Although the French have been doing it for decades, Americans have honored only a select few women entertainers with the supreme compliment of identifying them solely by their first name. Madonna, Beyoncé, Rihanna — all of them need not bother to use their surname because we know them instantly. The magnitude of their celebrity is so great that the extra identification is unnecessary.
Before any of these mononymous women came along, however, there was one woman who made her mark so definitively that we’ve all known her by one name for over 50 years (as unbelievable as that amount of time sounds). I’m speaking, of course, of the one and only Cher, who since her very first hits in the mid-1960s all the way up to her current Twitter celebrity, has been known to the public at large by one name and one name only. In the realm of the automatically recognizable, the name of Cher sits at the top of the list.
Why do we all know who Cher is? What has she done to become so immediately recognizable to so many of us? The question might well be posed in response, “What hasn’t she done?” Singer, TV star, Broadway actress, movie star, fashion icon— there are few areas of entertainment in which Cher has not excelled. Along the way she has been an inspiration to many as a strong, independent woman who cast off any role that threatened to confine her. Often riding the zeitgeist, if not anticipating it, Cher made a cultural impact over the course of her remarkably varied career that still resonates. Today, in celebration of her 70th (!) birthday, Bio takes a look at the one-woman phenomenon Cher.
In Walked Sonny
Cher first came to the public’s attention, of course, as the second name following the “and” in a performing duo. Sonny and Cher were one of the most commercially successful singing duos of the '60s and very likely the most successful male-female/husband-wife team of the era. It might fairly be said that if she had never met Sonny Bono, Cher’s life would have taken an entirely different course.
Born Cherilyn Sarkisian in Southern California, Cher had a financially precarious and nomadic childhood; her mother was an actress who would get bit parts but who made her living as a waitress, and she’d had three fathers, two of them stepfathers (and some of them better providers than others), by the time she was 15. An outgoing, bold kid, Cher was something of a known personality by the time she was in high school, and she was only 16 when she moved to L.A. in 1962 with the hope of becoming an actress. It was in L.A. where she caught Sonny’s attention.
Sonny Bono was a songwriter and producer who had worked at Specialty Records in the '50s and who was frequently employed by record producer Phil Spector. A true hustler, Sonny was able to make things happen for himself in a music industry that was at that time a bit more freewheeling. Although Sonny had originally hired Cher as his live-in housekeeper, he soon realized that she was much better at singing than doing his laundry. Without too much difficulty, he managed to get her work as a background singer on some of Phil Spector’s sessions. (Although the fact is not widely known, Cher sang on such epochal hits as “Be My Baby” by the Ronettes and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” by the Righteous Brothers.) Sonny saw himself as a songwriter/producer in the mold of Spector, and he felt that Cher had potential as a solo artist. He began to take steps to get her on record.
Unfortunately, Cher’s attempts at a solo career—a series of singles issued under different names—failed to catch on and she looked to Sonny to join her as a partner. Their initial attempts together as Caesar and Cleo also failed, but finally a song that Sonny had penned called “I Got You Babe” launched the duo, now called Sonny and Cher, to the top of the music charts in the summer of 1965. For the next several years, Cher would record duet albums with Sonny as well as solo albums on her own (usually produced by Sonny), and many of those records were successful. Sonny and Cher’s lighter take on the folk-rock that dominated the mid-60s was friendlier to mainstream tastes than the more idiosyncratic music of Bob Dylan or the Byrds.
Sonny and Cher were idiosyncratic in their own way, however; their Laurel and Hardy oddness had much to do with their appeal. Sonny couldn’t sing very well, he was approaching 30, and he was short and not especially attractive; Cher, on the other hand, had a deep, expressive voice, she was youthful, and she made up for Sonny’s lack in the looks department with her raven-black long hair, big dark eyes, and tall, slim figure. The pair became almost as famous for their early-hippie fashion stylings as they were for their music: Sonny wore his hair remarkably long for the era and often sported tight pants and a furry vest, while Cher, who was part Native American, looked out moodily from album covers, often wearing heavy eye makeup and dressed in the latest hip wear – sometimes fringe vests, sometimes paisley dresses, sometimes striped bell-bottoms. Her look during this period would be the first evidence of a fashion-forward sense that she would exhibit throughout her career.
