Sonny Bono ranked as one of pop-rock's most visible and famous musician/producers of the mid- to late '60s; and in the '70s, he was one of the very few successful musical-variety personalities on American television. His work and career straddled the eras of Brill Building pop, the British Invasion, and folk-rock, right through to 1970s pop. His talent and keen sense of where popular culture was heading sent him and his partner and wife Cher into the birth of the counterculture and through to a post-rock career in Las Vegas and onto television. And, in a final, ironic act of reinvention, Sonny Bono became one of the symbols of the 1994 republican revolution in Congress and an exponent of right wing politics.
Salvatore Bono was born to an impoverished family of Sicilian immigrants in Detroit. Sonny Bono, as he came to be known, was a poor student and left high school well before graduating in order to earn a living. He survived by waiting tables, working in construction and as a butcher's assistant, and driving a truck, and he eventually moved west to Los Angeles. He also began writing songs in his spare time, as he sought a way into the entertainment industry. His entrée came through Art Rupe's Specialty Records, where he was hired in the late '50s by the promotion department, and where he worked with Little Richard, Larry Williams, Don & Dewey, and, briefly, Sam Cooke, among others.
During the early '60s, he began hanging around Gold Star Studios, where wunderkind producer Phil Spector was holding forth. Bono became a protégé of Spector, learning the business of making records from the ground up, and also refining and developing his approach to songwriting. He'd initially found success with the generic "High School Dance," which was recorded by Larry Williams as the B-side to "Short Fat Fanny," and soon grabbed a chunk of the British Invasion action with "Needles and Pins," which he co-authored with fellow Spector protégé Jack Nitzsche. The latter song was first recorded in 1963 by Jackie DeShannon, whose rendition was heard by Cliff Bennett & the Rebel Rousers, a British band that had yet to score their first hit, who added it to their stage repertory at the Star-Club in Hamburg, where it was heard by the Searchers, who were looking for a potential third single. The Searchers, in turn, completely reinvented the song from the ground up, with a version that hit number one in England and made the Top 20 in America -- in the process, they also came up with a riff and a sound that became the blueprint for the folk-rock boom initiated by the Byrds in 1965. Bono, in the meantime, had made the acquaintance of Cherilyn LaPierre, 11 years his junior, and brought her to Gold Star as a session singer. His first marriage, to Donna Rankin, ended in divorce soon after Bono's meeting LaPierre.
The two were attracted to each other, both personally and professionally -- they both loved music end enjoyed figuring out how to make music work, technically and commercially, and they began recording together, initially as Caesar and Cleo in 1963 with "The Letter," a song that Bono had previously promoted in a recorded version by Don & Dewey. That single flopped, but they kept trying with his protégée as a solo (credited as Bonnie Jo Mason and later as Cher) with the Liberty Records' imprint Imperial Records (with Bono producing) and as a duo, Sonny & Cher. Bono struck gold as a songwriter in 1965 with "I Got You Babe," and for the next three years, he and the duo were riding high. What's more, Sonny Bono, for the first of many times, invented a public persona for himself that made him into a media star -- the diminutive composer/producer/singer, already past 30, started sporting fur vests, boots, and hair nearly down to his shoulders, transforming himself into the prototypal hippie, in media terms. That image, in turn, slotted in perfectly next to Cher, who was tall, dark, and mysterious, with hair that might've made Rapunzel give a second look. They were the quintessential young '60s couple, youthful enough (despite Bono's age) to resonate with teenagers, and they were on the cutting edge of pop/rock. The same year that Bono's own "I Got You Babe" became a 1960s theme song, he proved that he could even get ahead of the curve in the field of folk-rock as a producer -- Sonny & Cher had heard the Byrds do an electric version of Bob Dylan's "All I Really Want to Do" at a club, and with Bono producing, had cut a version with Cher singing; her version outsold and eclipsed the Byrds' own rendition and also pushed Dylan, as a songwriter, further into the public spotlight than he already was. Over the next two-and-a-half years, the couple thrived professionally and Bono blossomed as a songwriter. Beyond pop hits like "I Got You Babe," he also generated songs on what were then considered difficult subjects, such as teenage pregnancy and divorce. Another Bono song, "Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)," became a million-seller as well, and he seemed to have the world at his feet. By 1967, Sonny Bono was a rival to such producer/composer/musicians as John Phillips and Phil Spector -- both of whom, like Bono, had become star producers in tandem with the talents and attributes of their wives -- and was more visible than either of them. The sound on Sonny & Cher's records was distinct, with unusual (and memorable) instrumentation and timbres that made them stand out on the radio, and when the material itself clicked, it stuck. When it didn't, however, the public tended to be oblivious -- at the height of Sonny & Cher's career, for example, he cut a solo album, Inner Views, that disappeared without a trace of its passing. In 1967, however, Sonny & Cher could do little wrong, at least when the year started. The year 1967 was when things started unraveling for Sonny Bono.
