One of Rock’s biggest superstars, multi-talented and unforgettable – but not a Hall of Famer?
By Phill Marder
(10th in a series on artists who should be in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but are not)
Long before there was Joan Jett. Long before there was Madonna. Long long long before Avril and Pink. And lonnnnnnnnnnnnnng before there was Lady Gaga.
There was Cher.
In short, Cher was it. From top to bottom, Cher was the prototype of the female rock star, setting the standard for appearance, from her early hippie days to her later outlandish outfits, and her attitude – the perfect female punk long before punk even was a rock term.
Contemporaries Marianne Faithfull – the British bad girl with the angelic looks – and Nancy Sinatra – the rebel with the Playboy looks – did their part to advance feminine rebellion in the Rock world, but Cher led the way. Her schtick as near dominatrix over husband Sonny may have been a put-on in 1965, but Cher continued to force issues as she grew, not only with her stage costumes, but with her song selection as well.
While several of her hits were penned by and sung with her husband Sonny, most of her solo hits, which far outnumbered the duo’s successes, were outside choices and Cher’s selections were nearly flawless.
Her debut chart single, Bob Dylan’s “All I Really Want To Do” preceded Sonny & Cher’s signature classic “I Got You Babe” on the Hot 100. Entering the list the same week as the version by The Byrds, who were coming off the No. 1 “Mr. Tambourine Man,” Cher’s take powered to No. 15, while the Byrds’ version stopped at No. 40. For an unknown to go head-to-head with a future Hall Of Fame group coming off a No. 1 hit should lead to a quick trip to oblivion, but Cher’s version stomped the favorite and established her. Her album of the same name peaked at No. 16 a couple months later.
“I Got You Babe” was a terrific record on any level, soaring to No. 1. Magnificently produced and arranged, and catchy as all get out, when Hal Blaine’s drums really kick in as the song winds down, car radios were about to explode. But somewhat overlooked are the lyrics, which spoke to a generation of young rockers – “Don’t let them say your hair’s too long, I don’t care with you I can’t go wrong.” I’m not going to tell you you had to be there, but as a teenager with shoulder-length hair in 1965, I can tell you every measure of support helped. And when it was someone as cool as Cher championing the cause, it really hit home.
With Sonny & Cher churning out hits, Cher’s solo career continued to soar, a rare occurrence in the music industry. Seldom does an artist score simultaneously with solo and group hits – Phil Collins is a recent example – but Cher did it. She followed her opener with one of her most underrated efforts, “Where Do You Go?,” which peaked only at No. 25, but her next was a tremendous effort, the very strange “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down), penned by Sonny, which came in at No. 2 in the U.S. and reached the top 10 in eight other countries, including No. 3 in the U.K. Later the same year, Nancy Sinatra did a smoking version, used in “Kill Bill,” and most recently The Raconteurs, led by Jack White, have been including a remarkably decadent cover in concert.
“You’d Better Sit Down Kids, “Gypsys, Tramps & Thieves,” “Half Breed,” among others, followed, covering issues popular female singers weren’t known to address – divorce, prostitution, unplanned and underaged pregnancy and racism just for starters. All reached lofty heights, the first, another extremely offbeat effort written by Sonny, reaching No. 9, the latter two giving Cher her first chart-toppers as a solo artist.
The follow-up to “Half-Breed” gave Cher her third No. 1. It told of a scorned lover who proceeded to gun down her mate and the woman he cheated with. In 1974, we listened to it as “Dark Lady.” Today we watch it on the tube and call it “Snapped.”
Cher carried her success through to the new millennium. She starred on TV, won an Oscar and put records into the Top 10 in every decade from the 60s through the 90s, selling out shows whenever and wherever she appeared. In 1998, 33 years after her chart debut, Cher was No. 1 again with “Believe.”
Her album success also was substantial, 22 solo efforts reaching the charts in addition to 12 with Sonny.
In the United Kingdom, Cher posted 10 top selling albums, hitting No. 1 twice in 1991 and 1992. As recently as 2003, the compilation “The Very Best Of Cher” sat at No. 17 on the British LP charts. Her singles numbers are staggering, 32 reaching the British Top 40 between 1965 and 2001, with her cover of the Betty Everett oldie “The Shoop Shoop Song (It’s In His Kiss)” joining “Believe” and “Love Can Build A Bridge,” a joint effort with Chrissie Hynde, Neneh Cherry and Eric Clapton, as chart-toppers. Seven efforts with Sonny also reached the U.K. singles chart, led off by the No. 1 “I Got You Babe.”
Cher has expressed disappointment in the Hall of Fame’s failure to recognize her accomplishments, but, diplomatically, she has put the emphasis on her late husband, noting particularly the great songs he composed. There would be no complaint here if the Hall of Fame was to induct Sonny & Cher. But realistically, Cher sustained her musical career over the years and has become a show business icon, while Sonny went a different direction. Perhaps this is the main reason her contributions to Rock & Roll have been overlooked. She has transcended Rock.
But Cher always has been and always will be Rock & Roll. Every female singer who followed her owes her a debt of gratitude. As does the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
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