Bands like The Beatles and The Byrds were on the cutting edge of the rise of the hippy movement, but Sonny & Cher’s I Got You Babe was a very mainstream anthem for the ‘love generation’. Although Cher has hit number 1 several times during her subsequent solo career, this was the duo’s sole chart-topper together.
Salvatore Bono was born 16 February 1935 in Detroit to Italian parents. His mother gave him the nickname ‘Sonny’ that remained for the rest of his life. At the age of seven his family moved to Inglewood, California. He attended high school there, but dropped out to concentrate on music. While trying to break into the business he tried various jobs, including being a waiter and a butcher’s helper. He began his music career at Speciality Records, where he wrote Things You Do to Me for Sam Cooke. By the early 60s Bono found himself working for Phil Spector as a promotion man, percussionist and gofer at Gold Star Studios in Hollywood. In November 1962 he met 16-year-old Cherilynn Sarkisian in an LA coffee shop.
Sarkisian had been born on 20 May 1946 in El Centro, California. Her father John was a half-Armenian, half-American truck driver with drink and gambling problems, and her mother Jackie Crouch was an occasional model and actress with Irish, English, German and Cherokee ancestry. Their relationship was stormy and they divorced when Cherilynn was only 10 months old. Crouch changed her name to Georgia Holt and had several more rocky marriages and divorces while moving her family around the country. They were so poor, Cherilynn’s shoes were held together with rubber bands at one point. By the time she was nine she had devloped an unusually low voice and a love of showbusiness. She fell in love with Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) and began developing an outrageous persona.
At 16 she dropped out of school, left home and moved to Los Angeles with a friend, and that’s where she met 27-year-old Sonny Bono. They quickly bonded, and Bono introduced her to Spector, who let her become a backing singer on several important records, including The Ronettes’ Be My Baby (and just before hitting the big time, The Righteous Brothers’ You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’). Bono got a taste of success in 1963 when he co-wrote Needles and Pins with Jack Nitzsche, which became a UK number 1 for The Searchers in 1964. Also that year, Spector produced her first single, Ringo, I Love You under the name Bonnie Jo Mason. The Beatlemania cash-in flopped.
Bono and Sarkisian became lovers, and wed unofficially in a hotel room in Tijuana, Mexico later in 1964. Bono wanted her to be a solo star but she suffered stage fright and encouraged him to perform too. They became Caesar & Cleo, but three singles bombed. At the same time, he produced some solo singles for her. The second, released in 1965, was a cover of Bob Dylan’s All I Really Want to Do, and it faced a chart battle with a version by The Byrds. It did well in the US, and by the time of her first solo album she was known as Cher. As a duo, they became Sonny & Cher and worked on their debut album, Look at Us. Among the material was Bono’s upbeat answer to Dylan’s break-up song It Ain’t Me Babe. Members of session musician legends The Wrecking Crew were assembled to provide the backing.
Sonically, the duo’s time working with Spector was clearly an influence on the production of I Got You Babe. It’s a less lavish version of his Wall of Sound, but similar in dynamics with the way it builds to what seems a climax, before falling back on itself. Sonny & Cher are no Righteous Brothers, though. That might be harsh on Cher, who we all know has a powerful set of lungs, but Bono’s fooling nobody with his ‘poor man’s Dylan’ vocals. However, he serves his purpose and gives the song an everyman appeal. It’s easy to see how they charmed audiences, and I Got You Babe is very hard to dislike. A lot of that is down to that hook throughout the song, but what exactly is it? After researching, I still don’t know, but it seems it’s either an ocarina or an oboe. So, at least I’ve narrowed it down to ‘something probably beginning with o’.
This simplistic take on flower power made Sonny & Cher huge stars in the UK. It was The Rolling Stones who suggested they come here, noting that, at the time, being stars in Britain first would give them a better chance in America. Their colourful, proto-hippy outfits turned heads on these shores.
Further hits for the duo and Cher alone followed, including The Beat Goes On for the former and Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down) for the latter. But despite their bell-bottoms and fluffy vests, they began to look rather square by the end of the 60s. Cher loved the heavier sound of bands like Led Zeppelin, but Sonny was having none of it. Their relationship suffered but they officially married in 1969 after she gave birth to their daughter Chastity.
The duo moved into TV in 1971 and The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour was a hit for three years. They ran into relationship difficulties in 1972 but kept up appearances until they divorced in 1975. Despite reuniting for TV series The Sonny & Cher Show, the duo were effectively no more, certainly musically, as Cher carried on as a solo artist. Sonny Bono went into acting, including appearances in Airplane II: The Sequel (1982) and Hairspray (1988). They performed for the last time on Late Night with David Letterman in 1987, where they sang I Got You Babe.
As Cher became a huge star once more, Bono moved into politics after becoming frustrated with the red tape involved in opening a restaurant in Palm Springs, California. He served four years as their mayor, before running for the United States Senate. He was eventually elected to the House of Representatives in 1994 and managed to get a copywright extension law named after him. At some point, he also became a scientologist, but according to his last wife Mary, he tried to break away but they made life difficult for him. The Church denies this.
Bono was killed on 5 January in 1998 when he hit a tree while skiing in California. Although Cher had proved she could be a superstar without him, and there may have still been some ill feeling between the duo over the years, she performed a eulogy at his funeral. Despite Cher’s fame, the baby boomers will always associate her with I Got You Babe. The epitaph on Sonny Bono’s headstone reads ‘AND THE BEAT GOES ON’.
And I Got You Babe goes on too. 20 years after first hitting the top, it went to number 1 in 1985. UB40 recorded it with Chrissie Hynde, and my God, was it dull. The original, memorable enough as it was, became forever immortalised in the romantic comedy Groundhog Day (1993), as the first thing weatherman Phil Connors hears every morning for years on end. He should have been grateful it wasn’t UB40’s version.
Written & produced by: Sonny Bono
Weeks at number 1: 2 (26 August-8 September)
Boxer Lennox Lewis – 2 September
Speaker of the House of Commons Harry Hylton-Foster – 2 September