|Bang Bang||The Sonny Side Of Cher|
|I Will Wait For You||With Love, Chér|
|Tonight I'll Be Staying Here||3614 Jackson Highway|
|I Walk On Gilded Splinters||3614 Jackson Highway|
|Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves||Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves|
|The Shoop Shoop Song||Mermaids OST|
|Walking In Memphis||It's A Man's World|
|Welcome To Burlesque||Burlesque OST|
Contributor: Peter Viney
Cher sang on a huge number of Spector singles. She’s on more Ronettes tracks than two of the group were. The Darlene Love/Cher combination replaced many credited backing singers on sessions.
After twenty years on rock music websites, I’m still astonished by the venom she inspires from males. “Fear of Cher” should be in the psychiatry books. It’s a combination of her overt sexuality, coupled with the long after effects of the Sonny & Cher Show on TV. It dominated American screens for years and is to Americans what Val Doonican in his sweater might be to the British. The UK never got the Sonny & Cher Show or her own solo show, so here she retains credibility as a great rock singer.
On the other hand, I’ve met rock musicians who will not hear a bad word about her. That goes back to a party in Hollywood, where Robbie McIntosh and Alan Gorrie of the Average White Band overdosed on speedballs. Robbie McIntosh died. Alan Gorrie’s life was saved by Cher, the only celebrity who stayed put to help. Everyone else fled in their limos before the ambulances and police arrived.
The Hollywood connection results in the two Cher performances I’d most like to hear. After the Before The Flood tour, a party was thrown for David Geffen, then dating Cher. From Geffen’s biography:
“When the initial cheers died down, Cher began a short musical program by singing ‘Happy Birthday to You’. She then sang ‘All I Really Want To Do’ with Dylan singing harmony and The Band playing backup. After Cher and Rick Danko sang ‘Mockingbird’ together, the program ended with Dylan singing ‘Mr Tambourine Man’.”
Was it recorded? The head of Cher’s label, MCA, reputedly told Geffen, “I recorded that. You can have the album if I have the single.” He was joking. Almost certainly.
I’m discounting Sonny & Cher tracks. So no I Got You Babe or The Beat Goes On. Her first solo record was Ringo, I Love You, as Bonnie Jo Mason, allegedly produced by Phil Spector (but probably not). Her solo career really began with All I Really Want To Do. Great voice, huge echo behind her, but The Byrds cover is my preference, as it with Bells Of Rhymney. Cher had the bigger hit. Listening through the two-CD set, The Imperial Recordings 1965-1968 you can see something of the cover-mania that is forced upon singers with a weekly TV show … you hum it, I’ll cover it: Girl Don’t Come, Blowing In The Wind, Needles & Pins, He Thinks I Still Care, The Girl From Ipanema, Dream Baby, Homeward Bound, Our Day Will Come, Will You Love Me Tomorrow, Reason To Believe, Elusive Butterfly, Milord, Sunny, Alfie, The Twelfth Of Never. Through it all you have the strength of the voice as well as Sonny Bono’s Spector-influenced +12 string production style. In her autobiography, she mentions that the “Cher” company was 95% owned by Sonny, 5% by their lawyer, and she just got an allowance. After their divorce a boyfriend asked her which movie she wanted to see, and she realized that Sonny had made every decision for her for years. So it’s a fair bet that every song until the early 70s was a Sonny Bono choice.
My selection is unbalanced. I thought it “hit-oriented” but she had a lot of hits. I’ve chosen three title tracks of albums. I realized I didn’t like her stadium rock era best selling albums anywhere much as her earlier material. Listening to that era The Shoop Shoop Song (It’s In His Kiss) from Mermaids in 1990 leaps out to me because Betty Everett’s song is girl group era, where Cher started.
Bang-Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down) was a 1966 hit, written by Sonny Bono. It’s a weird one. Mostly I love those gypsy violins. Sometimes I loathe them, as if I’m trying to eat goulash in a Hungarian restaurant and the violinists won’t go away. Then there’s that kinda-Cossack bit with Cher doing weak “Hey!” noises. Are we veering into Rah, Rah Rasputin, Lover of the Russian Queen territory? No it’s better than that, and that particular vibe is to come again. Cher re-did it in 1987, but that version is dance beats.
The 1968 album With Love, Chér is worth exploring, even if it’s to check when the acute accent arrived on her name and when it left. It largely avoided the covers-heavy style, though it contains Phil Ochs’ There But For Fortune and Dylan’s The Times They Are A’Changin’. The hit single in the USA was You Better Sit Down Kids, by Sonny Bono, which is a divorce tale from the father’s point of view … Cher sings it as written without switching gender. The tempo changes, the drums are strange, there’s a horn section from nowhere, then wild jazz horns and drums at the end. The orchestration on the album is innovative and original. Listen to I Will Wait For You (from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg). Eastern sounds, bass and drums as if from a wildly-blowing jazz band, soaring strings, weird melody. The stereo is widely separated so it sounds as if you have a jazzy bass and drums on your right, an orchestra on the left, her voice in the middle. At first The Times They Are A’Changin’ seems overblown, so much is going on, but after a few plays, it’s also brilliantly arranged. Great bass guitar. As session singers for years, Sonny and Cher had worked with the Wrecking Crew early on, and the guys had helped them get started.
