Lee and Nancy: Summer Wine and Some Velvet Morning

by Bob Schwartz

Phedre - Alexandre Cabanel
When Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra got together in the 1960s to create pop music (he to write and produce, she to perform and record), who could know that this very day, music fan, you would discover one of those tracks and go “pretty cool”, while the other would elicit “what the heck is that?”

Nancy Sinatra was firstly famous as Frank Sinatra’s daughter, and then as the singer of a string of big hits, most notably These Boots Are Made for Walking. She was never a great singer, but her voice did have an appealing quality (genes count for something), and the material and production were often irresistible.

Lee Hazlewood was the source of many of those hit songs. And then he began performing and recording some of his songs as duets with Nancy Sinatra. If you think that Boots or Sugar Town are all there is to Nancy Sinatra, a couple of these duets just have to be heard.

Summer Wine – Hazlewood’s songs leaned toward country pop, and Summer Wine was a duet in the vein of Jackson from Johnny Cash and June Carter, and scores of other such duets. His pop sensibilities make this work, as does the contrast between his gruff baritone and Sinatra’s sweet not quite innocence. How good is the song? Good enough for it to be well covered even now, including a 2010 collaboration between Andrea Coors and Bono.

Some Velvet Morning – If Summer Wine is cool pop, Some Velvet Morning is something else. Hazlewood is sometimes identified as Cowboy Psychedelic, and the accent here is on psychedelic—in the best possible way. To this day, people argue about whether the song means something or nothing. As usual, reading lyrics don’t do songs justice. But if you want to think about it and listen, consider this:

Lee:
Some velvet morning when I’m straight
I’m gonna open up your gate
And maybe tell you ’bout Phaedra
and how she gave me life
and how she made it in
Some velvet morning when I’m straight

Nancy:
Flowers growing on the hill
Dragonflies and daffodils
Learn from us very much
Look at us but do not touch
Phaedra is my name

Lee:
Some velvet morning when I’m straight
I’m gonna open up your gate
And maybe tell you ’bout Phaedra
and how she gave me life
and how she made it in
Some velvet morning when I’m straight

Nancy:
Flowers are the things we knew
Secrets are the things we grew
Learn from us very much
Look at us but do not touch
Phaedra is my name

Lee:
Some velvet morning when I’m straight
Nancy:
Flowers growing on the hill
Lee:
I’m gonna open up your gate
Nancy:
Dragonflies and daffodils
Lee:
And maybe tell you ’bout Phaedra
Nancy:
Learn from us very much
Lee:
And how she gave me life
Nancy:
Look at us but do not touch
Lee:
and how she made it in

(Phaedra, by the way, is a tragic figure of Greek mythology, in love with her husband’s son—which probably has nothing to do with the song. Or does it? Who can tell with a highly educated psychedelic cowboy?)

In 2003 The Telegraph named this the best pop duet ever:

1. Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra
Some Velvet Morning, 1968

Most pop music is quickly forgotten. All too rare are the songs that endure, whose sheer otherness takes your breath away, even 30-odd years after they were conceived. Some Velvet Morning belongs in that company. Around the time that Frank Sinatra sang Somethin’ Stupid with his daughter Nancy, she was making other duets which brought a hipper, bolder edge to the format, and which would influence countless subsequent pairings. Nancy conducted these with Lee Hazlewood, a laconic Oklahoman who had masterminded her kitsch anthem of women’s liberation, These Boots Are Made for Walkin’.

In 1967, he recorded songs with her for possible inclusion in her first TV Special, Movin’ With Nancy. One, incredibly, was Some Velvet Morning – one of the strangest, druggiest, most darkly sexual songs ever written. Somehow, perhaps as a sop to the new demographic opening up during the Summer of Love, it made it on to the show. There are “flowers” and “daffodils”, but it’s hardly Sonny and Cher. Hazlewood’s sonorous, old-manly tones tell of “Phaedra, and how she gave me life, and how she made it end”, the reverberating bass sounds surrounding his echoey voice like storm clouds.

The music changes to a skipping, childish rhythm, and Nancy chimes in as Phaedra, innocent but ever more menacing as the verses are intercut more regularly. It’s a song whose mysteries have occasioned numerous covers, most recently by Primal Scream, with Kate Moss “doing” Nancy. None, though, can rival the macabre atmosphere of the original – ambitious, beautiful and unforgettable.

As always, those are just words. The music is in the tracks. Please listen.

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