The duo was popular enough to generate interest from movie studios. Bono wrote their debut feature, Good Times, a fast-paced, knowing satire that also marked the directorial debut of William Friedkin and is regarded today as a delightful, daringly ambitious piece of popular '60s cinema. During the 1960s, however, it was a box office disaster. More troubling were the events surrounding the shift of Cher's contract from Liberty to Atlantic Records late in the same year. Atlantic's management had always resented the fact that Bono had brought Cher to Liberty as a solo artist and had produced her records there; once she was on Atlantic, the latter label refused to let Sonny Bono produce her new records. At the same time, the duo's record sales had dropped considerably as psychedelia succeeded folk-rock and pop/rock as the focus of popular culture. Sonny & Cher seemed outmoded in the new, druggy musical environment, and suddenly, Sonny Bono seemed behind-the-curve for the first time in his music career. The presentation of a bill from the Internal Revenue Service for over 200,000 dollars in unpaid taxes left the duo, by now with a child and married, nearly broke as the decade closed.
Rescue of his career came when he and Cher played Las Vegas, initially as an opening act. They landed a contract with Decca Records and a chance at a variety show on CBS, and by 1972, they were back as television stars and top entertainers. For the second time, Sonny Bono reinvented himself -- now Sonny & Cher were a modern version of George Burns and Gracie Allen, with Bono as the straight man -- gone were the fur vests and boots, instead he was a diminutive foil to Cher's sexually provocative comedienne. And the music wasn't pop/rock anymore, but mainstream pop, aimed as much at parents as teenagers, and Bono wasn't writing or producing it. From 1972 onward, it was Cher's voice that was the focus of the duo's work and her solo career the main thrust of most of the recording that went on around the couple. Their on-screen chemistry hid the fact that their marriage was coming apart; by 1974, however, their split had become public knowledge and with it the end of their television show.
It was Cher who came out of the split with the entertainment career. His attempt at a television variety show was a dismal failure, and by the end of the decade, Bono had ceased working as an entertainer, and he next emerged before the public in 1988, in a totally unexpected way. Bono by then was the owner of an Italian restaurant in Palm Springs, CA, and was infuriated by the tangle of permits that he found he'd needed from the city while trying to put a new sign up on his establishment. As a result, he ran for mayor and won. He served a four-year term and then, in 1992, decided to run for the United States Senate as a Republican. Bono lost that race but two years later was swept into office as a congressman from the 44th district in California. He became part of Newt Gingrich's Republican revolution in Congress and was highly visible in espousing conservative positions on crime and environmental legislation, as well as (understandably) entertainment law.
He seemed destined for a serious career in politics when he died in a skiing accident early in 1998. During the final 15 years of his life, Bono was far removed from music, apart from handling business affairs relating to his and Cher's work in the 1960s and 1970s; this, coupled with his somewhat comically nebbish-like image during the couple's early-'70s re-emergence, combined with his newly public conservative political career, led to some derision of him among pundits and in modern entertainment circles. His death, by contrast, led to a media feeding-frenzy that was as ludicrous in its intensity as the earlier denigration of his work had been. During the year 2000, reflecting the restored interest in Bono's music career, Rhino Records released a CD of Inner Views through its esoteric Rhino-Handmade imprint. ~ Bruce Eder