Backstage with Cher the ‘Goddess of Pop’ at 75

No Lies Radio Music – By Teri Perticone – May 20, 2021

Cher (/??r/; born Cherilyn Sarkisian; May 20, 1946) is an American singer, actress and television personality. Commonly referred to by the media as the “Goddess of Pop”,[1] she has been described as embodying female autonomy in a male-dominated industry. Cher is known for her distinctive contralto singing voice and for having worked in numerous areas of entertainment, as well as adopting a variety of styles and appearances throughout her six-decade-long career.

Cher gained popularity in 1965 as one-half of the folk rock husband-wife duo Sonny & Cher after their song “I Got You Babe” peaked at number one on the US and UK charts. By the end of 1967, they had sold 40 million records worldwide and had become, according to Time magazine, rock’s “it” couple.[2] She began her solo career simultaneously, releasing in 1966 the transatlantic top three single “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)”. She became a television personality in the 1970s with her CBS shows The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour, watched by over 30 million viewers weekly during its three-year run, and Cher. She emerged as a fashion trendsetter by wearing elaborate outfits on her television shows.

While working on television, Cher established herself as a solo artist with the US Billboard Hot 100 number-one singles “Gypsys, Tramps & Thieves”, “Half-Breed”, and “Dark Lady”, becoming the female artist with the most number-one singles in United States history at the time. After her divorce from Sonny Bono in 1975, she launched a comeback with the disco album Take Me Home (1979) and earned $300,000 a week for her 1979–1982 concert residency in Las Vegas.

In 1982, Cher made her Broadway debut in the play Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean and starred in its film adaptation. She subsequently garnered critical acclaim for her performances in films such as Silkwood (1983), Mask (1985), The Witches of Eastwick (1987), and Moonstruck (1987), the latter of which won her the Academy Award for Best Actress. She then revived her music career by recording the rock-inflected albums Cher (1987), Heart of Stone (1989), and Love Hurts (1991), all of which yielded successful singles such as “I Found Someone”, “If I Could Turn Back Time”, and “Love and Understanding”. Cher contributed to the soundtrack for her next film, Mermaids (1990), which spawned the UK number-one single “The Shoop Shoop Song (It’s in His Kiss)”. She made her directorial debut with a segment in the abortion-themed anthology If These Walls Could Talk (1996), which received widespread critical acclaim after premiering on HBO.

Cher reached a new commercial peak in 1998 with the dance-pop album Believe, whose title track won her the Billboard Music Award for Hot 100 Single of the Year and became the biggest-selling single of all time by a female artist in the UK. It features pioneering use of Auto-Tune to distort her vocals, known as the “Cher effect”. Her 2002–2005 Living Proof: The Farewell Tour became one of the highest-grossing concert tours of all time, earning $250 million. In 2008, she signed a $60 million deal to headline the Colosseum at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas for three years. In 2018, Cher returned to film for her first on-screen role since 2010’s Burlesque, starring in the musical romantic comedy film Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again. Inspired by the film, the album Dancing Queen (2018) debuted at number three on the Billboard 200, tying with 2013’s Closer to the Truth for Cher’s highest-charting solo album in the US.

Having sold 100 million records to date, Cher is one of the world’s best-selling music artists. Her achievements include a Grammy Award, an Emmy Award, an Academy Award, three Golden Globe Awards, a Cannes Film Festival Award, the Billboard Icon Award, and awards from the Kennedy Center Honors and the Council of Fashion Designers of America. She is the only artist to date to have a number-one single on a Billboard chart in six consecutive decades, from the 1960s to the 2010s. Aside from music and acting, she is noted for her political views, social media presence, philanthropic endeavors, and social activism, including LGBT rights and HIV/AIDS prevention.

