by film and fashion, painting and photography, Roxy Music’s output is an aural and visual amalgam that blurs the lines between musical styles. From the group's formation in 1970 to Avalon, its last studio album in 1982, Roxy Music has informed and influenced genres — from experimental prog and glam rock, to new wave and electronic pop — and created an enduring impact.
This year, the group’s eight studio albums — Roxy Music, For Your Pleasure, Stranded, Country Life, Siren, Manifesto, Flesh + Blood and Avalon — have been reissued as special anniversary editions with a new half-speed cut, and revised artwork with lyrics., The Best of Roxy Music was released on vinyl for the first time on Sept. 2. The reissues arrive ahead of Roxy Music’s North American arena tour, which kicks off in Toronto on Sept. 7 at Scotiabank Arena. The last time Roxy Music toured was over a decade ago.
Still, the 2019 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees have remained active, with and without Roxy Music. This year, Ferry has released a four-track EP of iconic love song covers, Love Letters, and published a book. Mackay, who plays oboe, saxophone and keyboards has released a number of solo albums, written a book on electronic music and studied theology. Drummer Thompson left Roxy Music 1980 and joined an array of other bands, including Concrete Blonde, before returning to Roxy Music in 2011. Guitarist Phil Manzanera produced for Pink Floyd, David Gilmour and John Cale, among others, is currently working on an album with Tim Finn of Crowded House and Split Enz.
From his home in the English countryside, Manzanera spoke with GRAMMY.com about his teenage dream of leaving his exotic world-trotting upbringing for a boarding school in England, where he could connect with fellow musicians. "Through music, you can meet people, you can have fun, you can have an adventure," he says. "I didn't want to learn too quickly. I wanted to spread it out over a whole lifetime. Touch wood, still here."
What was the musical landscape like at the time of Roxy Music’s formation?
In the UK, we were coming out of the period where the big guns, Led Zeppelin and all those bands were to the fore. It was the tail end of the hippie jamming period and the start of prog rock. The drugs had done a lot of those bands in; People were on heroin, so it was very gray and introverted. A bit drab really. The time was ripe for a new bunch to emerge.
By complete happenstance, Bowie and us came to the fore in 1972. On the same day that we released the first Roxy Music album, he released The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. The next week, we were supporting him in a pub in Croydon [South London] called the Greyhound. There was only about 40-50 people there. Every time I used to meet David, we used to have a big banter about it because everyone claims they were there. He was incredibly nice to us. He loved what we were doing. He asked us to be at his support act at the Rainbow Theatre, which is a big deal. He couldn't quite believe that we'd just come out of nowhere, whereas he was [on] his fifth album.
The '70s were such a time of experimentation and new sounds.
We called ourselves inspired amateurs. A bunch of guys who didn't particularly want to be technically brilliant, but wanted to play interesting music. Some of the people in the band have been to art school, so there was this visual side to the whole thing. Music and image are explosive, which we all learn from the Beatles. New fashion designers and photographers were coming up to the age where they were going to be influencers, and they all had a similar aesthetic with the films they liked and visual art and bands that were influential on them. We stuck it all together and presented it in an attractive fashion.
What was the reception for Roxy Music like in the United States at the time?
We went to the U.S. in December '72. We were a bit early. People didn't understand the look of the band. When we got to Fresno, people threw water bombs at us and said, "Get off you faggots." But we were going to continue playing this music regardless of what you throw at us.
It took us a long, long time to have any kind of impact in the States. But what was great and cool was that in San Francisco or L.A. or New York, we attracted the freaks. We were supporting Ten Years After or J. Geils Band, totally not our audience, but all the freaks knew [we] were coming to town and they would be partying at our hotel after the gig.
Roxy Music was very prolific, sometimes putting out two albums a year — originally all written by Bryan Ferry — but you started writing from the third album, Stranded?
The way the band evolved, the first two albums that Eno was involved with were the first period. By the time it came to the third album, Eno had left, and, in no way can you do the same stuff again. There was a desire to do something different. We needed to expand our musical palette, and so me and Andy [Mackay] started contributing music.
The way we write songs in Roxy was so different because we had no idea how to write a song. We did all the music first, which is really dangerous, and then Bryan [Ferry] would try and work out some lyrics. Sometimes it was fabulous. Sometimes it was rubbish. Out of the 80 songs of the Roxy catalog, I would say 70 percent hit the mark and perhaps 30 percent we won't talk about. It's a very different way of working, creating a musical texture and musical world behind this singer with a strange voice, but good looking, so we could get away with it.
You had a whole host of musicians playing on later Roxy Music albums. How was that different for you as far as writing and recording and realizing musical ideas?
There's definitely a difference between the first five years and second five years of Roxy Music. We'd worked with so many other musicians in between, we wanted a bit of that flavor. Bryan, especially, had lived in L.A. for a bit and worked with a lot of American musicians. When we got back together for the second phase of Roxy, which is '77 to '83, by that time, I had my own recording studio and we were using that as our base. Technological innovations affect the way you work in a studio. If you're doing what we're doing, you can use the studio as an instrument. It happened organically because we had the means of production.
