A few nights ago, I came across some raw footage of Cher in rehearsal for her upcoming return to the stage. After a few years of retirement, Cher is back and, now in her late 70’s, she still looks incredible and seems completely ageless. The whole world still loves Cher, and she continues to hold tight on to her legacy as one of the most powerful and captivating divas of pop music.
But what seems to have gotten lost under the sparkle and larger than life shadow that Cher sheds on pop culture is the importance that Sonny Bono had on bringing her into the spotlight, and his own special legacy as a song writer, producer and contributions to the pop music industry. But when looking at the Sonny and Cher story, perhaps it could be said that Sonny would haven’t of had it any other way.
When Sonny met Cher around 1962, he knew she was a star and throughout their entire life together, as a couple and music partners, Sonny pushed Cher into the spotlight. He believed in her big voice, good looks and star power, and he became her prime supporter in the early days of her career.
Born in Detroit, but raised in Inglewood, Sonny Bono began selling songs professionally at the age of 16 and dropped out of high school to work in the music industry. Some of his earliest song writing successes was “Koko Joe,” originally recorded by Don and Dewey but later becoming a bigger hit for The Righteous Brothers, “She Said Yeah” for Larry Williams, which was a notable early recording by The Rolling Stones, “Things You Do For Me” for Sam Cooke and most importantly “Needles and Pins,” which he wrote with Jack Nitzsche and became a monster hit for both The Searchers and Jackie DeShannon.
Not long afterwards Sonny came into contact with the fabulously influential, but famously stormy superstar producer Phil Spector and began to work for him. Exactly what Sonny Bono was doing for Spector is debatable. It’s been often sigted that Sonny worked as a second producer for Spector, but others have said that he was more often used by Spector as an errand boy and, even worse, was often referred by Spector as being a “hanger oner.” Whatever the case, his association with Spector was an important one, and Sonny watched Spector closely as he was developing his Wall of Sound recording technique. Sonny would use those same techniques when developing the classic Sonny and Cher hits later on.
The stories of how Sonny met Cher vary from telling to telling, but the official timeline suggests that Sonny met her in 1962. Cher was a sixteen-year-old teenage run away and high school drop out with stars in her eyes and a desire to break into show business. A statuesque beauty with unique looks, she caught the eye of Sonny, who at 28 was already married and had a child, but recognized something interesting in Cher, and the chemistry between them was immediate. It’s been suggested that they met at Phil Spector’s studios, but also said they met at a nearby coffee shop and that it was Bono who brought Cher to Spector’s attention. Sonny thought that with her unique looks and huge voice that Cher could be the next superstar of Spector’s growing stable of talent, but Spector famously rarely took anybody’s opinion on anything to heart. Spector put Cher to work as a backup vocalist, where she contributed on some of Spector’s most important recordings including The Crystals’ “Do Ron Ron,” The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” and The Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling.”
Although both were being utilized by Phil Spector, Sonny felt that he and Cher were being misused and he felt strongly that there was much more in the music industry for them both. It was an exciting time to be in the pop industry in California, and although the British Invasion was in full swing, the music coming out of Los Angeles was fighting a good fight and not allowing the English rockers to dominate the pop charts completely. Sonny and Cher were getting a good education in hit making with Phil Spector, but bigger things were to come.
Early in their partnership, Sonny set himself up as the “idea man” while Cher was his protégé with the star power. As they grew closer, Sonny’s marriage broke up and he and Cher moved in together and got married in 1964. Not long afterwards they decided to strike out on their own under a few different gimmicks. Cher did record a novelty song for Spector called “Ringo I Love You” under the name Bonnie Jo Mason. Although a dumb song, that classic Cher sound is already undeniably lush. However, the single got lost in the dozens of similarly released novelty records from girls declaring their love for The Beatles and Spector lost interest in working with Cher shortly thereafter. Next Sonny and Cher took the monikers Ceasar and Cleo and did some unimpressive cover recordings for Reprise in 1964 which got little to no attention.
But in 1965 they cut out the gimmicks and stripped it down to who they were. Engulfed in LA’s budding hippie scene, Cher ironed her hair and put on her cat eye makeup, Sonny put on the furry vest and his peace medallions, and moving over to Atco Records, they cut their first recordings under the name Sonny and Cher. “Baby Don’t Go,” written by Sonny with biographical details written for especially for Cher, was released as their first single and got enough attention on the charts to get them their first TV appearance on “American Bandstand.”
Weeks later, in a flash of inspiration, Sonny sat down and wrote a simple love song outlining all the things that he felt was special about his relationship with Cher, and how the comfort and support their love for one another had helped them as they’ve navigated through the music industry. Sonny would often say that the song took only an hour to write, but it became the main philosophy of he and Cher’s life together. It was sweet, optimistic and was about to be pop gold. The song was “I’ve Got You Babe,” and while simple in its presentation, it tapped into a universal sentiment shared by couples who have struggled together everywhere but allowed the faith in each other, and the power of their love to get them through an often cruel world. On August 14, 1965 “I’ve Got You Babe” hit the number one position on the Billboard charts, and soon became a monster hit worldwide. Sonny Bono had written a timeless love song which continues to be one of the most important pop songs ever recorded to this day.
The success of “I Got You Babe” made Sonny and Cher instant pop superstars and, centered right in the middle of where the American music scene was happening, they made themselves readily available for every single TV show that wanted them, keeping themselves highly visible to the public. They did multiple episodes of “American Bandstand,” “Where the Action Is,” “Shin-Dig,” and Hullaballoo,” went over to Europe to do “Top of the Pops,” “Ready, Steady, Go!” and “Beat Club” and headed to New York to do the toppermost of the poppermost, “The Ed Sullivan Show.” They even made appearances on “The Man From UNCLE” and their first film appearance in a b-film called “Wild on the Beach,” while giving their time to answer Gloria Staver’s 40 Intimate Questions and even “write” an advice column for “16 Magazine” (in reality Gloria wrote the advice columns, but Sonny and Cher signed off on them). With their outrageous hippie lifestyle, although it often seemed slightly over exaggerated, they became instantly identifiable albeit somewhat cartoonish. But they had talent, ambition, personality and success and for the next few years kept popping out hit after hit.
However, while it may be hard to believe today, Sonny and Cher’s first rise to stardom would not be a long one, and by the end of the decade, they would finally find themselves derailed. A second cultural shift occurred where the drugs flowed heavier, the music got louder and the once free and easy hippie subculture began to grow hard and cynical as the blood of young men began to flow in Viet Nam, and the angry voices of disfranchised American youth began to pour into the streets. As quickly as they rose to fame, suddenly Sonny and Cher and their pver stylized hippie lifestyle no longer designated with the record buyers. Paired with some bad business decisions, Sonny and Cher soon found themselves broke and struggling for survival, forcing them to reinvent themselves for the second phase of their career, ushering them far beyond their musical roots an into pop culture super stardom.
The first phase of Sonny and Cher’s career was over by 1970, and although still young, they were forced to pivot and grow up. But bigger things were coming including television, solo stardom and, eventually, legendary pop status. For now, Sonny Cher had each other, and that was all it seemed they needed.