1946–1961: Early life

Cher was born Cherilyn Sarkisian in El Centro, California, on May 20, 1946.[3] Her father, John Sarkisian, was an Armenian-American truck driver with drug and gambling problems; her mother, Georgia Holt (born Jackie Jean Crouch), was an occasional model and bit-part actress who claims Irish, English, German, and Cherokee ancestry.[4][5] Cher’s father was rarely home when she was an infant,[6] and her parents divorced when Cher was ten months old.[3] Her mother later married actor John Southall, with whom she had another daughter, Georganne, Cher’s half-sister.[7]

Now living in Los Angeles, Cher’s mother began acting while working as a waitress. She changed her name to Georgia Holt and played minor roles in films and on television. Holt also secured acting parts for her daughters as extras on television shows like The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.[6] Her mother’s relationship with Southall ended when Cher was nine years old, but she considers him her father and remembers him as a “good-natured man who turned belligerent when he drank too much”.[8] Holt remarried and divorced several more times, and she moved her family around the country (including New York, Texas, and California).[6] They often had little money, and Cher recounted having had to use rubber bands to hold her shoes together.[8] At one point, her mother left Cher at an orphanage for several weeks.[9] Although they met every day, both found the experience traumatic.[8]

When Cher was in fifth grade, she produced a performance of the musical Oklahoma! for her teacher and class. She organized a group of girls, directing and choreographing their dance routines. Unable to convince boys to participate, she acted the male roles and sang their songs. By age nine, she had developed an unusually low voice.[10] Fascinated by film stars, Cher’s role model was Audrey Hepburn, particularly due to her role in the 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Cher began to take after the unconventional outfits and behavior of Hepburn’s character.[11] She was also inspired by Marlene Dietrich, Bette Davis, and Katharine Hepburn.[12] She was disappointed by the absence of dark-haired Hollywood actresses whom she could emulate.[11] She had wanted to be famous since childhood but felt unattractive and untalented, later commenting, “I couldn’t think of anything that I could do … I didn’t think I’d be a singer or dancer. I just thought, well, I’ll be famous. That was my goal.”[13]

In 1961, Holt married bank manager Gilbert LaPiere, who adopted Cher (under the name Cheryl LaPiere)[14] and Georganne, and enrolled them at Montclair College Preparatory School, a private school in Encino, whose students were mostly from affluent families. The school’s upper-class environment presented a challenge for Cher; biographer Connie Berman wrote, “[she] stood out from the others in both her striking appearance and outgoing personality.”[13] A former classmate commented, “I’ll never forget seeing Cher for the first time. She was so special … She was like a movie star, right then and there … She said she was going to be a movie star and we knew she would.”[13] Despite not being an excellent student, Cher was intelligent and creative, according to Berman. She earned high grades, excelling in French and English classes. As an adult, she discovered that she had dyslexia. Cher’s unconventional behavior stood out: she performed songs for students during the lunch hours and surprised peers when she wore a midriff-baring top.[11] She later recalled, “I was never really in school. I was always thinking about when I was grown up and famous.”[6]

1962–1965: Solo career breakthrough

At age 16, Cher dropped out of school, left her mother’s house, and moved to Los Angeles with a friend. She took acting classes and worked to support herself, dancing in small clubs along Hollywood’s Sunset Strip and introducing herself to performers, managers, and agents.[15] According to Berman, “[Cher] did not hesitate to approach anyone she thought could help her get a break, make a new contact, or get an audition.”[16] Cher met performer Sonny Bono in November 1962 when he was working for record producer Phil Spector.[16] Cher’s friend moved out, and Cher accepted Sonny’s offer to be his housekeeper.[17] Sonny introduced Cher to Spector, who used her as a backup singer on many recordings, including the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” and the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'”.[18] Spector produced her first single, “Ringo, I Love You”, which Cher recorded under the name Bonnie Jo Mason.[19] The song was rejected by many radio stations programmers as they thought Cher’s deep contralto vocals were a man’s vocals; therefore, they believed it was a male homosexual singing a love song dedicated to the Beatles drummer Ringo Starr.[20]

Cher and Sonny became close friends, eventual lovers, and performed their own unofficial wedding ceremony in a hotel room in Tijuana, Mexico, on October 27, 1964.[18][21] Although Sonny had wanted to launch Cher as a solo artist, she encouraged him to perform with her because she suffered from stage fright, and he began joining her onstage, singing the harmonies. Cher disguised her nervousness by looking at Sonny; she later commented that she sang to the people through him.[22] In late 1964, they emerged as a duo called Caesar & Cleo, releasing the poorly received singles “Do You Wanna Dance?”, “Love Is Strange”, and “Let the Good Times Roll”.[23]

