MAKING IT WITH THE MODERNS
What record label perseveres with a singer who has had 10 flop singles? Well, Reprise for one. The singles were nondescript and inconsequential and Nancy was no Sinatra – only she was, genetically. The very name went against her because the public and the DJs alike thought that she only had a record contract because Daddy owned the company.
Maybe with all his connections, Frank could have bought her into the charts. With a snap of his fingers, he could have offered a weekend in Vegas with a few broads to some influential DJs but the payola scandal at the start of the 60s meant that the authorities were watching. If his daughter suddenly had a hit record, they might ask questions and it could rebound on his own career. The public might even think that his own records had been bought into the charts. So that was out.
In any event, he was having difficulty getting airplay himself. When he wrote the sleeve note for his 1965 retrospective, A Man And His Music, he thanked “DJs brave enough to give me equal time in Beatle land.” There weren’t many of them.
When Frank had started his Reprise label in 1961, he was determined that there would be no rock’n’roll and at first he had filled it with his friends – Dean, Sammy, Ethel Merman, Rosemary Clooney, Sy Oliver. Nothing artistically wrong with that but the albums weren’t selling well and hit singles were hard to come by.
The Rat Pack had little time for rock music. When the Rolling Stones appeared on The Hollywood Palace Show, Dean introduced them with complete disdain, but they got their revenge as Brian Jones had an affair with Dean’s daughter. “Dean Martin was just drunk,” says Bill Wyman, “and he took us on face value. He didn’t think that we took baths and he didn’t know how to treat people who were different from himself.”
Reprise wasn’t making money and Sinatra would have to make concessions. He knew nothing about rock and didn’t want to but he was recommended to a man who did: Jimmy Bowen had seen chart success as a performer in the 50s and was producing Frankie Avalon and Johnny Rivers for Chancellor Records. He came to Reprise with Ernie Freeman, a jazz musician from the 1940s who had had success with Gene McDaniels and Bobby Vee at Liberty.
Frank wasn’t sure that he wanted a makeover himself but Dean wouldn’t mind. Well, Dean wouldn’t mind if it didn’t take much effort or time, but he had his mind set on another retro project. Dean preferred the golf course or drinking with his buddies, but sometimes in the wee small hours, after playing the main room at the Sands, Dean would drift into the lounge and sing moody songs with his pianist, Ken Lane. He wanted to make an album of them called Dream With Me.
Dean and Jimmy picked the songs and Ernie wrote the arrangements. Fortunately, Ken Lane thought an old song of his, ‘Everybody Loves Somebody’, might be right for the album. It had been recorded by Dinah Washington and Peggy Lee, but the first person putting it on record had been Frank himself in 1948 and what’s more Frank owned the publishing.
Jimmy Bowen recorded ‘Everybody Loves Somebody’ with Dean. It sounded okay but it wasn’t a hit single. However, Jimmy realised that it could be. Ray Charles had created a new genre by taking country songs like ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You’ and ‘Take These Chains From My Heart’ and recording them with singalong choirs. He told Ernie Freeman to give ‘Everybody Loves Somebody’ the same treatment.
The radio stations picked up on this infectious single and soon the whole of America was singing ‘Everybody Loves Somebody’ and mimicking Dean’s easy delivery. The single soared up the US charts and to Frank and Dean’s surprise, it knocked the Beatles’ ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ from No 1. It’s not overstating things to say that Dean Martin had saved his buddy’s label.
‘Everybody Loves Somebody’ became Dean’s theme song for his new TV series and set the path for a long trail of easy listening country albums. One was even called Dean Tex Martin Rides Again. Dean the Italian cowboy: they should have put him in spaghetti westerns. Dean and Jimmy would choose the songs in late night sessions with their friend, Jack Daniels. Dean could have made the albums in his sleep and he probably did.
Dean’s son, Dino, was 14-years-old and was singing with his friends, Desi Arnaz Jr, the son of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, and Billy Hinsche, whose father owned a casino. “No problem,” said Dean, “I’ll get you on Reprise.” Recording teenage acts had been Jimmy’s speciality so he took Dino, Desi and Billy into the Top 20 with ‘I’m A Fool’ in July 1965. Then Dean had another Top 10 hit with more of the same, ‘The Door Is Still Open To My Heart’. Frank was pleased as the hits gave Reprise some commercial viability, but he hadn’t had a Top 20 hit himself since ‘Witchcraft’ in 1958.
Frank had just turned 50 and he had acknowledged his age with a reflective album about growing old, September Of My Years. It was a classy record but it could only appeal to a limited market.
Something had to be done about Sinatra’s record sales.
Both of them.
Jimmy Bowen was friendly with a maverick songwriter and producer called Lee Hazlewood. He had made his name writing and producing hit records for the guitarist Duane Eddy, made with an echo chamber of his own invention. Everything he wrote was quirky and he had sung his own album, Trouble Is A Lonesome Town, in a deep, cavernous voice. Jimmy asked him to join Reprise and told him, “I’ll do the mamas and papas and you do the kids.”
Lee Hazlewood was assigned to establishing Nancy Sinatra, now 25 and getting a bit old for the charts. She had been recording drippy teen songs like ‘Cuff Links And A Tie Clip’. Lee wanted something with more bite. He said to her, “You’re not a virgin: you’re a grown woman and we have to reflect that.”
Nancy had married a former teen idol, Tommy Sands, in 1960. He had had a No 2 in 1957 with ‘Teen-Age Crush’ (when the word was so new it was written like that) and he was a former teen idol even in 1960. Since then little had happened and his only success had been playing Tom, Tom the piper’s son alongside Annette Funicello in Walt Disney’s Babes In Toyland.
Sinatra knew there was no point in having Sands on Reprise, but he did give him a part in the war film, None But The Brave, for which Frank was both the director and the star. Sands was out of his depth but to be fair his mind was hardly on the job. His marriage was falling apart and he and Nancy separated.
Cue for a song.