Sonny with and Without Cher
Salvatore Phillip Bono was born in Detroit and came with his family at the age of seven to California settling initially in Hawthorne – also home of the Beach Boys.
Sonny was not a determined student and after making it as far as Inglewood High School, finally dropped out to seek a career somewhere – anywhere in the entertainment world which surrounded him. Challenged musically (by his own omission he couldn’t play an instrument, read music, sing) he did however manage to put pen to paper and come up with some decent hit recordings.
His earliest effort was a song he composed as a teenager, “Ecstasy”. Sonny’s first inclination was to offer the song to Italian songster supreme, Tony Bennett. Sonny simply picked up the phone and called Tony’s place of business. After a wait of some time, Sonny was startled when Tony came to the phone taking the call. Bennett heard Sonny out and then asked him to play a rather primitive demo over the phone.
Bennett was polite but declined on the opportunity.
Bono Connections: Otis – Rupe – Nitzsche – Spector
Growing up in southern California Sonny had long admired DJ, record label owner and band leader Johnny Otis, and decided to approach him straight on. Again Sonny was surprised when Otis agreed to listen to Sonny’s demo and further surprised the teen when he decided to produce the recording.
Johnny Otis promptly began playing the record on his radio program but the telephone lines didn’t light up. Sonny recalls that Otis pressed about 200 copies which would certainly be collector’s items today. I have not been able to locate a single image of the record.
Undeterred, Sonny next approached Art Rupe, the owner of the Specialty record label – home then to The Soul Stirrers – a gospel group which included a young Sam Cooke, as well as rockers Larry Williams and Little Richard. There must have been something magnetic about Sonny as the hard nosed business man Rupe brought him into the operation as sort of a jack of all things needed in the operation of a small independent record label.
During his brief stint with Specialty, Bono penned a few tunes – two of which made it to the “B” side of a couple of classic rockers: The first was “High School Dance” on the flip side of “Short Fat Fannie”, and the second “You Bug Me Baby” as the “B” side of “Bony Maronie”. Now if Rupe adhered to standard recording practice – Sonny had to benefit as “B” side composers shared equally with the composer of the hit side. Something tells me with Art Rupe this might not have been the practice.
Art Rupe was having difficulties with the flamboyant Little Richard, who suddenly at the peak of his popularity (he had nine hits in the United States in 1956) abruptly announced that he was finished rocking during a 1957 tour of Australia, turning to the ministry.
According to Bono’s account, this may have been the impetus – but Sonny speculates that most likely the more accurate truth was insufficient royalty payments by Rupe to Richard. Art gave Sonny the daunting assignment of meeting with Little Richard – calling on him in his lavish California home in an effort to salvage the situation.
Again, Sonny found his way into Richard’s home where – after a considerable wait, Little Richard dramatically descended the second story staircase – situating himself on a couch – giving Sonny his opportunity to state Art Rupe’s case – which amounted to contractual obligations – but little – if anything – in the way of additional royalties.
When Sonny finished he asked Richard if he could possibly reconsider. In Little Richard style, he said he would do just that by ascending back to the second level of his home where he would “pray” on the request.
After another waiting period – Little Richard descended – as only Little Richard could – His prayer was answered – an emphatic “NO”.
In another development at Specialty – a disgruntled Sam Cooke was itching to break out of his gospel mode yearning to go “pop”. Art Rupe was having none of it. When Art was provided with a listen to a new tune Sam had composed, “You Send Me”, he promptly guffawed at the song – dismissing Cooke’s aspirations to leave gospel. Sort of odd it seems to attempt to lure one star away from gospel and keep the other firmly entrenched in the same.
Of course Cooke made his break away from Specialty and hit it big time with “You Send Me”. The song rocketed to the number one position on both the pop and R&B charts in the U.S. on the “Keen” label an upstart Los Angeles label launched in 1957. Seven more Keen Sam Cooke releases would chart ending in 1960 when Cooke signed with RCA Victor where he kicked things off with a number 2 “Chain Gang” – then charting more than two dozen additional times both before and after his death.
Rupe was outraged and gave Sonny the task of dusting off several songs in the Specialty vault in an attempt to cash in on Cooke’s gigantic success. Four Cooke Specialty singles were released up through 1959 – none even denting the charts.
