When Sonny and Cher topped the charts in 1965 with their mega hit “I’ve Got You Babe,” they quickly became one of the most recognizable and important pop duos in music. With a string of hits on the radio, records selling in the millions, weekly apperances on some of the biggest television shows on both sides of the Atlantic and having their faces everywhere, Sonny and Cher were pop gold. So how do you top a huge career? By creating an even bigger solo career.
While Cher’s musical legacy and triumphant solo career has become legendary, what has gone forgotten is that before she went to solo success, it was actually Sonny who was the first to enter the Billboard charts with one of the most personal and rawest songs he ever wrote – a little number called “Laugh at Me.” But despite the fury and passion behind it, “Laugh at Me” has become nothing more than an odd footnote in the Sonny and Cher story lost in the shadows of Cher’s rise to solo stardom.
From the start of their musical partnership, Sonny envisioned Cher as the one who would have success as a solo artist, and his perception of that was dead on. Shortly after the success of their first album, “Look at Us,” Sonny encouraged Cher to go into the studio by herself and, using all his producer training he got from watching Phil Spector, he began producing Cher’s first solo project “All I Really Want to Do.” The album was primarily all cover recordings, with the only Bono penned song being “Needles and Pins” which was previously a hit for The Searchers and Jackie DeShannon.
However, while recording the album, a sharp turn in their plans happened which, a dramatic moment for Sonny at the time, led to the recording of Sonny’s only solo success.
As most things relating to Sonny and Cher, I’ve heard many different versions of how this particular event went down. One night Sonny and Cher headed out for dinner to a favorite restaurant of theirs, Montoni’s in Hollywood. Dressed in their usual hippie garb, the couple was refused to be seated due to the way they were dressed despite the fact that they were noteworthy within the music industry and the that they were paying customers who visited the restaurant before. But, according to an interview that Cher gave in 2001 to Rock’s Backpages, the incident may have been much more personal than just a snooty Maître ‘D not allowing them in without a tie. Of the incident Cher recalled “[Laugh at Me] was inspired by such a terrible experience. We were so tired of getting beaten up and having people call us faggots, and then our own friends kicked us out of their restaurant, Martoni’s. This other guy had been the one to blame, but they said, ‘We always have trouble when you come in here.’”
Hurt, dejected and angry, Sonny Bono had come to the end of his rope being kicked around. Years of being dismissed, lampooned, and dehumanized, Sonny went home and, taking back his dignity, wrote “Laugh at Me” as an emotional manifesto of self respect The song speaks about the bullying and abuse he had taken from a disrespectful public, and how his only response is not to fight back, but to try to rise above it by pitying those who reject him and by being the bigger person through finding compassion for the people who go against him. Often trite at times, it wasn’t his best song, but it was easily his most personal. Filled with fiery emotion and a sense of anguish, Sonny Bono exposed some truly raw and honest emotions on his sleeve.
Still seeing Cher as the solo star, his first intentions was to get Cher to perform it, but Cher, as well as friends around him, encouraged Sonny to recorded it as a solo single himself. They felt the song was far to personal to Sonny, and that while Cher might have a bigger hit with it, Sonny should be the one to record it. Sonny reluctantly agreed, but in doing so he added a few additional lines as an introduction to that song which still gave a nod to Cher:
“I never thought I’d cut a record by myself, but I’ve got something I want to say. I want to say it for Cher, and I hope I say it for a lot of people.”
With the fabled Wrecking Crew behind him and employing all the tricks he had learnt from Spector’s Wall of Sound, Sonny brought up all the anguish and emotion in the recording, struggling through any vocal imperfections and replacing them with passion and conviction. Filled with a true sense of honesty, it’s a rich recording and, at that moment in time, it landed solid with the public.