From Your Radio to Your TV
Sonny and Cher worked together and lived together as husband and wife for over ten years. After a run of hits in the 60s, the duo hit a slow patch; part of this had to do with their mellow, good-time sound going out of fashion in the era of psychedelia, and part of it had to do with Cher becoming a mother (she gave birth to Chastity Bono in 1969). In 1971 and 1972, however, Sonny and Cher returned to the charts with several Top 10 hits, and they sharpened their stage act in Las Vegas, which netted them their own TV variety show. Although they had proven in their 1967 feature-length film Good Times that they could do comedy, The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour, which debuted in 1971, brought the duo’s jokey act to a wide audience. Goofy comedy skits alternated with songs in the variety show style of the period with guest stars and occasional over-the-top production numbers adding to the fun.
The show was a big hit, running for several seasons and winning various awards. Cher even won the Golden Globe for Best Comedy Actress in 1974, quite a feat during a time when Carol Burnett was at the top of her game. Cher became known for her eye-catching and often navel-baring glamorous dresses (the precise opposite of her earlier hipster wear), her spirited put-downs of her hapless husband (usually scripted by Sonny himself), and her ability to sing almost any style of song the show required.
At the same time that Sonny and Cher’s fortunes had revived as a duo, Cher’s solo career had also reactivated. Her early '70s hits “Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves,” “Dark Lady,” and “Half Breed” (the Native American theme of which many erroneously interpreted as autobiographical) became radio staples and are still heard on oldies stations today. Between her solo career and her success on television with Sonny, Cher seemed unstoppable.
Unfortunately, life offstage for Sonny and Cher was not as rosy as it was onstage; by 1974, their marriage was on the rocks, and they no longer wished to work together (Cher referred legally to her time with Sonny as “involuntary servitude”). The divorced couple launched their own separate shows. Sonny’s ended after a few weeks, while Cher’s ran for a season. The general impression was that they were stronger as a unit than separately. In 1976, despite their differences, the couple tried again with The Sonny & Cher Show. It was soon apparent, however, that the magic was gone – the jokes had real sting in them, the songs were more perfunctory, and the divorced partners clearly weren’t enjoying the experience. The show ended after a year.
Standing on Her Own
Sonny Bono had been Cher’s mentor and guide in many respects, so going it alone was a daunting prospect. (Cher’s fellow entertainer Tina Turner went through a similar transition when she broke away from her performing and life partner Ike around the same time.) Having had some success on her own already made the transition a bit easier, however, as did the help of a new partner: Cher had married vocalist Gregg Allman of the Allman Brothers Band in 1975, and he encouraged her to pursue a more rock-oriented path in her music. Cher would stay on this path even after she and Allman split, although her greatest success of the period would be with a detour into disco music in 1979, when her hit “Take Me Home” became one of the biggest dance hits of the year.
Dance culture seemed a natural for the flamboyantly attired Cher, although she never performed primarily in this style. The “I Will Survive” attitude of the disco era suited her story, and it wouldn’t be long before the gay men who comprised such a significant portion of the disco movement began to perceive her as a gay icon. Cher’s strong, independent public persona, combined with her love of fashion and deep vocal stylings, made her an especially popular choice for drag queens, who gave her the same kind of attention that a few years previously would only be accorded to Judy Garland or Marilyn Monroe. That popularity would only increase later, when Cher had further dancefloor hits. (The fact that Cher’s daughter Chastity eventually came out as gay and later became a man named Chaz also added, albeit incidentally, to her identification with the gay community.)
By the early '80s, the hits had once again dried up, and Cher stretched herself by taking a role in a non-musical Broadway play. Director Robert Altman cast Cher in his revival of the play Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. Although the play only had a brief run and was not well-reviewed, Cher’s performance as the waitress Sissy stood out, and she was cast again in the film version later that year. Cher’s natural charisma had found a new outlet, and she embarked on a film career that would include such successful films as Silkwood with Meryl Streep, Mask, The Witches of Eastwick, and Moonstruck. She won the Academy Award for her comedic turn in Moonstruck in 1988, the most notable of many similar awards she received. Proving herself as adept at drama as comedy, Cher had at last realized her childhood dream of becoming a famous actress.
