Off stage, Bono was a veteran of the industry

January 07, 1998|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

In 1965, not long after Sonny & Cher topped the charts with "I Got You, Babe," Sonny Bono released a solo single called "Laugh at Me."

Basically a plea for understanding, the song portrays Bono as a beleaguered hippie, badgered by straights for having long hair and crazy clothes. But rather than hate them back, Bono simply shrugs off the insults. "I don't care," he sings. "Let them laugh at me."

Years later, after Sonny & Cher had established themselves as a comic TV couple, Bono let being laughed at become the better part of his career. But he deserves better than to be remembered simply as Cher's straight man. Sonny Bono was a rock-and-roll success long before he hooked up with the teen-age Cherilyn Sarkasian LaPier in 1964 and become half of the '60s' most successful rock couple.

Bono had been in the music business since 1957, when one of his songs -- "High School Dance" -- wound up on the B-side of Larry Williams' smash, "Short Fat Fannie." Bono's song eventually charted in its own right, earning the 22-year-old an A&R (artist and repertory) job at Specialty Records, the label to which Williams was signed.

As an A&R man, Bono was responsible for everything from scouting new singers to making sure specialty artists had record-worthy material. Eventually, he was promoted to house producer and wrote more hits for Williams, as well as "Koko Joe" for the duo Don & Dewey (the tune was later covered by the Righteous Brothers).

But his biggest break came with "Needles and Pins," a song he co-wrote with Jack Nitzsche. Not only was the song a success in its own right, spawning hits for both Jackie DeShannon (1963) and the Searchers (1964), but it earned Bono access to the Phil Spector hit machine.

Spector was, at that point, the hottest young producer in America, churning out hit after hit for the Crystals, the Ronettes and Righteous Brothers. Bono became one of "Phil's Regulars," a session singer and percussionist appearing on many of the producer's hits.

He also became something of a Spector acolyte, learning how to craft a hit by watching the master at work. In particular, he was impressed by the way Spector mixed grandeur and simplicity, getting a big sound on his records while keeping the songwriting bone simple.

Bono put those lessons to good use when he and Cher (whom he married in '64) set off on a career of their own. The pair cut a few singles under the name Caesar and Cleo -- including the Spector-produced novelty "We Love You Ringo" -- but those went nowhere.

So Bono changed his approach. Instead of taking a standard rock duo approach, the newly rechristened Sonny & Cher took their cues from the burgeoning hippie movement -- and hit it big. "I Got You Babe" topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic in 1965, and the duo further established their bona fides when Cher's Sonny-produced cover of Bob Dylan's "All I Really Want To Do" went to No. 15.

Although their act seems corny by contemporary standards, their obvious sincerity, combined with Bono's status as a music scene veteran, gave the couple enormous credibility in the '60s. At the height of their success, their house was the hippest crash pad in Los Angeles; when the Rolling Stones (who had recorded Bono's "She Said Yeah" on the album "December's Children") visited L.A., they stayed chez Sonny & Cher.

It didn't last, though. When the duo made its big comeback in the early '70s, Snuff Garrett had taken over the production duties. But things were going sour in their marriage, and the two divorced in 1974. Worse, though Cher's solo career was steadily gaining momentum, Sonny was relegated to the sidelines. By the late '70s, he had abandoned show business altogether.

Still, his work endured. One of the songs he wrote for Cher, "Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)," even wound up being recorded by Frank Sinatra, on the 1981 album "She Shot Me Down."

Also that year, a new wave tribute album called "Bonograph" was released on Bogus Records. It was a bit of a joke, but an affectionate one, recognizing Bono's musical merit as well as his comedic potential. In short, it captured him perfectly.

Pub Date: 1/07/98

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