Cher’s Chameleonic Allure Spans Six Decades
Last summer, the 67-year-old Cher topped the dance charts with “Woman’s World,” the lead-off single from her 25th studio album, released roughly 50 years after her debut in the recording studio as a backup singer for Phil Spector. While the thought of a woman approaching 70 reigning supreme in the most youth-obsessed musical sphere might seem surprising in theory, it’s actually par for course for the El Centro singer’s half-century of chameleonic hitmaking.
Though her status as a multihyphenate, fashion plate and diva par excellence has often overshadowed her work as a singer, Cher is the only recording artist in history to rack up No. 1 singles in six consecutive decades — with at least one Top 40 album in each of those decades — and her work is every bit as distinctive as the times in which it was recorded.
After cutting her teeth as a teenage backup singer on such enormous hits as the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” and the Righteous Bros.’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” Cher recorded a handful of unsuccessful singles produced by husband Sonny Bono under the alias Bonnie Jo Mason and as Cherilyn, her full first name. Like so many in the L.A. rock scene, she finally found her groove with covers of Bob Dylan, and her 1965 solo LP debut, “All I Really Want to Do,” featured three of his compositions.
The only one to break into the charts was the title track, perhaps Dylan’s most disarmingly innocent composition at the time, which had been a live staple for L.A. rock kingpins the Byrds, who simultaneously put out their own version to less success. Released on Columbia, the single was recorded at Sunset Sound Recorders, soon to become the favored haunt of the Doors and the “Pet Sounds”-era Beach Boys.
Cher established herself as a boundary-straddling crossover artist from the very start, adopting the sounds, fashions and studio space of L.A.’s Sunset Strip rock elite, while still extolling a drug-free lifestyle and embracing the sorts of traditional showbiz trappings that would come to characterize “The Sonny and Cher” show. While this made her seem suspect in some eyes, it was precisely this ability to make lateral moves between emerging genre distinctions that served her so well through the decades, an attribute that heirs like Madonna clearly worked hard to emulate.
“We call it folk-and-roll,” Cher said in 1965 when asked to describe her sound. “Folk music with a rocking beat. But with a smile. Ours is happy music. We haven’t any message to impart.”
Cher’s first No. 1 (as Sonny and Cher), “I Got You Babe,” would follow this template within the same year. Written by Bono as an intentional Dylan homage — the use of “babe” was directly inspired by Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me, Babe” — the song represented a nearly perfect adaptation of Dylan’s rough, politically and poetically audacious style into a concoction that incorporated all of the tricks of classic Tin Pan Alley, from the waltz time-signature to the gear-shift key change. The song stayed at No. 1 for two weeks among some rather august company — its predecessor was the Beatles’ “Help!”; its successor was the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.”
The rest of the ’60s saw Cher’s full-fledged emergence as an icon who talked the talk of her Aquarian Age peers, while still remaining fully lodged in the variety-show model, endearing her to both rebellious and reactionary tastes. Yet just as Sonny and Cher’s brand of go-go pop had reached its cultural expiration date, Cher entered into the most successful stretch of her recording career in 1971 with “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves.” Written by Bob Stone, the song — initially titled “Gypsies and White Trash” — played up Cher’s Armenian-Cherokee ethnic otherness in a way that was rarely apparent in her ’60s material.