Just how much did Sonny Bono feel this song? In an episode of “Shin-Dig,” Sonny was invited to sing the song, and while many of the performers would often lip sync during performances, the powers that be kept the mic’s on so that you can actually hear Sonny singing along in real time to the record overlayed on top of him. It’s a strange effect, but he bleeds his feelings. It is possibly the greatest Sonny Bono performance ever caught on film,
Released as a single, “Laugh at Me” entered the US Billboard charts in August of 1965 and rose to the number 10 spot. Meanwhile, in Canada, “Laugh at Me” went all the way to number one, only to be knocked off the top spot a week later. The song that knocked it off the top position was Sonny and Cher’s “Baby Don’t Go,” finally finding its way to the Canadian charts. “Laugh at Me” also hit the number 9 spot on the UK charts putting Sonny on all three major pop charts as a solo artist weeks before Cher. Around the time “Laugh at Me” was released as a single, Cher’s solo album was released and its first single, a cover of Bob Dylan’s “All I Really Want to Do” (which was actually more crafted after The Byrds’ hit version) started to rise up the charts as well. A few weeks after “Laugh at Me” peaked at number 10, Cher’s single surpassed it making it to #10 and spending 24 weeks on the charts and Cher’s solo career was born.
“Laugh at Me” was eventually released on Sonny and Cher’s second studio album, “The Wonderous World of Sonny and Cher,” and in 1967 Sonny attempted his hand at his first, and only solo project. Called “Inner Views,” “Laugh at Me” was included on the album with a bunch of new songs penned by Bono, but the album failed to chart. A second single, “The Rebel Kind,” got little to no airplay, but the song eventually had some success when it became a minor hit for Dino, Desi and Billy. But the lack of “Inner View’s” success didn’t seem to phase Sonny, who was far more focused on writing songs and producing albums for Cher, who he still recognized as having a far more lucrative career as a solo performer.
The irony is, while Sonny took the solid stance asking for respect from the public, the laughter would not stop and, in time, Sonny rebranded himself as the eternal punchline. As the 60’s went into the second half of the decade, there was another musical and cultural shift, and Sonny and Cher’s once mega popularity suddenly nose dived, and after a few poor creative and business decisions, including putting their life savings into a pair of commercial and critical cinematic bombs – 1967’s “Good Times” and 1969’s “Chasity” (both box office flops at the time, but highly enjoyable and worth looking at today) – they suddenly found themselves not only on the bottom of the charts but without money.
At the dawn of the 1970’s, looking to survive, Sonny and Cher pivoted by recreating themselves into a nightclub act for the Vegas dinner club circuit which they’d combine comedy and music. Gone were the beads, bangles and furry vests, and they were now dressed in sharp suits and Bob Mackie dresses. But, instead of finding something original for their new stage show, they basically stole an already existing formula that had originated with Louis Prima and Keeley Smith a generation earlier. Sonny Bono became the eternal stooge who would be the victim of the statuesque and deadpan Cher’s one liners and put downs. Well, the formula worked, and the audience loved it and soon Sonny and Cher were selling out bigger and bigger rooms while reestablishing themselves with a more establishment crowd. Eventually their new act caught the eye of TV producers and in 1971 Sonny and Cher made their TV comedy variety show debut on “The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour.” The show was a hit, and Sonny and Cher found more chart success as a duo, but more importantly Cher found a second and more defining solo success with a string of massive hits such as “Half Breed,” “Gyrases Tramps and Thieves,” “The Way of Love” and “Dark Lady.” And, despite his emotional stance with “Laugh at Me,” Sonny embraced the laughter that he took at Cher’s jabs. I guess as long as he was controlling it, being laughed at was now okay.
Of course, the romance between Sonny and Cher did not last. In 1975 the couple shocked the world when they announced they were getting divorced. The on-screen aggression in their comedy suddenly seemed to have a dark tinge, and eventually stories of a stormy home life where Cher felt under the thumb of Sonny’s constant ambition and his control over her career began to be told. The pair struggled along on television, first apart and then, in a strange twist, once again as a now divorced comedy team. But by the 1980’s, Sonny and Cher were both remarried and going on their own separate paths. Cher would continue in music, hitting higher heights as one of the most important women in the recording industry, and also transformed herself into a highly respected and Oscar winning dramatic actress as well as a LGBTQ+ icon. Sonny would go into politics, become mayor of Palm Springs and eventually moved into the US House of Representatives.