But we were coming to New York, and working with Bob Clearmountain at Atlantic Records and at the Power Station, and having these amazing American bass players and drummers, because Paul [Thompson] had left toward the middle of that period. Bob would mix it and he would just get rid of all the s—. He would say, "I'm going to focus on this, and it's going to rock." Thank God for him, otherwise it would have been airy-fairy, and all over the place. He mixed Avalon in one week. Ten tracks, five days, two tracks a day, three hours a track. boom, boom, boom, boom. Done. He just knows what to do. He just had it.
The first half of Roxy Music was hinged on a strong artist/producer relationship with Chris Thomas in the producer’s seat.
We were so lucky to get Chris Thomas. He came on board from the second album. As you know, he assisted George Martin with the Beatles. The whole tradition of recording from Abbey Road was passed on to us via Chris Thomas. Everything I've ever learned to do with production — and I've produced loads of people, was a mixture between what Chris Thomas taught me coming from George Martin and my experiences with Eno. Two totally different approaches.
You seem to get along very well with both Ferry and Eno.
After Eno left, when we were doing Stranded, we were up at Air Studios until 6 o'clock. And then I would go to work on Here Come the Warm Jets with Eno from 6 o’clock onwards. We continued for another three years. We had a band, 801, who played live and all sorts of things. But then he just disappeared.
Your guitar riff from the title track of your solo album K-Scope was sampled on the GRAMMY-winning "No Church in the Wild" by Jay-Z and Kanye West.
That's the only GRAMMY that I've ever been associated with, so cheers Jay-Z and Kanye, and 88-Keys, who was the person responsible for playing it to them.
Did your Rock & Roll Hall of Fame nomination, and induction, come as a surprise?
Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is not on British musicians’ radar too much. I didn’t realize how big a deal it was for us. We hadn't played together for six or seven years. We thought, we’ve got to have rehearsals. We rehearsed for a week because we want to do a good job and acquit ourselves well — especially in front of all those top musicians who are going to be watching us, particularly Fleetwood Mac and Def Leppard, the Zombies and Radiohead.
On the night, at the Brooklyn Center, when I saw 30,000 people, I realized, this is actually a big deal. I’m about to get scared now. We loved it. We had such a great time. When Bryan said, "Shall we do 'In Every Dream,'" which is about an inflatable doll, I thought, I don’t think that’s going to be shown on telly, and it didn’t make it, but it was really great fun to do. I had a great big guitar solo, which wasn’t shown, but I got to show off in front of Brian May and Fleetwood Mac.
How did this 50th anniversary tour come about?
I had done bits and pieces on Bryan’s new solo stuff. We were having a cup of tea at Christmas, and he just said, "Do you fancy doing some gigs?" I said, "Do you want to do them?" And he said, "Yeah." I said, "Well, in that case, I'm always up for the crack."
We don't have management. If we want to do something, we just ring each other up, and say, "You want to do it?" I also thought, these songs don't get an airing by us, the original people, very often. When we come to the U.S., it will have been 20 years. That's not exactly overdoing it. If there's ever a time to do it, it's at 50.
What does the ongoing impact of Roxy Music feel like for you?
I don't think about it at all. We never thought we'd do this tour, but we’re doing it. We're really putting in the hours to make it as good as we possibly can. What I want to see when I look out into the audience is people glammed up. I want to see glam out there: heels and feathers — for men and women.
Foo Fighters, Norah Jones To Perform At Tom Petty MusiCares Tribute
Gary Clark Jr., Don Henley, Stevie Nicks, and Kings Of Leon also among performers added to star-studded GRAMMY Week tribute to 2017 MusiCares Person of the Year Tom Petty
GRAMMY winners Gary Clark Jr., Foo Fighters, Don Henley, Norah Jones, Kings Of Leon, Jeff Lynne, Randy Newman, Stevie Nicks, George Strait, and Lucinda Williams will perform at the 2017 MusiCares Person of the Year tribute concert honoring Tom Petty on Feb. 10 in Los Angeles. GRAMMY-nominated singer/songwriters Jackson Browne, Chris Hillman and Herb Pedersen, Elle King, and Regina Spektor; and rock band the Bangles will also join the performance lineup. Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers will close the evening's performances, and multi-GRAMMY-winning artist and producer T Bone Burnett will serve as musical director.
Petty will be honored as the 2017 MusiCares Person of the Year in celebration of his extraordinary creative accomplishments and significant charitable work. Proceeds from the 27th annual Person of the Year tribute provide essential support for MusiCares, which ensures music people have a place to turn in times of financial, medical and personal need.
The MusiCares Person of the Year tribute ceremony is one of the most prestigious events held during GRAMMY Week. The celebration culminates with the 59th Annual GRAMMY Awards at Staples Center on Sunday, Feb. 12, 2017. The telecast will be broadcast live on the CBS Television Network at 8 p.m. ET/PT.
Photo: David Sutton, courtesy of the David Sutton Collection
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.
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 | 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.