It is 1965, and the nineteen year old Cher is about to perform in front of Princess Margaret, in what will be the worst performance of her life.
Riding high in the charts with “I Got You Babe”, Sonny and Cher are asked to perform at a charity ball, compered by Bob Hope, in front of an audience of not only British, but Hollywood royalty: Doris Day, Rock Hudson, Zsa Zsa Gabor.
Cher tries to ignore the imposing sea of famous faces as she sings Dylan’s “All I Really Want To Do”. But she’ s too loud for delicate royal ears. Princess Margaret motions to an aide to turn down the volume.
The sound technician cuts Cher’s microphone by accident, then Sonny can’t hear his monitors. Sonny tries a rather unfortunate joke…
“We do, in a way, represent the young people….But it’s nice to perform for you…”
This does not go over well.
As he starts singing again, a heckler shouts “That’s gotta be the worst thing I ever heard!” and the entire theatre erupts with laughter.
The crestfallen couple close with “I Got You Babe” and withdraw hastily, with Cher in tears and Sonny furious.
Life, for Sonny and Cher, was always a struggle.
The story of Cher is a fascinating one. Her life was surprisingly tough, right from the moment her mum Jackie had got as far as sitting in the abortion clinic before deciding not to go through with the operation, and to have her baby daughter Cherylin.
How tough was her childhood?
Tough enough to make Monty Python’s Four Yorkshire men doff their flat caps out of respect.
She grew up poor and her father was often absent, thanks to the somewhat rigid, one-sided terms and conditions he had to accept when staying at San Quentin’s prison on drugs charges.
Having an often absent father was a double edged sword. On the plus side, when he was around, they would bond for a while, but on a less positive note, he would then pawn her mother’s jewellery and set the house on fire while high on drugs.
Being poor manifested itself in different ways, but you can imagine the grief Cher received when she went to school with her shoes strapped with elastic bands to stop them falling apart. Her mum made ends meet by singing in saloons for a dollar a night. That meant travelling around: Cher went to as many as fifteen schools, and was, no doubt, called “rubber band shoe girl” in each one. To compound the transient, unsettled upbringing, Cher found school difficult, as she was/is dyslexic.
Cher would deal with her tough upbringing by dreaming of being rich and famous. She once fantasised about finding the cure for polio.
“I was really pissed off when Salk beat me to it. I really was” she said later.
She met Sonny Bono when she was sixteen, and he was twenty seven. He was more interested in her next door neighbour and moved close by. Cher found this older man hugely exciting, and saw an opportunity to be independent of her mother.
Sonny had all the romance of an air conditioning unit – Cher moved in after he told her he didn’t find her attractive but if she cooked and cleaned for him she could stay.
Which you have to admire as one of the least appealing chat up lines ever. It doesn’t say much about Cher’s sense of self-worth at the time to note that she accepted…
Sonny Bono was looking for a career in the music industry, had written “She Said Yeah” for Larry Williams (a song the Rolling Stones later covered) and soon found himself working for the renowned humanitarian Phil Spector. Bono learned a lot from Spector, not least about how to treat wives who sang pop songs. With the benefit of hindsight, and from a pop-song-singing-wife’s perspective, if there is one person you don’t want your husband to be taking relationship advice from, it’s Phil Spector.
One day, Spector asked Cher to sing backing vocals on a song and noted her lower register, which added a solid brick to that famed wall of sound.
The song was by The Crystals and was called Da Do Ron Ron. It was a massive hit, and suddenly Cher was singing backing vocals on all the Ronettes singles. Two months later Sonny wrote “Needles and Pins” for Jackie DeShannon (and later The Searchers, Tom Petty, The Ramones) and they were up and running.
Cher’s first record, in February 1964, was a tribute to the best drummer in The Beatles, “Ringo I Love You” and recorded under the name of Bonnie Jo Mason. Cher’s low voice confused people, who wondered whether it was a man’s voice serenading Ringo. The song flopped. Sonny suspected Spector of deliberate sabotage, and the two men parted ways.
What happened next is unusual: Cher signed to two different record companies. Sonny sorted all the paperwork.
