“He had the confidence to be the butt of the joke because he created the joke.” -Cher
Wait? She’s married to that old guy? He’s so short! And his voice ain’t nothing to write home about. What’s the deal? What did she see in him? How did he get that hip? Well, he wasn’t born rich or connected, that’s for sure.
Born in Englewood California, Salvatore Phillip Bono, the youngest child of three kids, dropped out of school and worked as an assistant butcher, a waiter, and a truck driver before he got his big break at Peter Potter’s Songwriter’s Search. Even at the age of sixteen, Bono knew to stack the audience with his loud, drunken, family members. Their rowdy standing ovation clinched the win for him. He used that chutzpah to propel him forward for the rest of his days, which led to him becoming the mayor of Palm Springs later in life.
Not many people sell the first song they ever write. Sonny did that in 1952 with his song “Ecstasy”. He originally wrote it for Tony Bennet who said, “thanks, but no thanks” so Sonny turned around and sold the tune to Johnny Otis.
Sonny used his charm to weasel his way into writing for Specialty Records, run by Art Rupe, that featured all black artists like Little Richard and Sam Cook. He wrote “High School Dance” “Baby You Bug Me” , and “She Said Yeah” for Larry Williams. For Sam Cooke, he wrote “Things You Do For Me” and ”Koko Joe”, another diddy he penned back when he was just a teenager. When the Righteous Brothers covered Don and Dewy’s version of “Koko Joe,” it boosted Sonny’s star considerably.
Sonny became buddies with another songwriter, Jack Nietche, one of famed record producer Phil Spector’s songwriting lackeys. They co-wrote “Needles and Pins” the song that launched Sonny’s career. Jackie DeShannon recorded Needles and Pins first, but it was the Searcher’s cover that brought it to the number three spot on the charts. This got the attention of Nietche’s boss, Phil Spector.
“A little tear jerker written for us by Mr. Sonny Bono”-Joey Ramone
The Wall of Sound was Spector’s secret production technique that captured hits like the Crystals “And Then He Kissed Me” and the Ronettes “Da Do Ron Ron.” He later recorded the Beatles Let it Be album and the Ramones End of the Century. Spector utilized two drummers, two bass players, two organ players, four guitar players, and an army of background singers and percussionists. If the drums were too loud, he’d simply ask one of the drummers to take five. He made the musicians rehearse the tunes for hours beforehand to get them so tight they could play it without thinking and blend together like a sonic stew. Some musicians accused Spector of doing this to stop them from getting too fancy, since they would be too exhausted to overplay.
Calling Phil Spector batshit crazy would be an understatement. The guy pointed a gun at John Lennon, Leonard Cohen, Dee Dee Ramone, and many others, before finally shooting his girlfriend Lana Clarkson and spending the rest of his life behind bars for murder. He was like the Anti-Rick Rubin.
There is a famous story of Spector, a black belt, karate kicking a noisy air conditioning unit right out of a ceiling. He also made his wife, Ronnie Spector, drive around with a cardboard cut-out of him when she drove alone.
Sonny Bono started out a gofer and worked his way up to being Spector’s right hand man. He pitched-in on background vocals as needed. With his endless charm and razor wit, Sonny was the perfect go between for the producer and the talent.
Oh, to be a fly on the wall:
Phil says, “Sonny, tell those cretins to get it right this time or I’ll cut their eyes out and feast upon the souls of their children.”
Sonny walks over to the musicians.“Hey guys, Phil thinks it’d be really groovy if you could try another take. Is that cool with you cats?”
When Sonny met Cherilyn Sarkisian, she was a sixteen-year-old runaway hanging out in a coffee shop and he was a twenty-eight-year old married man, recently separated from his first wife, Donna Rankuin.
According to Cher, she lied about her age to him, and he was actually hitting on her friend. But then she eventually used her sob story to let her move in with him as house cleaner, with a platonic relationship. But then one thing led to another. Sonny said she “just wanted someone to protect her” and he did. (Not counting the endless affairs on his end.) For the first and last time in history, a record producer made good on his promise to make a young girl a star.
Before Cher knew it, she was singing backup on “Be My Baby”, “Da Do Ron Ron”, and “You Lost That Loving Feeling”, while hanging out with Wrecking Crew, the most recorded studio musicians in history including Carol Kane on bass and Hal Blaine on drums. This gravy train lasted until Sonny opened his big dumb mouth and told Phil that his precious Wall of Sound was “getting stale.”
Sonny’s first attempt at producing his wife was a love song about another guy named Richard Starkley. Her song “Ringo, I Love You, (YEAH! YEAH! YEAH!)” was a flop, performed under the name Bonnie Jo Mason. Tracks like this one are why pseudonyms exist.
But then they had their first hit with “I Got You, Babe”, which eventually got them their own television show, “The Sonny and Cher Show.” And the beat goes on.