From love child to disco diva, diverse talent shows no signs of slowing down
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.
The song was inspired by Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man,” and took the same sorts of liberties establishing a tone-setting origin story for the “dark lady” image of Cher that would proliferate throughout her work that decade.
“I listened to everything she’d done, and what I liked best was done in minor keys,” Stone recalled. “She’s half Armenian, and has an ethnic quality. Her voice is deep and dark and heavy.”
Produced by Snuff Garrett, the song was recorded at Hollywood’s United Western studio with crack session veterans the Wrecking Crew, who had also laid the groundwork for Spector’s most influential studio arrangements. Far more musically ambitious than Cher’s folksier work, the song also featured two piano tracks and a 10-piece string section.
She was savvy enough to recognize the emerging importance of personal, purgative songwriting and cultural identity politics on the pop scene of the day. The song would return Cher to the Top 10 after a four-year absence, hitting No. 1 and going on to become MCA Records’ best-selling single ever. It also represented the beginning of a hugely productive partnership with producer Garrett, who also helmed sessions for 1974’s “Dark Lady” and 1973’s “Half-Breed,” both of which also hit No. 1 with similar themes to “Gypsies.”
This goodwill only lasted so long, however. Amid her divorce from Bono and a move to Warner Bros’ Records, Cher limned a string of rock-leaning duds throughout the middle of the decade. It took yet another abrupt stylistic change to return her to the spotlight, as she signed to disco purveyors Casablanca Records and released the No. 8 single “Take Me Home” in 1979, adopting a lurid, hyper-sexualized image along the way.
Cher’s initial disco diva incarnation, in turn, also had a limited shelf-life, though it did help to incubate the gay following that would remain loyal to her for the next 30 years. Music gradually took a backseat to Cher’s acting career, which saw her land an Oscar for her role in “Moonstruck,” and by the time she mounted a musical comeback via Geffen Records in the late-’80s, the smoother, adult contemporary sounds of Lionel Richie and David Foster had come to inhabit a lucrative genre and radio format of their own.
Once again, Cher managed to tap into the prevailing trends of the day while still keeping one foot mired in her history, splitting songwriting duties for her 1989 LP “Heart of Stone” between power-balladeer extraordinaire Diane Warren and pop-chart-friendly rockers Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora. It was Warren’s tune “If I Could Turn Back Time” that notched Cher her AC No. 1 for the decade.
In contrast to her previous hits, all of which were the works of single, distinctive songwriters, Cher’s iconic chart-topper of the 1990s perfectly reflected the technology-driven, four-quadrant-targeting, committee-composed state of pop songwriting that continues to the present day. Boasting two producers and six credited songwriters, as well as some uncredited lyrical rewrites by Cher herself, “Believe” was the type of Frankenstein pop song that would be hard to imagine originating in any earlier decade.
Originally written by the quartet of Brian Higgins, Stuart McLennan, Matt Gray and Tim Powell, “Believe” had been pitched to and passed on by a number of singers, until Cher’s go-to songwriter Paul Barry discovered it and, with the help of Stephen Torch, rewrote the entire song save for the chorus. Producer Mark Taylor generated a first pass on the material as a sort of boundary-straddling electronic dance song.
“The hard part was trying to make a dance song that wouldn’t alienate Cher’s existing fans,” Taylor says. “The only way you can achieve sales of 1.5 million is by appealing to both camps.”
Taylor actually scrapped his first take on the song, then remade it completely with a number of then-startling technological quirks. Most notably, he utilized the pitch-correction software Auto-Tune in an intentionally incorrect way; instead of evening out the slight irregularities of Cher’s vocal, it caused a wild, hiccupping digitized pitch shift that was clearly artificial. The song hit No. 1 in 23 different countries, making Cher the oldest female artist to top the Billboard singles chart, and making the “Cher effect” on Auto-Tune so popular that it eventually became a cliche, after appearing on hits by everyone from Kanye West and T-Pain to Vampire Weekend, Bon Iver and Frank Ocean.
From the personification of linen-clad hippie chic to queen bee of robotic dance-floor bangers (2003’s dance chart topper “When the Money’s Gone”), Cher has inhabited both extremes of the coolness spectrum several times over. And with a stadium extravaganza set to hit the world’s biggest arenas next year, the beat, and the hits, go on.