She signed with Imperial records to record solo material, and Atlantic Records as a duo with Sonny.
Cher’s five solo albums on Imperial have much to recommend them. All cover versions, the song selections – often folk tunes – are impeccable and Cher’s voice suits the Dylan covers in particular.
The real success, however, came with the Sonny and Cher records, and “I Got You Babe” in particular, which went to the top of the US charts. By the end of 1965 Sonny and Cher had five top twenty hits. In 1966 another Sonny Bono composition, “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down) was Cher’s first solo hit record, reaching number two, and in 1967 Sonny wrote another classic, “The Beat Goes On”.
Yet even success failed to win them respect, either when singing in front of royalty, or when their unusual dress still got them refused tables at restaurants: Sonny’s solo hit “Laugh At Me” was written after they were asked to leave Martoni’s restaurant in LA on the grounds of their hippie-like appearance. It sold 700,000 copies, and Sonny pointedly sent one of those to the restaurant manager.
But by 1968 Cher was 22 and her career appeared over. Four dud singles and two flop movies, Good Times and Chastity had seen to that.
So Cher decided to make her first album not produced by Sonny, gradually finding her independence.
The album title was “3614 Jackson Highway”.
If that sounds familiar, that’s because this is the address of the Muscle Shoals recording studio in Sheffield, Alabama.
As an aside, The Black Keys recently posted a ten year old photo of themselves on Instagram standing outside the former coffin showroom.
It’s where they recorded ten tracks for their Grammy nominated album “Brothers”.
The scene in the photograph taken forty years earlier for the cover of Cher’s album shows 3614 Jackson Highway remarkably unchanged, right down to the curtains inside.
Cher’s album photo captures the producer Jerry Wexler (who produced Aretha Franklin) and the Muscle Shoals house band, horn section and backing singers, plus Sonny.
“3614 Jackson Highway” was a terrific album – effectively Cher’s equivalent of “Dusty in Memphis”, with a move from pure pop to more earthy Southern soul sounds, and deserved to be a hit.
Sadly, as with many things in Cher’s life at that time, it didn’t go so well from a commercial perspective. The LP, and the singles from it, failed to make the top 100. By the end of the year Cher faced a huge tax bill and possible ruin. Her childhood struggles and financial worries had yet to recede.
But Sonny and Cher were nothing if not determined and hard working. They developed a nightclub comedy routine, the two of them trading witty barbs, and this was picked up for a TV show, which became a huge success just as the song “Gypsys, Tramps and Thieves” (again, not produced by Bono) became a big hit.
As Cher’s success grew, so did a further desire for independence from Sonny Bono. Her instinct was right. Just how one-sided the relationship had become was revealed during a very public divorce in 1974. It turned out Cher was an employee of a company called Cher Enterprises, which Sonny Bono owned. As an employee, she was entitled to three weeks holiday a year. Cher had trusted Sonny with her business affairs and didn’t even own a fair share of the company that collected their joint earnings.
Sonny denied he treated her badly, and Cher sued, claiming involuntary servitude. Revealingly he said “the shock to men in divorce is to find out that you don’t own what you thought you owned”.
In the end, Sonny Bono, along with Cher’s own talent and determination may have made Cher a star, but he never treated her as an equal. And it was that struggle for equality in an overwhelmingly male-dominated music industry and society, even more than the poverty and the tough childhood that has driven Cher and her career. Or as Cher put it some time later, “this business is tough…if you’re a woman… it’s harder…because women aren’t supposed to stand up for what they want. If you’re nice you’ll get your ass walked all over; if you stand up for something you’re a bitch.”
“3614 Jackson Highway” was Cher’s first big step towards independence, her first album without Sonny. We hear a more confident voice than in those earlier recordings, and in songs like “I Walk On Guilded Splinters” some of the best recordings of her career.
Recommended records by Cher:
- 3614 Jackson Highway – solo LP on the Atco label
- All I Really Want To Do – solo LP on Imperial
- The Beat Goes On – single, Sonny and Cher
- You’d Better Sit Down Kids – solo single
- Further reading: Cher The Unauthorised Biography by J Randy Taraborrelli