Sonny’s urge to find his own success led him to moonlight during his off hours with Rupe. His moonlighting adventures brought him into contact with an up and coming producer, Jack Nitzsche who Sonny employed to write lead sheets for his compositions. When Art discovered this, Sonny was shown the door. His association with Nitzsche would pay off later. The two collaborated on a tune which would lie idle for some time before being picked up by England’s Searchers who took it to number 13 in the U.S. and number 1 in the U.K. in mid 1964 during the British Invasion onslaught.
Sonny’s next stint in the record business was not a lucrative one – He formed his own record label – Gold Records (wishful thinking) an effort which was met without any success. Sonny recorded during this time under two pseudonyms – “Sonny Christie” and “Ronny Summers” – both efforts solid duds.
Sonny’s next bold move was indeed a bold one: Spurred on by Nitzsche would had landed with a new employer, Sonny decided to call the flamboyant, egocentric and unpredictable mogul record producer Phil Spector. One again, some way somehow, when Sonny phoned, Spector actually came to the phone. Sonny stated his case to become an Spector assistant. Phil asked Sonny exactly what it was that he would bring to the operation. Sonny replied that Phil needed a West Coast “promo man” stressing that Philles Records was going too strong to not employ their own promo position. Phil liked the idea and Sonny was on board!
By this time Sonny had already met the sixteen year-old Cher Sarkisian – who eas essentially homeless when they met. A quick attraction brought the couple together in spite of Sonny being 11 years her senior (yikes – that might not have flown today).
From this point on Sonny and Cher’s story takes the path that so many rock and roll stories do follow – a meteoric rise to the top (well not completely meteoric) but an amazing ride to the top – and then thing start to unravel. My best suggestion is that if you wish to relive the “I’ve Got You Babe” days, the hits that followed, the tours which Cher reluctantly agreed to do (fear of flying – fear of the stage – fear of failing, etc.,) then obtain “And the Beat Goes On”.
NOTE: Cher was so frightened when it came time for her to record “Baby Don’t Go” which was intended to be a solo debut for her that she begged and begged Sonny to sing with her
I enjoyed every moment up to the point to where Cher decided that she really didn’t need Sonny. And at that point she was probably right.
But there can be no doubt, Cher (who after their divorce changed her name legally to simply “Cher” with no last name), would never had made it to begin with – without Sonny.
Sonny and Cher placed 20 singles on the Hot 100 charts with nine placing in the top 20 nearly all penned by Sonny. On a side note – while working as part of Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” crew – was asked to record a couple of stinkers one as “Bonnie Jo Mason” releasing “Ringo, I Love You” co-penned by Spector along with “Beatle Blues” written by his then-wife Annette Lee Spector. That one went nowhere as did a follow up in 1964 titled “Dream Baby” written by Sonny, and with a “B” side attributed to “Cherilyn’s Group” call “Stan Quetzal” co-composed by Sonny.
The duo released three singles as “Caesar and Cleo” Sonny choosing “Cleo” due to Cher’s striking and exotic appearance.
They also released two singles on Reprise – with “Baby Don’t Go” flopping in late 1964 – but upon it’s re-release in the summer of 1965 during the height of their recording success, became one of their biggest hits topping off at number 8. Vault Records also attempted to reissue two tracks which bombed in 1964 as “Caesar and Cleo” “The Letter” backed with “Spring Fever” by “Sonny and Orchestra” this time on the Reprise label – but to no avail.
Second Time A Charm – Number 8 With a Bullet!
They placed 12 albums on the charts from 1965 to 1974 – “Look at Us” being their only top ten appearance landing at number 2 (NOTE: Atlantic Records’ co-founder Ahmet Ertegün took a chance on the duo when other companies were turning down their early efforts – and would stand firmly with them through thick and thin times – becoming a true friend to the couple.) When Cher recorded “All I Really Want To Do” on the Imperial label – Ahmet was quite certain that Sonny was singing on the single with her – in violation of Sonny’s Atlantic contract. Sonny stressed that both high and low parts were all Cher – and Ahmet probably never really believed this – but didn’t make an issue of it.
Sonny Bono went on to serve one term as the Mayor of Palm Springs, California running as a liberal Republican, and then continued on to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives. He died on January 8th, 1998 as the result of a skiing accident in a Lake Tahoe ski resort. In spite of their divorce and many personal differences along the way after the initial fame – Cher delivered a tearful and sincere eulogy at his funeral.
Cher went on to enjoy a recording career which transcended parts of five decades – and established a record by becoming the only artist to achieve a number one hit in each of the five decades – and enjoyed a successful acting career garnering an Academy Award, and Emmy, Grammys – and a Tony award. Cher was – well – Cher.