Female stars trekked south in the late 60s and made their best album: Lulu New Routes, Dusty Springfield’s Dusty In Memphis, Petula Clark Memphis. Cher’s is 3614 Jackson Highway, the address of Muscle Shoals Sound Studios in Alabama. Jerry Wexler, Tom Dowd and Arif Mardin produced it. She’s away from Sonny’s stylings, which was a major, though temporary move. The phenomenal Eddie Hinton’s guitar is all over the album, plus the resident section of David Hood on bass, Roger Hawkins on drums, Jimmy Johnson on guitar and Barry Beckett on keyboards. Then there’s the horn section. It was recorded in 1968 and 1969, and has three covers from Nashville Skyline. I’d rate them among the best Dylan covers. Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here is the choice, because I bought the single of I Walk On Guilded (sic) Splinters when it came out, and it’s the B-side. The A-side goes in for the sheer nerve of covering something so different and special as Dr John’s song, and doing a great two and a half minute single from it. I Threw It All Away and Lay Lady Lay are tempting too. The latter becomes Lay, Baby, Lay. A lack of nerve there. The Cher-fearing males would have been even more terrified of her if she’d gone for the full k.d. lang by sticking to the words on the page. All three Dylan covers, from his most country Nashville album, get transformed into soul songs, superb examples of the “Country Got Soul” genre. Other tracks on there include For What It’s Worth, Dock Of The Bay and Cry Like A Baby. I played this album to a friend who’d remarked that he disliked Cher. He bought it.
Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves is one I’ve always loved (Gypsys spelling marks early versions for collectors!). She hadn’t had a hit for four years. It’s the lyric and narrative. It’s got a story like Ode To Billie Joe or Fancy:
Picked up a boy just south of Mobile
Gave him a ride, filled him with a hot meal
I was sixteen, he was twenty-one
Rode with us to Memphis
And papa would’ve shot him if he knew what he’d done
Then there’s the rhythm, the instrumentation. YouTube has the original Sonny & Cher Show performance from 1971 which looks incongruous.
Half-Breed is a follow-up on the outsider theme, and has resonance because of her Cherokee genes, though she has more Armenian. Anyway, it connects her to musicians with Native-American blood like Marvin Rainwater, Link Wray, Rita Coolidge, Jimi Hendrix, Robbie Robertson, Tori Amos. The intro music to Half-Breed sounds later than 1973, like a Saturday Night Fever outtake, but perhaps the war drum beat that starts it was a tad obvious. Half-Breed is also the album title. The Half-Breed album has a killer version of Paul McCartney’s My Love, a guilty pleasure. Carousel Man takes us back to the carny setting of Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves. Apparently it was issued as a DJ single to promote the album. I’m surprised it wasn’t a single. I considered The Greatest Song I Ever Heard from this album. She also retitled Seals & Crofts’ Ruby Jean And Billie Lee for her daughter, as Chastity Sun. The album has fewer “big covers” than most of her records … it has Long & Winding Road though.
Heart Of Stone in 1989 was one of her biggest albums, and Just Like Jesse James nearly got in the list. I was concerned that I was choosing all earlier stuff. Then came Love Hurts another mega-selling album. I can’t take anyone doing the title track except The Everly Brothers. The one under consideration from Love Hurts was I’ll Never Stop Loving You, with its unexpected co-writers, David Cassidy and John Wetton. It has that signature John Wetton melody, and the backing even sounds like Asia. If you want to hear Cher as great stadium rock ballad, go for this one.
Walking In Memphis is an original/cover question. Marc Cohn’s 1991 original is brilliant, but Cher can do stuff with singing a bit of gospel at the Reverend (Al) Green’s service which Marc can’t. I did a Mississippi cruise to Memphis this year and heard a dozen people cover this song. Everywhere you went, everyone did. I still think Cher narrowly beats Marc Cohn. Just compare, Tell me, are you a Christian child? and Well, I am tonight! Marc Cohn’s name gives it a bit of extra resonance, but Cher roars like a gospel choir. The two of them are head and shoulders over all other competition. Cher’s version is from It’s A Man’s World in 1995.
Believe is from 1998, and gives us the name “Cher effect” for the Auto-Tune and she moves from stadium rock to girl star with Europop/Disco/Techno/Hip Hop influences. There’s a direct line from Donna Summer, but the electronic processing makes it stand out, and I believe it was a conscious effort to compete with Madonna. It was a huge hit and deservedly.
Welcome To Burlesque comes from Burlesque where Cher co-starred with Christina Aguilera in 2010. Cher is the night club proprietor and singer. Her opening leapt out when I saw the film, and I bought the soundtrack. It’s in a direct line from her other European-flavoured songs Bang Bang and Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves. I think that’s the appeal. It’s a mood that Leonard Cohen likes too, see clip.
Check out all Peter’s music reviews at his website here.