Cher signed with Liberty Records’ Imperial imprint in the end of 1964, and Sonny became her producer. The single “Dream Baby”, released under the name “Cherilyn”, received airplay in Los Angeles.[19] Imperial encouraged Cher to work with Sonny on her second solo single for the label, a cover version of Bob Dylan’s “All I Really Want to Do”.[19] It peaked at number 15 on the US Billboard Hot 100 in 1965.[24] Meanwhile, the Byrds had released their own version of the same song. When competition on the singles charts started between Cher and the Byrds, the group’s record label began to promote the B-side of the Byrds’ single. Roger McGuinn of the Byrds commented, “We loved the Cher version … We didn’t want to hassle. So we just turned our record over.”[25] Cher’s debut album, All I Really Want to Do (1965), reached number 16 on the Billboard 200;[26] it was later described by AllMusic’s Tim Sendra as “one of the stronger folk-pop records of the era”.[27]

1965–1967: Sonny and Cher’s rise to pop stardom

In early 1965, Caesar and Cleo began calling themselves Sonny & Cher.[28] Following the recording of “I Got You Babe”, they traveled to England in July 1965 at the Rolling Stones’ advice; Cher recalled, “[they] had told us … that Americans just didn’t get us and that if we were going to make it big, we were going to have to go to England.”[29] According to writer Cintra Wilson, “English newspaper photographers showed up when S&C were thrown out of the London Hilton [because of their outfits] the night they arrived—literally overnight, they were stars. London went gaga for the heretofore-unseen S&C look, which was neither mod nor rocker.”[30]

“I Got You Babe” reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart[31] and became, according to AllMusic’s Bruce Eder, “one of the biggest-selling and most beloved pop/rock hits of the mid-’60s”;[19] Rolling Stone listed it among “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time” in 2003.[32] As the song knocked the Beatles off the top of the British charts, English teenagers began to emulate Sonny and Cher’s fashion style, such as bell-bottoms, striped pants, ruffled shirts, industrial zippers and fur vests.[33] Upon their return to the US, the duo made several appearances on the teen-pop showcases Hullabaloo and Shindig![34] and completed a tour of some of the largest arenas in the US.[35] Their shows attracted Cher look-alikes—”girls who were ironing their hair straight and dyeing it black, to go with their vests and bell-bottoms”.[36] Cher expanded her creative range by designing a clothing line.[37]

Sonny and Cher’s first album, Look at Us (1965), released for the Atco Records division of Atlantic Records,[19] spent eight weeks at number two on the Billboard 200, behind the Beatles’ Help!.[38] Their material became popular, and the duo successfully competed with the dominant British Invasion and Motown sounds of the era.[37] Author Joseph Murrells described Sonny and Cher as “part of the leading exponents of the rock-folk-message type of song, a hybrid combining the best and instrumentation of rock music with folk lyric and often lyrics of protest.”[39] Sonny and Cher charted ten Billboard top 40 singles between 1965 and 1972, including five top-ten singles: “I Got You Babe”, “Baby Don’t Go”, “The Beat Goes On”, “All I Ever Need Is You”, and “A Cowboy’s Work Is Never Done”.[40] At one point, they had five songs in the top 50 at the same time, a feat equaled only by the Beatles and Elvis Presley.[41] By the end of 1967, they had sold 40 million records worldwide and had become, according to Time magazine’s Ginia Bellafante, rock’s “it” couple.[2]

Cher’s following releases kept her solo career fully competitive with her work with Sonny.[19] The Sonny Side of Chér (1966) features “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)”, which reached number two in the US and number three in the UK and became her first million-seller solo single. Chér, also released in 1966, contains the Burt Bacharach and Hal David composition “Alfie”, which was added to the credits of the American version of the 1966 film of the same name and became the first stateside version of the popular song. With Love, Chér (1967) includes songs described by biographer Mark Bego as “little soap-opera stories set to rock music” such as the US top-ten single “You Better Sit Down Kids”.[42]

