The Tragic, Real Love Story Of Sonny And Cher
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Tom and Jerry. Han and Chewy. Woody and Buzz. These perfectly matched duos, together rose above the sum of their collective parts to become something iconic. And that is certainly the case with today’s topic, Sonny and Cher!
Today we’re talking about the unlikely rise to prominence of two high school dropouts. Let’s meet Sonny & Cher, who together, beat the odds to become two of the most famous stars of the 20th century. And neither could have done it alone.
Childhood and the Early Years
Cherilyn Sarkisian (sar-KEY-sian), was born in 1946 in El Centro, California. Despite the catchy ring of her given name, by high school, she gave into the inevitable and started to go by the name that everyone called her already, Cher. And so a legend was, if not born, at least gestated. Cher struggled in school at a young age, not learning until many years later that she suffered from Dyslexia. However, Cher still found an outlet in the performing arts, once organizing and even playing every male role in the musical Oklahoma after every boy opted out. At the age of sixteen, Cher dropped out of high school and moved to LA in order to, in her words, “become famous.” She soon started to meet with agents and producers, working part-time jobs in the meantime to support herself. And it was while working as a waitress in a coffee shop that a chance encounter with Sonny Bono would set her on the road to international stardom.
Salvatore Bono (BONE-o) was born in 1935 in Detroit, Michigan, but at the age of seven, his family moved to Inglewood, California, right into the heart of the blossoming LA music scene. At an early age, his mother called him by the nickname “Sono,” which over time morphed into the name that the world would remember him by, Sonny. He too dropped out of high school and struggled for more than a decade to make it in the music industry. Forced to work odd jobs and as a “gofer” for music execs for years, it seemed as if Sonny’s career was going nowhere – until one day he had a coffee that would change his life.
When Sonny Bono first walked into the cafe where Cher worked in 1962, she described it as Tony and Maria meeting for the first time in West Side Story. Everyone else just faded away, and she had eyes only for him. So, they got to talking, and it came up that Cher was about to lose her apartment. Sonny invited her to live with him as his housekeeper and over the next few years, they progressed steadily from acquaintances to friends, and finally to the first blossoming of romance. Because of course, the best foundation for any relationship is the employee/employer dynamic.
Even before entering into a relationship with each other, the chemistry between the two was undeniable, and they decided to try and make it in the music business together. Sonny was currently making ends meet by singing backup for Phil Spector, and the two appeared together on the Ronettes “Be My Baby” and the Righteous Brothers “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’.” Sonny began to write songs for Cher, but due to her intense stage fright at that time, she insisted they perform them as a duo, called Caesar and Cleo. During these performances, Cher was too afraid to look directly at the crowd, instead never taking her eyes off Sonny. She said that she sang to the crowd through him. Despite their on-stage chemistry, and a switch to the iconic name Sonny and Cher, their singles released during this time, like “Do you wanna dance” and “Let the good times roll” just didn’t roll, & were poorly received.
In 1965 Sonny and Cher were going nowhere fast. It seemed like they couldn’t find an audience in the U.S., and it looked like they never would. Despite singing fairly straight-forward folk-rock, the American public was having a hard time accepting their eccentric appearance. Sonny and Cher were some of the first artists who wore whatever they wanted. Or at least whatever Cher wanted them to. At this time she was designing her own eclectic clothes and had discovered in a local thrift shop the bobcat fur vest and boots that would become Sonny’s early signature look. This unique style of dressing was not appreciated in the States, Sonny later stating that they were banned from appearing on ABC because of their clothing. It was at this time that their rock and roll pals the Rolling Stones suggested going to England to promote their new single, in an attempt to find a new audience. And as everyone knows, when Mick Jagger gives you advice, you take it.
First Success – A Taste of Success
When Sonny and Cher arrived in London, It turned out not to be all that different from the U.S. When they arrived at their hotel draped in their signature eccentric outfits, their reservation was mysteriously lost and they were told they could not stay. But the British press got wind that a new American act was being refused lodging because of their clothing, and soon were swarming all over the scene. The next day, Sonny and Cher were plastered on the front of the tabloids, and the British public went nuts for them. Overnight they became instant stars. In a country where “mod” fashion had been paramount among musicians, the Sonny and Cher “look,” – bell bottoms, ruffled shirts, striped pants, fur vests – became all the rage. This led to their new single, “I’ve Got You, Babe,” flying to the top of the charts – first in England, unseating the matching suit-wearing Beatles, then shortly thereafter in the US. When they had left for England, the American public would have been hard-pressed to put names to faces when it came to Sonny and Cher. When they returned mere months later, they had to have security escort them from their plane to their car in order to avoid a horde of rabid fans.
