She gave him a voice, he gave her stories. He gave her street cred, she gave him access. She gave him sweetness, he gave her menace. It wasn’t a partnership that had any right to flourish, but disparate backgrounds made for some kind of elemental magic.
In this segment, from the 1967 TV special “Movin’ With Nancy,” how many times does Lee Hazlewood raise his fist as if to belt Nancy Sinatra for doing something as harmless and flirty as pinching his ass?
Yet a sense of threat was present in almost all their duets, and in the compositions Hazlewood wrote strictly for Sinatra’s voice (“these boots are gonna walk all over you”) across their intermittent four-decade partnership. The song they’re assaying above is a Jerry Leiber relationship ballad that puts the fun in dysfunctional — dark but sweet, and fitting for the duo. Then there was dark for darkness’ sake.
The oddball carousel of “Some Velvet Morning” inspires the kind of deep lyrical analysis that can go badly wrong while still being its own reward. The clearest point: “Phaedra” is an affliction — a siren, a belle dame sans merci — from which the singer may one day recover enough to tell his story. Ditto the feminine component of “My Summer Wine,” who unmanned her lover in the act of love.
“I think the sexual tension was always there. If it had actually been physically expressed … we would have squandered it.” — Nancy Sinatra, to NPR.
It’s Hazlewood’s monotone-baritone that conveys most of the portent. These two duets aren’t strictly duets, in that he and Sinatra don’t alternate verses: She’s restricted to the chorus.
This is a duet:
… yet it’s as lyrically mysterious as any of their other collaborations. “Call me Sand?” No wonder they titled one of their best-of collections Fairy Tales and Fantasies. Even at their most coequal Hazlewood sometimes threatened to overwhelm his more famous partner, by the timbre of his voice alone — and in this case by the backwards-masking and other studio tricks he applies as her producer — yet these songs wouldn’t have stood up without her.
The distinction between voices is particularly apt in their version of Dolly Parton’s “Down From Dover,” a star-crossed traveling lovers’ tragedy. The story is rooted in the fact that man and woman are far from each other geographically, and Hazlewood really does sound like he’s inhabiting a different land from his duet partner.
(That guitar-sitar fillip at the end, by the way, became a compelling foundation for The Go! Team’s “Ladyflash.”)
Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra may have mystified a lot of us for a long time, but it was to our benefit, and they had fun doing it.
(Inspired by friend Garrison Dean’s inclusion of “Down From Dover” on his essential mix, Matte Black Vol. 1, available on his Tumblr. Go git some.)