Read more detail about her long career by clicking on the link at the end of story…

2018–present: Return to film, Dancing Queen, upcoming projects

In 2018, Cher returned to film for the romantic musical comedy film Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again. New York magazine’s Viviana Olen and Matt Harkins commented that “it’s only at the climax of the movie when its true promise is fulfilled: Cher arrives … It becomes clear that every single movie—no matter how flawless—would be infinitely better if it included Cher.”[245] She stars as Ruby Sheridan, who is the grandmother of Sophie, played by Amanda Seyfried, and the mother of Donna, portrayed by Meryl Streep.[246] Cher recorded two ABBA songs for the film’s soundtrack: “Fernando” and “Super Trouper”.[247] Björn Ulvaeus of ABBA commented, “She makes Fernando her own. It’s her song now.”[248]

On March 4, 2018, Cher headlined the 40th Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. Tickets sold out within three hours after she hinted her performance on her Twitter account.[249] In September 2018, Cher embarked on the Here We Go Again Tour.[250]

While promoting Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, Cher confirmed she was working on an album that would feature cover versions of songs from ABBA.[251] The album, Dancing Queen, was released on September 28, 2018.[252] Brittany Spanos from Rolling Stone commented that “the 72-year-old makes ABBA songs not only sound like they should’ve been written for her in the first place but like they firmly belong in 2018”.[253] Marc Snetiker from Entertainment Weekly called it Cher’s “most significant release since 1998’s Believe” and noted that “the album ender, ‘One of Us’, is frankly one of Cher’s best recordings in years.”[254] Dancing Queen debuted at number three on the Billboard 200, tying with 2013’s Closer to the Truth for Cher’s highest-charting solo album in the US. With first-week sales of 153,000 units, it earned the year’s biggest sales week for a pop album by a female artist, as well as Cher’s largest sales week since 1991. Dancing Queen also topped Billboard’s Top Album Sales chart, making it Cher’s first number-one album on that chart.[255]

The Cher Show, a jukebox musical based on Cher’s life and music, officially premiered at the Oriental Theatre in Chicago, on June 28, 2018, and played through July 15.[256] It began Broadway previews November 1, with its official opening on December 3, 2018. Written by Rick Elice, it features three actresses playing Cher during different stages of her life.[257] The Cher Show is set to launch a US tour in 2021 after being postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.[258]

On December 2, 2018, Cher received a Kennedy Center Honors prize, the annual Washington distinction for artists who have made extraordinary contributions to culture.[259] The ceremony featured tribute performances by Cyndi Lauper, Little Big Town and Adam Lambert.[260] During 2018, Cher used Twitter to announce she was working on four new projects for the next two years: a Christmas album;[261] a second album of ABBA covers;[261] an autobiography;[262] and a biographical film about her life.[262]

In October 2019, Cher launched a new perfume, Cher Eau de Couture, which was four years in the making. Described as “genderless”, it is Cher’s second fragrance after 1987’s Uninhibited.[263] On February 4, 2020, Cher was announced as the new face of fashion brand Dsquared2.[264] She starred in the brand’s spring/summer advertising campaign, which was directed by photographers Mert and Marcus.[265] In May, Cher released her first Spanish-language song, a cover of ABBA’s “Chiquitita”. Proceeds from the single were donated to UNICEF following the COVID-19 pandemic.[266] In November, Cher spawned a UK top-ten single as part of the charity supergroup BBC Radio 2 Allstars with “Stop Crying Your Heart Out”, an Oasis cover recorded in support of BBC’s Children in Need charity.[267][268]

Cher appeared in a voice-over role as a bobblehead version of herself in the animated feature film Bobbleheads: The Movie (2020).[269] The same year, she was featured on The New York Times Magazine’s list of “The Best Actors of 2020”,[270] the first time an actor not in a current-year theatrical release made it on the annual list;[271] film critics Wesley Morris and A. O. Scott commented, “Cher’s radiant performance in Moonstruck warmed us in quarantine.”[270]

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