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Nancy Sinatra: ‘I had to work hard to get beyond my name’

Nancy Sinatra looks back on where her boots have taken her in the Big Issue's Letter to My Younger Self
Nancy Sinatra has penned her Big Issue Letter To My Younger Self.

The image of Nancy Sinatra is just as iconic as her name.

The 80-year-old singer, actress and daughter of 20th century great Frank Sinatra, has had a career spanning decades, passionately championing women and feminism along the way.

Speaking to the Big Issue’s Jane Graham, Nancy penned her Letter To My Younger Self and gave the 16-year-old Sinatra some life advice.

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I was a pretty upbeat, contented 16-year-old, I followed all the rules. I loved school. I excelled and I loved it. I didn’t rebel at all. I wore straight skirts, and sweaters and saddle shoes and Bobby socks. The shorter skirts came later. Home life was pretty ordinary. I had a brother and a sister and a mother, and my dad would come and go. We were very, very close, all of us. In my high school years, my dad wasn’t as famous or popular as he became later or as he had been prior, in the big band days in the Forties. It was all kind of normal.

I was into all kinds of music when I was a teenager. I composed a lot of music for the school concerts, which we had every year. And I used to go to the record stores all the time. There was one in Hollywood called Music City. There was another one called Sam Goody’s, I think. You used to be able to take a record and play it in the store in the booth before you purchased it. And we had dance parties, when we’d put on records. I loved Harry Belafonte and my favourite in the early days was Johnny Mathis. I love him so much. He’s a dear friend. He’s a very kind, generous person.

Nancy Sinatra with dad, the iconic Frank Sinatra.
Frank's Family
American singer Frank Sinatra crouches to kiss his daughter, Nancy Jr., good-bye while his wife, Nancy, watches at a train platform. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

I was so immersed in music that it was sort of a fait accompli that that’s the way I would go in life. But it was pretty clear from the get go that I’d have to work hard to get beyond my name. In the end I guess I got lucky. My choice of songs and things, that moved me out of the pattern. In the beginning I named myself Nancy Nice Lady because of the nature of the music I was doing, which was all bubblegum. And then later, Lee Hazlewood came into my life and he nicknamed me Nasty Jones. He said I could be anybody and make hit records, I didn’t have to be a Sinatra. I could be a Jones. He had faith in me and he gave me faith in myself. He gave me courage. So instead of bubblegum orchestral music, we went into a more country, funk kind of feel, which suited me much better. He really created that for me, and I’ll be forever grateful.

I was manufactured. My look came from London, with hair and makeup from New York.

As well as the way he recorded my voice, Lee surrounded me with great musicians. And we made music that was much more me as a person, that groovy funky rhythm section. There wasn’t an opportunity to do that kind of thing before. When you work for a record label you do what the producer says. I was signed to Reprise, but I don’t think they wanted to sell me at all. I think I was only there because it was my dad’s label. And they sort of had to tolerate me. I don’t know, maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think I was that wanted there. My dad stayed out of it. He was very good about that. He knew that the best thing for me would be to be on my own, try by myself, and fall on my face if necessary.

I was manufactured. My look came from London, with hair and makeup from New York. It evolved thanks to Mary Quant and a friend of mine named Amy Green. She took me to a salon called Kenneth in New York and I met a lady who coloured my hair blonde. And I loved it, that new persona. I was grateful for it because I had been floundering. It was playful and a little sexy. It was courageous for me to step out like that. I remember in Los Angeles when I was first wearing miniskirts, I would get smart alec comments like, are you going to play tennis today? People in LA didn’t understand the fashion trend – it took people like Jean Shrimpton coming to America to really nail it.

Nancy Sinatra musical partner Lee Hazlewood, with whom she collaborated on her biggest songs. Photo: PAUL FERRARA / BOOTS ENTERPRISES INC
Nancy Sinatra musical partner Lee Hazlewood, with whom she collaborated on her biggest songs. Photo: PAUL FERRARA / BOOTS ENTERPRISES INC

I was pretty innocent, and kind of boring in my early twenties, I was quiet and dull. I didn’t do the glamorous kind of life. The first advice I would give my younger self is not to get married so young. It was a stupid, stupid thing to do. That’s number one. Don’t do it. Continue your education, it enriches your life. I was married for a few years and then I was divorced. And then I was at sixes and sevens for a while, trying to figure all that out. I really should not have got married then. There was nothing wrong with Tommy [teen idol singer Tommy Sands], he was adorable, but we were just too young. But if you wanted to have sex in those days, and you were a quote ‘nice’ girl, you got married. Stupid.

If I could go back in time I would probably take more jobs that were offered me along the way.

My family was always very musical, going right back to my grandparents. I was very close to all four of my grandparents. My mother’s parents passed away when I was in my early teens, but I had enough of them to have been encouraged by them and loved by them. My father’s mother Dolly, she used to sing a lot and his father Marty used to sing too. They had a bar in their house where they would have singalong parties. There was music all the time. These days I don’t listen to my own music very much to tell you the truth, but lately I’ve had to listen because of this new compilation of my songs. Do I hear anything of my father’s voice in my own singing? You know, sometimes I do. Sometimes it comes back at me a little bit, every now and again.

If I could go back in time I would probably take more jobs that were offered me along the way. I was nervous and shy and I didn’t take advantage of opportunities that I had. And that’s very sad. They say that what you regret at the end of your life is not what you did, but what you didn’t do. And there’s a lot of stuff I didn’t do. I was offered a TV series where I would have been a mom with a 14- year-old child. And I said something real smart alec, like I’m too young to have a 14-year-old child. No, thank you. In actuality, I was not too young but for some reason I had hurt feelings that they would offer me something like that. But I should have done it. I should have taken it.

"Sinatra 100: An All-Star GRAMMY Concert"
Nancy Sinatra performs during "Sinatra 100: An All-Star GRAMMY Concert" celebrating the late Frank Sinatra's 100th birthday at the Encore Theater at Wynn Las Vegas on December 2, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Isaac Brekken/Getty Images)

I lacked a certain amount of confidence. I was OK with a certain amount of success but I didn’t feel confident enough to really pursue a big career. I don’t know why. I think I was just too shy. Maybe it wasn’t the career for me. I’ve always been interested in anthropology. If I’d stayed in school, I might have gotten into that. But I also believe in destiny. And I don’t know, I think I was brought here to the planet to contribute something to women. And I hope I’ve done that.

If I could have one last conversation with anyone it would be with my mother. She was the wisest person I’ve ever known. I spent every day of the last weeks of her life at her house, bringing her items of comfort and food and just sitting with her, keeping her company. I guess I did what I could. But when she actually took her last breath. I wasn’t in the room. My sister was there. I had gone to the pharmacy to pick up medication for her and by the time I got back to the house, she was gone. I had said everything I wanted to her. Time and again. I just would like to have been holding her hand as she passed, but I wasn’t.

There were a lot of wonderful days and weeks and months at the desert house [in the San Fernando Valley, California] when I was growing up. If I could re-live any day from my life it would then, around Christmas or Easter time at our family home. My brother and I playing either on the lawn or in the swimming pool. My mom pregnant with my sister, my dad sitting in the sun. I think it would be that day.

Start Walkin’ 1965-1976 by Nancy Sinatra is released on Light in the Attic on March 26