Born Salvatore Phillip Bono, 16 February 1935, Detroit, Michigan
Producer / arranger / singer-entertainer / songwriter / actor / politician
The son of Sicilian immigrants, Sonny Bono moved from Detroit to the West Coast (Inglewood, California) in 1942, with his family. Driven by boundless energy and a strong ambition to succeed in the music business, Sonny sold his first songs while driving a meat truck in the mid-fifties. At the beginning of 1957, Art Rupe of Specialty Records hired Bono to run Specialty's Los Angeles office, after Harold Battiste went to New Orleans to open a Specialty office there. Sonny convinced Rupe that he was also a songwriter and he managed to place two of his songs, "High School Dance" and "You Bug Me Baby", on the flip-sides of Larry Williams's hits "Short Fat Fannie" and "Bony Moronie". Soon afterwards Bono was awarded an A&R position and he produced or co-produced many Specialty acts, including Larry Williams, Don and Dewey, Art Neville, Roddy Jackson and Wynona Carr. His best rock 'n' roll composition is undoubtedly "Koko Joe", recorded by Don and Dewey in 1958, with "She Said Yeah" (for Larry Williams) as a close second.
In 1959 Bono recorded a single of his own, under the pseudonym Don Christy ("Wearing Black"/"One Little Answer", Specialty 672). It was Sonny's idea to overdub a dreadful female chorus (the Stewart Sisters) on the LP "The Fabulous Little Richard", an album of Richard's Specialty leftovers, issued in March 1959. By that time, Art Rupe had become disenchanted with the record business and soon the label was wound down. Specialty would lay dormant until 1964.
Bono was down on his luck and for a few weeks he slept on the couch in the apartment of his friend Jack Nitzsche and his wife Gracia. Bono and Nitzsche wrote many songs together, the most successful being "Needles And Pins", first a modest hit for Jackie DeShannon in 1963, then a big hit (especially in the UK) for the Searchers in 1964. When Nitzsche started working as Phil Spector's arranger in 1962, Bono was desperate to join him. Eventually Spector took Sonny on as a West Coast promotion man, but he quickly found other uses for him as an all-purpose sidekick and gofer, sometimes joining the choir of backing singers or playing percussion. In the words of Lester Sill : "Sonny had his nose up Phil's ass a mile".
After divorcing Donna Rankin in 1962, Bono found a new girlfriend in Cherilyn Sarkisian LaPierre (born 1946), better known as Cher. He brought her to Spector's sessions, but Phil wasn't interested in recording her as a solo artist (aside from one promotional single, "Ringo I Love You", released under the name Bonnie Jo Mason on Annette Records). Sonny and Cher started singing together, first for the small Vault label as Caesar and Cleo (1963), then for Reprise (1964) and eventually for Atco in 1965. Their second Atco single, "I Got You Baby", written, arranged and produced by Bono, was a # 1 hit in August 1965 (for 3 weeks), also # 1 in the UK and elsewhere. It changed their lives forever. Two struggling artists became international superstars, their eccentric, hippy style of dress copied everywhere. Sonny and Cher were all over the charts for the next three years, including a solo single by Sonny ("Laugh At Me", 1965, # 10). Even a reissue of the 1964 Reprise single "Baby Don't Go" went to # 8. Cher was signed to Imperial as a solo singer, also with great success.
Danny Davis, Spector's new promotion man, who had sacked Bono in late 1964, said : "Phil and I were really amazed when he had those hits. Sonny was not a good songwriter, not a good musician or singer, and the act was certainly all Cher. But he had fed off Phil Spector. That made it all possible."
After a few unsuccessful years, Sonny and Cher came back with a vengeance in 1971. Their TV show "The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour" was a hit and ran for three years on US networks, while Cher scored a # 1 with "Gypsies, Tramps And Thieves", followed by more big hits (produced by Snuff Garrett). The duo also returned to the Top 10 with "All I Ever Need Is You" (# 7, 1971) and "A Cowboy's Work Is Never Done" (# 8, 1972). In 1975, Sonny and Cher split, both professionally and romantically. (Their supposed marriage of 1964 was a ruse ; they were not legally married until 1969.) While Cher continued to be successful in music (and films), Sonny went on to appear in commercials, TV series and a few B-movies (like John Waters' "Hairspray"), before he embarked upon a career in politics. In 1988 he was elected mayor of Palm Springs, California, followed by an election to the US Congress (for the Republican Party) in 1994. Bono died in a skiing accident in 1998, aged 62.
More info : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sonny_Bono
Autobiography : Sonny Bono, And the Beat Goes On (New York City : Pocket Books, 1991). Out of print.
Acknowledgements : Fred Bronson, Wayne Jancik, and the biographies of Phil Spector by Mark Ribowsky ("He's A Rebel", 1989) and Mick Brown ("Tearing Down the Wall Of Sound", 2007).
Dik, December 2011
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