You put on your boots
And I’ll put on mine
And we’ll sell a million records
Any old time
– Lee Hazlewood
Looking to increase your chances of a hit song, one that will worm its way into the public’s hearts and ears, earning fat royalty checks for half a century or more?
Try starting with a killer bass line.
The moment she heard “These Boots Are Made For Walkin‘”s memorable lick, she knew it was a winner.
(As did her famous father, who looked up from his newspaper after Hazlewood and Strange departed, to remark, “The song about the boots is best.”)
Originally conceived of as a song from the male POV, the 25-year-old, just-divorced Sinatra felt its message would be less “harsh and abusive” delivered by a “little girl.”
Hazlewood agreed, but hedged his bets by directing engineer Eddie Brackett to beef up Sinatra’s vocals with some light reverb.
As biographer James Kaplan describes in Sinatra: The Chairman, Hazlewood also offered some discreet direction, insinuating that the vibe to strive for was that of “a 14-year-old girl in love with a 40-year-old man.”
When Sinatra failed to receive his meaning, he shucked all pretense of delicacy. Nancy shared his marching orders in her 1985 biography Frank Sinatra, My Father:
…I was still singing like Nancy NiceLady. Lee hit the talk-back switch in the booth and his deep voice blew my ears off. ‘For chrissake, you were a married woman, Nasty, you’re not a virgin anymore. Let’s do one for the truck drivers. Say something tough at the end of this one… Bite the words.’
Or something to that effect…
Kaplan includes how several sources claim that Hazlewood’s actual instruction was to sing it like “a sixteen-year-old girl who f**ks truck drivers.”
(Editor’s note: instructing a young woman to do that in 2020 is far likelier to result in a law suit than a hit record.… and given that most of the sources who abide by this version of Boots’ creation myth preface their statements with the word “apparently,” it may not have flown in 1966 either.)
It also put a match to the American tinder where go-go boots were concerned. Young women in Britain had already adopted them as the perfect footwear to accompany Youthquake designer Mary Quant’s miniskirts and hot pants. Sinatra and her maxi sweater-wearing back up dancers get the bulk of the credit on this side of the pond.
While “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” has been covered by everyone from Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington to Billy Ray Cyrus and Megadeth, the sweetest cover remains songwriter Hazlewood’s, below, in which he namechecks the collaborators of his most famous hit with nary a mention of truckers or teenaged girls.
Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Join her in NYC TONIGHT, Monday, February 3, as her monthly book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain celebrates New York, The Nation’s Metropolis (1921). Follow her @AyunHalliday.