But despite their breakup, Sonny and Cher continued to have a true affection for one another, which was visually evident in their final appearance together on a 1987 episode of “The Late Show” with David Letterman. With Cher as the guest that night, Letterman surprised the audience when he brought out Sonny Bono. Although they were not scheduled to perform that night, Letterman and a cheering audience got the two of them to perform “I’ve Got You Babe.” Again, the raw emotion can not be unseen. There is a moment in the performance that Cher is just looking at Sonny in complete awe and adoration, and between the tears, Sonny is smiling from ear to ear. The love between them, as well as the respect and the strength of their history together is evident. Despite its performance flaws (it was unreheearsed, and at one moment, swept away with emotion, Che misses her cue and forget the lyrics) It is one of the most magical musical moments ever caught on film. I challenge you to watch the video of that performance and not get misty eyed.
But one day in 1998, the laughter came to an end. That year Cher found herself on network television for Sonny again, but this time it was to deliver an emotional eulogy at his funeral broadcasted live on CNN after he was killed in a skiing accident in 1998. Through tears, Cher spoke out again about the laughter Sonny faced. She eloquently said:
“Some people didn’t think Son was to be taken seriously because he allowed himself to be the butt of the joke on ‘The Sonny and Cher Show.’ But what people don’t realize is that he created Sonny and Cher, and he knew what was right for us. He always knew the right thing, and he wanted to make people laugh so much that he had the confidence to be the butt of the joke. because he created the joke.”
At the end of her emotional testomony of love for Sonny Bono, Cher finished “When I was young three was this section in the Readers Digest, and it was called ‘the most unforgettable character I ever met,’ and for me that person is Sonny Bono. And no matter how long I live or no matter who I meet in my life, that person will always be Son for me.”
But before we wrap this up, a few more words about “Laugh at Me.” Although a minor blip on the pop charts, I’ve always found it astonishing that it has not had a far larger cultural impact on our society. About ten years ago, when there was a strong anti-bullying movement in schools and through youth culture, I remember sending the song to a young anti-bulling activist that I was working with, but the song seemed to have no impact on hher, and instead of making a connection I was told how “thinga are different now.” Perhaps it was the biblical road it goes down in the song’s bridge, or maybe it just seemed dated, but the kids just don’t seem to relate to it.
But over the decades it didn’t go completely unnoticed. In 1969 Mott the Hoople recorded a fantastic cover of the song on their debut album, stripping it down for a different type of dramatic tension. Although it lacks the emotional conviction in Sonny Bono’s recording, it can be argued to be the stronger of the two versions.
But more dramatically was when Sonny and Cher’s child, Chaz Bono, reintroduced the song to the public in an emotionally charged moment when he appeared on “Dancing with the Stars” in 2011, dancing with Cheryl Burke to “Laugh at Me.” One of culture’s first notable transgender celebrities, Chaz had undergone public scrutiny and tabloid headlines when he transitioned to a man in the early 2010’s, and his appearance on “Dancing with the Stars” was met with controversy, criticism, and transphobia by a public still struggling with understanding what it was to be transgender. As Chaz’s time on “Dancing with the Stars” was nearing its end, appearing on the lower half of the voting, Chaz picked “Laugh at Me” as an unlikely, but powerful, statement to dance to. Unlikely as it was not a song within the popular public consciousness, but appropriate because it not only served as a powerful tribute to his father, whom he often clashed with over Sonny’s Republican values during his lifetime, while, just as his father had done in 1966, told the public to “Laugh at me, and I’ll cry for you.”
Unfortunately, the show decided to not go with the original Sonny Bono recording and, instead, had some cheesy nameless cover artists do a neutered melba toasted cover version of it which cut it prior to any religious lines and ending the song before it hit its emotional crescendo. However, despite the fact that the audience had little to no connection with the song, and while Chaz’s dance performance might not have been spectacular, the performance was a powerful and monumental moment in network television history. The message was powerful and clear and there wasn’t a dry eye in the place. While Chaz Bono didn’t hit a home run with his dance performance, he knocked it out of the park for trans rights and humanizing trans people in the mainstream. While I’m not convinced that “Laugh at Me” became the new anthem for transgender rights which Chaz Bono might have intended it to become, it was a brilliant use of the song, making it a victory of its own for the entire Bono family, and furthering the timelessness of the music of Sonny and Cher on our society.