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Cher (originally, Sarkisian, Cherilyn)

Cher (originally, Sarkisian, Cherilyn)

Cher (originally, Sarkisian, Cherilyn), pop culture triple-threat with award-winning records, films, and TV shows; b. El Centro, Calif., May 20, 1946. The first 17 years of Cher’s life were tough. Her mother was a model and actress, her father a truck driver who left the family when Cher was a few months old (Cher’s mother remarried him twice). When she was young, Cher was placed in a Catholic home until her mother could support her. In her teens, she ran away from home and met aspiring music mogul Sonny (real name, Salvatore) Bono (b. Detroit, Feb. 16, 1935) in a coffee shop in 1963.

Bono worked as a general assistant to wall-of-sound producer Phil Spector. Bono got Cher work as a backing vocalist on sessions for the Ronettes and the Crystals (both Sonny and Cher can be heard in the background on “Da Do Ron Ron”). By 1964 Cher and Bono had married. Spector produced her first record that year, “Ringo, I Love You,” released under the nom de disc of “Bonnie Jo Mason.” She and Bono then cut a couple of unsuccessful sides as Caesar & Cleo before opting for the more straightforward Sonny and Cher in 1965.

That year Cher was signed as a solo artist to Imperial as Cherilyn. Sonny put her into the studio, where they cut “Baby Don’t Go.” Spector offered Bono $500 for it, so Bono figured it was good and started shopping it. He and Cher landed at Atlantic’s offshoot label, Ateo. Their meteor started to take off with their single “I Got You Babe.” It went gold and topped the charts for three weeks in August 1965, their only chart topper together. At the same time, Cher’s cover of Dylan’s “All I Really Want to Do” rose to #15 for Imperial. More hits followed over the next three months: “Laugh at Me” (Sonny, solo, #10), “Where Do You Go” (Cher, solo, #25), “Baby Don’t Go” (#8), “Just You” (#20), and “But You’re Mine” (#15). They were also featured in one of the infamous beach movies of the day, Wild on the Beach. With their proto-hippy clothes and image, they established a visual presence to go with their musical mien.

As summer turned to winter, Sonny and Cher’s fortunes cooled off with the weather. Their next single, “What Now My Love” only reached #14. After eight months, “Little Man” only hit #21. Cher’s solo career fared a little better, landing her first major solo hit with Sonny’s “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” got as high as #2. Her version of “Alfie” stalled at 32. In January 1967 the duo landed one more major hit, “The Beat Goes On,” which got as high as #7. Cher also hit with “You Better Sit Down Kids.” The tune, dealing frankly with divorce, hit #9. After that, Sonny and Cher’s pop careers started to ebb. They played themselves in William Friedkin’s minor 1967 film Good Times. Sonny then tried his hand at filmmaking, hoping to launch Cher as a major movie star with Chastity in 1969. The film stiffed, costing the duo a good portion of their savings.

The duo put together a nightclub act and settled in Vegas. The act, featuring music and a wise-cracking Cher to Sonny’s straight man, launched them into their next career as the stars of their own TV variety show. The show ran from 1971 to 1974 (although they divorced in 1973). In addition to elevating Sonny and Cher to major celebrities, it revived their recording careers. “All I Ever Need is You” rose to #7 in the fall of 1971, topping the Adult Contemporary charts. At around the same time, Cher topped the charts with her gold single “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves.” Early in 1972, the duo’s “A Cowboy’s Work is Never Done” (#8) competed with Cher’s solo version of “The Way of Love” (#7). She followed that with “Living in a House Divided” (#22), which was followed by the last Sonny and Cher hit, a rewrite of a Budweiser beer commercial “When You Say Love” (#32).

The show also elevated Cher as a fashion plate and sex symbol. Thanks to her love of often-outrageous costumes (many designed by Bob Mackie), she became a regular winner of the annual “Worst Dressed” awards given by various journalists and magazines. Nonetheless, the tackier (and more revealing) the outfit, the more her fans seemed to enjoy it.

After their marriage dissolved, Cher took the TV show solo for a year. In the meantime, she continued to have hit records. “Half Breed” topped the charts for a week in the summer of 1973, followed by another chart topper, “Dark Lady” in the winter of 1974. Both went gold. In the spring of 1974, she returned to the chart with “Train of Thought” which only rose to #27. In 1975 she started an on-again, off-again relationship with Allman Brothers’ keyboard player Gregg Allman. Their first marriage lasted a grand total of nine days, after which they reconciled, divorcing in 1977. The marriage produced one album, Two the Hard Way: Allman and Woman and a son, Elijah Blue, who leads the band Deadsy.