Cher would continue to make films in the '80s and '90s, but she also returned to the source of her first successes, music. She re-entered the Top 40 in the late '80s with a pop-rock sound influenced by Michael Bolton, Jon Bon Jovi, and hit songwriters Desmond Child and Diane Warren (“If I Could Turn Back Time,” “After All”). The video era was tailor-made for Cher, whose sometimes controversially sexy clips caused a stir among programmers as well as fans. Her appeal as a sex symbol was certainly impressive for a woman who was now over 40 but who could still hold her own among pop stars not yet born at the time of her first hits.
Cher’s interest in maintaining a vigorous and youthful image led her to explore other pursuits in the early '90s, including fitness videos and promoting beauty products on late-night TV. Her fans had mixed feelings about these endeavors (as did, apparently, the lady herself in retrospect), but fortunately, Cher was far from finished with pop music. In 1998, she returned with a vengeance: “Believe” would become her most successful single ever and a worldwide chart-topper. It remains one of the best-selling singles in the history of popular music, having sold over 10 million copies. It was also the first hit record to feature Auto-Tune, the vocal-manipulation software that has been an ubiquitous presence on Top 40 radio ever since (whether Cher should be congratulated or blamed for this development is an entirely different matter!).
Sadly, Cher’s greatest ever success would coincide with the untimely passing of her former partner, Sonny, who died in a skiing accident in January of 1998. Sonny had transitioned out of music and into politics after the end of Sonny and Cher, first serving as mayor of Palm Springs and later as a member of the House of Representatives. Cher shakily delivered the eulogy at his funeral, having long since made amends with her ex-husband. In fact, the two famously appeared on David Letterman’s late-night TV show to duet on their old hit “I Got You Babe” in 1987 (Cher, never less than outspoken, had had a notorious run-in with the talk show host the year before, calling him a certain vivid epithet during their segment together).
She Did It Her Way
Since the success of “Believe,” Cher has continued to rack up hit singles and albums, while her tours of the 2000s have been impressive affairs both in terms of presentation and revenue. Her turn in the film Burlesque and its attendant hit, “You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me,” put her back in films and on the charts in 2013. The success of this hit made Cher the only person to have a number one single on a Billboard chart in six consecutive decades. More recently, she has been a presence on social media with her unfiltered and frequently surprising Twitter posts.
Cher’s Twitter honesty is only the latest example of an almost career-long shoot-from-the-hip attitude, which may have started as a comic feature in her act with Sonny, but which eventually became a key part of her public persona. Rarely meek and mild, Cher has always spoken her mind and done what she wanted to do, which has made her a role model for outspoken women in the music business and the rest of the entertainment world. Self-determined since the late '70s, and far more successful on her own terms than she had been on anyone else’s, Cher has taken career risks and refuted naysayers who felt she was overstepping her bounds. She has proven her ability as a versatile and talented performer far beyond what all of her single-named offspring have been able to achieve, and she has done it with all the pizazz of the classic show business entertainer.
Cher’s ability to reinvent herself time and time again over such a long period has become one of her most defining characteristics. Although her self-remodeling has sometimes been as literal as it has been figurative (along with Dolly Parton, she is the female music star who has changed the most physically since she first appeared in the public eye), her talent for revitalization in all areas is one that seems unlikely to desert her. Each generation since the '60s has its own Cher — the folk-rock hipster of the '60s; the glamorous and comedic variety star of the early '70s; the rocker and disco queen of the late '70s; the video-friendly pop star of the '80s; the dance club diva of the '90s and 2000s. Others remember her primarily for her movies, several of which have become modern classics. All of this is testament to Cher’s endless ability for reinvention and her enduring appeal to generations of people. Cher is always there.
Just recently, discussions have gotten underway for a possible Broadway musical based on Cher’s life and career. Given her longevity in the entertainment business, this seems an almost inevitable step. Although some of her projects in recent years have taken on a cast of nostalgia as she revives old hits and revisits previous periods of her career, Cher’s story is so all-encompassing and so emblematic of the last half-century of American entertainment that her nostalgia seems more like a celebration of collective memory than one woman’s reflections. Her history is our history writ larger and glitzier. Whatever form the show eventually takes, one thing is certain: It can’t help but reflect the ever-restless creativity of its central personality, who has proven through the years that talent, brashness, and belief in one’s abilities can win the day. I’d wager that we haven’t seen the last of her.