Obituary: Sonny Bono
Wednesday 07 January 1998
Although Sonny Bono became a well-known Republican politician in the 1980s, he is best remembered as part of the hippie duo that he formed with his wife Cher and for their transatlantic 1965 chart-topper "I Got You Babe".
Sonny Bono's story is typical of the American dream - he was born Salvatore Bono in 1935 into a poor family of Sicilian immigrants in Detroit. The family moved to Inglewood, California, when he was seven and from an early age he set his sights on the film and music industry in Hollywood. He wrote his first song, "Ko Ko Jo", while working at a grocery store: its title came from a brand of cookies and it was subsequently recorded by the Righteous Brothers.
In 1957 he began working for the independent record label Speciality, where part of his job was as chauffeur to Little Richard. Bono wrote two frenzied rock 'n' roll songs, "She Said Yeah", which was later recorded by the Rolling Stones, and "You Bug Me Baby", which was the B-side of Larry Wiliams's rock 'n' roll classic "Bony Moronie".
By the early Sixties, Bono was hiring musicians and promoting records for the legendary producer Phil Spector. Bono brought his girlfriend, Cherilyn Sarkisian LaPierre, known as Cher, to the sessions and they sang backing vocals on "Da Doo Ron Ron", "Be My Baby" and Spector's famed album A Christmas Gift to You (1963). Cher said of Sonny, "He was kinda ugly and short and strange-looking, but there was something about him."
Sonny and Cher were married in 1963 - it was his second marriage - and, using their own money, released "Baby Don't Go", as Caesar and Cleo. It later became a Top Ten record in the wake of "I Got You Babe". Sonny's best song, "Needles and Pins", written with Spector's arranger, Jack Nitzshe, became a No 1 for the the Searchers in 1964.
Sonny and Cher's manager hired out props for Hollywood productions, which prompted them to experiment with their own clothing. Spurred by the folk- rock boom, Sonny wrote "I Got You Babe", which became a hit in 1965, and they played the part of loving, rebellious, teenage hippies. Sonny's first marriage and true age of 30 were never mentioned.
The tall Cher and short Sonny stole the headlines wherever they went. When they came to the UK later that year, Sonny wore a fur jerkin, an oversized shirt, and striped pants with Eskimo boots; at the time, the Beatles were still wearing suits. Sonny and Cher's UK publicist, Larry Page, recalls, "I arranged for them to be thrown out of the Dorchester Hotel and they then pitched a wigwam on Hyde Park. It was excellent publicity."
Their follow-up, "But You're Mine", also made the Top Twenty and has arguably the worst B-side of all time, "Hello", in which Sonny and Cher do nothing but say hello to their fans. They had another Top Twenty hit with Gilbert Becaud's "Et Maintenant", now called "What Now My Love", but the song's nuances were beyond Sonny's vocal ability. They recorded a best-selling album, Look At Us (1965) and made a film, Good Times (1966).
Sonny and Cher also had solo hits. Sonny produced Cher's hit records "All I Really Want To Do" and "Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)", the latter, written by Sonny, was also recorded by Frank Sinatra. On his own, Sonny recorded the risible though successful "Laugh at Me", while the resulting album, Inner Voices, was rejected by even their staunchest fans.
In 1966 Sonny and Cher returned to the Top Ten with "Little Man" but "The Beat Goes On", which is now regarded as a classic Sixties single, only made No 29 in the UK. In 1968 Sonny invested their money into an unwatchable film, Chastity, also the name of their daughter. They lost the money, but Sonny tried to shield Cher from the disaster by buying her expensive presents with loans. By the time she finally discovered what was happening, their financial position was even more precarious.
The couple reinvented themselves to suit the Las Vegas showrooms. Instead of loving sweet talk, they had argumentative banter between songs, and the audiences loved it. CBS television gave them a primetime slot for The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour (1971-74) and they returned to the charts - Cher with "Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves" and Sonny and Cher with "All I Ever Need is You" and "A Cowboy's Work is Never Done". Once again, they blew it by releasing dross, this time the two-part single, "Mama Was a Rock and Roll Singer - Papa Used to Write All her Songs".
Sonny and Cher's marriage split up in 1974 (Cher later had a much-publicised nine-day marriage with Gregg Allman), but they continued to work together until 1977, the year that Smokie took "Needles and Pins" back into the Top Ten.
Sonny Bono took occasional acting roles, appearing in episodes of the television series Fantasy Island and The Love Boat, as well as the 1988 film Hairspray. He opened an Italian restaurant in 1982 and, when his expansion plans were nixed, moved into politics. He was the mayor of Palm Springs from 1988 to 1992 and was elected to Congress in 1994.
In 1985 "I Got You Babe" was a No 1 for Chrissie Hynde with UB40. In 1994, Cher, by then an Oscar-winning film star, made the charts via a new version with the cartoon characters Beavis and Butt-Head. The original Sixties version was a key song in the 1993 film Groundhog Day.
Bono was a popular politician - Newt Gingrich asked him to sing "I Got You Babe" in the Senate - and was planning to fight for re-election.
- Spencer Leigh
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