They had arrived. Sonny and Cher’s overnight success in England led to a meteoric rise to the top of pop stardom in the United States. Within the next three years, they had charted 5 top ten singles and sold more than 40 million albums worldwide. They had also managed to have an astounding 5 different songs in the top 50 at the same time, a feat that had only been achieved by Elvis and The Beatles. Not too shabby for a duo that just two years earlier had been singing backup and running errands. Time magazine even dubbed them the “it” couple of rock and roll and it seemed like they could do no wrong. Trouble, however, was brewing on the horizon, and it wouldn’t be long before the duo’s triumphs would appear to be a fleeting memory.
Despite revolutionizing the way people dressed, at their heart, Sonny and Cher were a conservative act. As the hippie movement spread during the summer of love, Sonny and Cher’s influence waned as society passed them by. The youth was into for free love, not happily married couples. Even worse, they came out very publicly against the drug culture, with Sonny Bono even hosting a half-hour long anti-marijuana PSA broadcast on national television. But lastly, and most damning, was that music had evolved drastically in the past three years. By 1969 Sonny and Cher were still singing the folk-rock love songs popular in the early to mid-’60s, while the airwaves were dominated by much heavier and rebellious sounds. Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, and Janis Joplin represented a seismic shift in rock music, and Sonny and Cher seemed unable to adapt.
Resurgence – The Beat Goes On
By the end of the decade, their music was no longer charting and the hits had completely dried up. They were also heavily in debt from two failed movies, including self-financing Chastity which completely flopped. They owed more than $200,000 to the IRS alone. This reduced them to the status of a glorified lounge act, forced to tour the country playing nightclubs in order to stay afloat.
Was this the end of Sonny and Cher? Hardly. An executive at CBS happened to catch their club act one night and became intrigued. To compensate for the declining popularity of their music, Sonny and Cher’s act was evolving into a variety show. With bits of comedy and the beginnings of skits interspersed with their hit songs, they had found a formula that the audience loved, and the bigwigs at CBS took note. After a brief spell on the massively popular Carol Burnett Show, the duo were offered their own comedy program and leaped at the chance.
The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour became a massive hit. Staying in the top 20 in ratings for its entire run, and racking up numerous Emmy awards, the show featured a slew of well-known performers and guest stars – including a very young Steve Martin working his first writing gig. During the run of the show, Cher, in a minor controversy, was actually the first woman to ever show her belly button on the network TV. Not only did the show rescue the act from lounge act purgatory, it proved that Sonny and Cher’s ’60s success was no fluke, and returned them to the peak of the pop culture mountain in the US.
However, behind the scenes, the relationship that had been the bedrock of all their success was starting to come apart at the seams. To the whole world, Sonny and Cher appeared to be a perfect couple, but this was unfortunately far from the truth. By 1975 the couple had been separated for almost two years because of Sonny’s controlling nature and numerous affairs. Cher agreed to keep up appearances, however, until it came to light that Sonny had arranged their business so that he made 95% of the duo’s earnings, with the remaining 5% going to their lawyer. That’s right. Sonny 95%, Lawyer 5%, Cher zilch. Squat. Nada. They weren’t called Sonny & Horowitz, no. Cher had finally had enough. After this revelation Cher immediately filed for divorce, citing “involuntary servitude.” Which under the circumstances was very accurate. The acrimonious divorce that followed shocked the nation and brought the wildly popular Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour to an abrupt halt. Although they would briefly reunite professionally after each failing with their own solo show, nothing was the same, and the final last-ditch effort was quickly canceled. Despite making a handful of appearances together throughout later years, including a final performance on Letterman in 1987, the wonderful partnership of Sonny and Cher was effectively over, and a little magic had gone out of the world.
Do you have a favorite Sonny and Cher song?