Cher’s solo TV show didn’t work out as well as the solo recording career, so Sonny was brought back for the 1976–77 TV series, but the spark was out of the relationship and it showed. Sonny started dabbling in acting, appearing on celebrity driven television shows like The Love Boat and Fantasy Island, before trying his hand as a restauranteur and moving into politics.

Cher moved to N.Y. After a gold disco record, “Take Me Home” (#8, 1979) and singing background for Meatloaf’s “Dead Ringer for Love,” she decided to try her hand at acting, too. Eventually she landed a role in the off-Broadway play Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean in 1981. When the play became a film a year later, Cher reprised her role. That led to a role in the movie Silkwood opposite Meryl Streep, which earned her an Oscar nomination. Her music career took a back seat to her burgeoning film career, which included lead roles in Mask, The Witches of Eastwick, Suspect, Mermaids, and an Oscar-winning turn in the 1987 romantic comedy Moonstruck.

Capitalizing on her fame from Moonstruck and her relationship with David Geffen, Cher started recording again in 1988, hitting #10 with “I Found Someone.” This was followed by the #14 “We All Sleep Alone,” produced by Jon Bon Jovi. The following year, she had three Top Ten hits, the gold-selling #6 duet with Peter Cetera “After All,” the gold #3 “If I Could Turn Back Time,” and the #8 “Just Like Jesse James.” “If I Could Turn Back Time” also raised eyebrows thanks to Cher’s live concert video, featuring one of her scantiest-ever costumes, filmed before a crowd of girl-crazy sailors.

Cher’s career slowed following her late 1980s hits. She had but one hit in 1990, the #20 “Heart of Stone/’ Early in the following year, she hit #33 with a cover of ’The Shoop Shoop Song (It’s in His Kiss)” that was featured in Mermaids, followed at about six-month intervals by “Love and Understanding” (#17) and “Save Up All Your Tears” (#37). With her recording and film career experiencing a slowdown, Cher made exercise videos, which she pitched during a series of infomer-cials. She also became a spokesperson for various products and services, and did cameos in a couple of Robert Altman films.

By the mid–1990s, Cher’s career seemed to have gone into a terminal tailspin. In 1996, Cher filmed Faithless, which got panned, directed and starred in an episode of HBO’s abortion anthology, If These Walls Could Talk, and released her first recording in five years, It’s a Man’s World.

In 1998 Sonny (by then Sen. Salvatore Bono of Calif.) died in a skiing accident. Cher delivered a tearful eulogy, which some found to be in poor taste, and produced and hosted a special for CBS called “Sonny and Me: Cher Remembers.” Then, like the proverbial phoenix, Cher scored an unexpected major success with her 1999 disco-revival album, Believe. The album went double platinum on the strength of the platinum title track, relaunching her career. She began a successful tour, with many lavish costume changes, that was broadcast live from Las Vegas over HBO.

Her 1999 success made Cher the first female singer to enjoy #1 pop hits in all four decades from the 1960s to the 1990s. One of the world’s most beloved entertainers, Cher seems virtually unstoppable.

Discography

All I Really Want to Do (1965); Cher (1966); The Sonny Side of Cher (1966); Backstage (1968); With Love, Cher (1968); 3614 Jackson Highway (1969); Cher (1971); Gypsys, Tramps & Thieves (1971); Cher Superpak, Vol. 1 (1972); Foxy Lady (1972); Half-Breed (1973); Bittersweet White Light (1974); Dark Lady (1974); Stars (1975): I’d Rather Believe in You (1976); Cherished (1977); Two the Hard Way (Allman & Woman) (1977); This Is Cher (1978); Take Me Home (1979); Prisoner (1980); I Paralyze (1982); Cher (1987); Heart of Stone (1989); Outrageous (1989); Love Hurts (1991); All I Really Want to Do/The Sonny Side...(1992); It’s a Man’s World (1996); You Better Sit Down Kids Great Hits (1996); Believe (1998).

Writings

The First Time (N.Y., 1998).

Bibliography

Lawrence J. Quirk, Totally Uninhibited: The Life and Wild Times of Cher (N.Y., 1991).

—Hank Bordowitz

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