By the end of the 70s in the United States one of the worst things someone could call you was “a Sonny without a Cher.”
Words by Raquel Fernández Sobrín
When Cherilyn Sarkisian LaPierre and Salvatore Phillip Bono first met at a café in Los Angeles in 1962, she was 16 and he was 27. She wanted to be a movie star and he wanted to make it big in show business. Nobody imagined that Cher would become the star and Sonny, after his unsuccessful career as a solo artist, a U.S. Congressman from Palm Springs. During their eleven years together, they were more than just husband and wife; much more than an artistic couple.
As strange it may seem, after that first meeting Cher became a housekeeper, in charge of the chores at Sonny’s home. Closeness turned into affection. They spent a lot of time together but sometimes a lot is not enough, so he decided to make her dreams come true and began bringing her along with him to work, where he insisted on making Phil Spector see in Cher what he saw in her. The producer resisted and gave her chorus roles for songs like “Be My Baby” by the Ronettes.
In 1964 they exchanged “I dos” and named themselves Caesar & Cleo. Although he planned to launch a solo career for Cher, she suffered from incredible stage fright. A year after that they finally tasted the sweetness of success and by then they were already called Sonny & Cher. They sang “I Got You Babe” looking at each other rather shyly from time to time. The song climbed to number one on the Billboard Top 100, and the world surrendered to the couple’s charm. The theme has been considered one of the most important moments of the ‘60s, yet the performer’s appearance was also key to its success. They made fringes and fur vests popular and dazzled the world with their ability to match patterns. However, at the end of the decade of free love, fashion was no longer enough. They were never into drugs and publicly led a traditional and monogamous life. Note the word “publicly”, because Cher was already aware of Sonny’s numerous infidelities.
After having their daughter Chastity in 1969 (who underwent a sex change at age 41 and is now known as Chaz), they got legally married. But things weren’t going well at work, nor at home. They lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in different projects and eventually mortgaged off their house. They did shows at unimpressive clubs and their arguments flourished on stage.
Those conflicts grabbed people’s attention and the couple began receiving invitations from TV programs. It was on the small screen where they shone again. The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour received 12 Emmy award nominations while it aired from 1971 to 1974. By the time the show went off the air, the couple had already been separated for two years. Their differences, Sonny’s infidelities, and the constant mix of their personal and professional lives became unbearable. Cher later admitted that she regretted having married Sonny and that he overdid it in his role as Svengali. But all failed love stories have two sides, and Sonny answered at great length in 1991, stating that, to his memory, dealing with her—and her character and insecurities—was no easy task.
“I thought I’d never climb out of that hole,” she told USA Today. “I had no money, and I had to pay him $2 million. It took a long time… My managers were making more money than I was.” Both had to start from scratch but only Cher achieved success as a solo artist. Sonny continued on TV without making it big and she got her own program on a competing channel that was huge in terms of audience numbers. It wasn’t long until Sonny’s show got cancelled, and Cher’s rising success in the music business was also making Sonny’s failures more evident. By the end of the 70s in the United States one of the worst things someone could call you was “a Sonny without a Cher.”
Despite their apparently irreconcilable differences, they eventually smoothed things over. They got on stage together again in 1987 in an improvised performance for the David Letterman Show, which turned out to be Sonny’s last musical experience. He tried the food business but his restaurant in Palm Springs was not profitable either.
The experience, however, did encourage him to participate in politics. He became the city’s mayor and later a U.S. congressman. Meanwhile, Cher was enjoying her success (and a few failures) in music and cinema, eventually awarded with two Golden Globes and an Oscar.
Sonny died in a terrible ski accident in 1998, the same year that Cher entered The Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest woman to make it onto the Billboard list with her album Believe, which, by the way, included a dedication to “Son.” She was 52. The National Enquirer published once that she managed to talk to Sonny through a medium. “People love you and you’ve been hiding from them. Time’s wasting, Kiddo – get out there and show ‘em what you’ve got”. For her the beat definitely went on.