Song of the Day: Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood’s “Some Velvet Morning”

by M.C. Antil on October 25, 2010

Song of the Day — October 27, 2010
A daily snapshot of songs you might not know…but should.

Most anyone with any semblance of musical history knows about Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” — that signature production technique that employed dozens of musicians to produce dense layers of sound and melody that could instill in a two and a half minute pop song an overwhelming, almost operatic sense of drama. The key to the Wall of Sound wasn’t so much that it set a tempo, as that it set a mood.

What many don’t know about Spector, however, is that he learned all about mood from one of the first guys he ever worked for in the music business, a largely overlooked but brilliant Okie record producer named Lee Hazlewood.

Duane Eddy: The Birth of Twang?

The son of an Oklahoma oil man, Lee Hazlewood kicked around Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana before joining the army and serving in Korea. Following the war, he took a job as a DJ in Phoenix and began writing songs. In 1956, a recording of his tune, “The Fool,” which Hazelwood also produced, became a minor hit for rockabilly singer Sanford Clark.

He eventually moved to L.A. where he met and started producing a young guitar player named Duane Eddy. It was Hazlewood who, upon hearing Eddy, urged him to focus on the lower strings of his guitar and to pluck them, not from the top like most guitarists, but from the bottom, like a bass player. The rich, full twang that resulted became Eddy’s signature sound and would go on to influence a number of future guitar greats like Dick Dale and Jimmy Page.

So while it might be a stretch to say Lee Hazlewood invented twang, one of the single most iconic sounds of the past 50 years, tracing its roots back to him can be done with a solid and direct line.  Beyond Hazlewood, at least in pop and rock music, the line starts to blur considerably.

Hazlewood eventually started to record his own songs and in 1962 produced one of the most under-appreciated albums ever recorded, “Trouble is a Lonesome Town”, a concept album about Trouble, a fictional town in the American heartland full of deeply flawed people with dark, shady secrets. “Trouble is a Lonesome Town” went nowhere commercially, but it gave Lee Hazlewood his voice and established him as a songwriter capable of instilling an otherwise simple pop tune with complex layers of bitterness, irony and working-class sensibility.

Those things and more could be heard in a song Hazlewood would write a few years later for Frank Sinatra’s little girl, Nancy.  Given Nancy Sinatra’s Beverly Hills pedigree and the ubiquitous white go-go boots the record company compelled her to dress in, it was certainly not hard to imagine “These Boots are Made for Walkin” as a song of the times, and an anthem for upscale, progressive-thinking urban women from New York to L.A.

Nancy and her walkin' boots

But taken in the context of Lee Hazlewood’s roots, his “Trouble is a Lonesome Town,” and the female singer’s somewhat tenuous relationship with the English language (You keep lyin’ when you ought to be truthin”), it’s likewise not hard to imagine those boots being beat-up old cowboy boots and the singer being a young woman who spends her days in a run-down trailer just outside of Tulsa.

Hazlewood would go on to write, literally, dozens of songs for Nancy Sinatra and the best of them, like “Sugar Town,” hold up remarkably well today.

He’d also go on to write two terrific songs — one for Frank Sinatra (“This Town”) and one for Dean Martin (“Houston”) — that might represent the only time either of the two venerable aging crooners went into the studio and recorded a contemporary 60’s-vintage song that sounded, not forced or contrived, but absolutely real.  What’s more, both songs — each of them also produced by Hazelwood — might be one of the few tunes in each singer’s esteemed catalog that has somehow found a higher gear and managed to sound even fresher and more poignant as time wore on.

By the mid-to-late 60’s, as drugs and psychedelia continued to exhibit their influence on contemporary pop culture, Hazlewood once again made an indelible mark on the world of music.  In 1967 he wrote, produced and recorded with Nancy Sinatra a somewhat offbeat little number, a duet, he called “Some Velvet Morning.”

Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood

“Velvet Morning” had all the signature Lee Hazelwood elements.  It was earthy, cerebral and ironic, all at the same time, but with a sense of mystery that bordered on obscurity.  (And its gritty opening line, “Some velvet morning when I’m straight,” predated Kris Kristofferson’s lionized “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down” by a full two years.)

But more than its content, “Some Velvet Morning” was noteworthy for its mood. Hazlewood’s production, which included a lush, haunting string intro, was unexpectedly evocative. And the song’s mood was only heightened by Sinatra’s part, in which she assumed the role of a otherworldly young vixen named Pheadra, who at one point may or may not have served as some sort of lover/life-giver to Hazlewood’s strung out cowboy.

For lack of a better description, critics started referring to the country-flavored trippy tunes of Dust Bowl ex-pats like Doug Sahm, Kinky Friedman, Kenny Rogers and Hoyt Axton as “cowboy psychedelia.”  But of all the purveyors of that curious musical sub-niche —  a sort of bastard son of Kitty Wells and Timothy Leary — none was any more influential than Lee Hazelwood, the guy who actually created it.  

And even though cowboy psychedelia probably should have died out long before it ever took root, to this day there remain countless Americana artists and troubadors out there singing about the world Lee Hazelwood helped create; a mystical place where the dusty panhandle of a man’s day-to-day reality meets the infinite wind-swept prairie of his dreams. 

So please, sit back, turn up the volume, and enjoy M.C. Antil’s Song of the Day for Tuesday, October 27, 2010: Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood’s moody, trippy psychedelic cowboy classic, “Some Velvet Morning”.

Title:  Some Velvet Morning
Artist: Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood
Composer: Lee Hazlewood
Year Released: 1967

And for a fascinating story on the “Velvet Morning” recording session, here it is from the horse’s mouth:

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