I’d like to focus on yet another ’would-be Spector’ who used his first-hand knowledge of the Wall of Sound to emulate Phil Spector.
Sonny Bono is without a doubt the one person from Spector’s early to mid-60s inner circle who benefitted the most from working long hours with the Tycoon of Teen. His phenomenal success with Sonny & Cher as well as both Cher and Sonny as solo artists surely must have surprised everyone at Gold Star since Sonny was probably the one around with the least musical chops. But what he may have lacked in both a singing voice as well as music skills, he more than made up for with adaptability, shrewdness and teaming up with the right people, – in the latter case, it was the skilled arranger Harold Battiste who worked wonders for Sonny’s productions, just like Jack Nietszche did for Spector. We can only wonder how much Battiste brought to the Sonny & Cher hit records but it probably safe to assume, that it was quite a lot.
With the past editions of the on-going ‘Would-be Spector’ feature I have been able to point to various one-off singles by obscure artists produced by the various people who decided to give Spector a run for his money. A blog post focusing on Sonny Bono can’t follow the same pattern since he decided to focus all his attention on his own releases, – something that sets him apart from most other would-be Spectors of the time.
As legend has it, Sonny brought along his new girlfriend and future bride Cherilyn Sarkisian to Spector sessions in the early 60s which quickly resulted in the deep-voiced Cher singing background along with Sonny and a gazillion other people on a number of Philles releases. In 1965 it was time for Sonny & Cher to carve out their own niche in the LA music business and after a short stint as Ceasar & Cleo, they finally found worldwide fame with a merging of the wall of sound and the emerging jingle-jangle folk-rock style. Ironically, it was a hybrid sound that Spector could or should have also pursued. Around this time, he certainly came close with both the Modern Folk Quartet’s ‘This Could be the Night’ and ‘Paradise’ by the Ronettes. Both of these top productions remained unreleased however and one can only speculate which direction Spector’s career could have taken, had he followed up on this interesting mixing of styles.
Instead, it was up to Sonny to milk the jingle-jangle angle for all it was worth within a wall of sound context – and he did so brilliantly. According to Sonny himself in his biography and Binia Taminiecka’s early 80s Spector documentary, he lost his position as Spector’s promo man and gofer after suggesting to him that the wall of sound was becoming stale and predictable. How ironic then, that he took it as his own point of departure once on his own with Cher. It does make sense though. Singing backgrounds and playing percussion at Gold Star among the Wrecking Crew and seeing how Spector painstakingly build up his otherworldly productions, Sonny basically took an in-the-studio masterclass at how to create hit records.
With Battiste as the glue who kept it all together, Sonny set out to make a name for himself and Cher with many of the same musicians who graced the Spector productions. The major difference though was the lack of strings on the majority of Sonny’s records. Whether or not this was to keep in line with the more down-to-earth aesthetic of folk-rock or just a case of not spending too much time or money on recordings, the result was a sound that’s a bit rougher around the edges than Spector’s. A comparison between Sonny’s work and Spector’s will quickly reveal that the latter used strings as a key element to broaden and also beef up the overall sonic impact than what Sonny was able to with his set-up.
Some claim that Sonny couldn’t sing. I’ve never understood that sentiment. To these ears, Sonny had the perfect voice for what he set out to do; combine the rebellious, gritty feel of folk-rock with the wide-eyed romanticism of the Wall of Sound. At his best, as with ‘I Got You, Babe’ or ‘Just You’, Sonny & Cher recorded godlike pop records which will continue to appeal and inspire. Good things are to be found on the first three Sonny & Cher albums as well as among the solo stuff Sonny produced for both Cher and himself.
For now, I’ll conclude with three particular favorites of mine.
Sonny & Cher – Just You (1965)
Even though it’s in part a blatant rip-off of the melody of ‘Baby, I Love You’ by the Ronettes, this is a fantastic song with a great production / arrangement by Sonny Bono and Harold Battiste. And lo and behold; Sonny actually decided to wheel in some strings for this lovely odé to love.
Sonny – The Revolution Kind (1965)
Here’s a solo single by Sonny that is every bit as good as his more well-known ‘Laugh at Me.’ Just like on that track, he’s channeling Dylan in both topic and vocal style to great effect – and with a thunderous ‘Da Doo Ron Ron’-styled backing to boot! Very good.
Sonny & Cher – Stand by Me (1967)
This one is easily overlooked on the duo’s third longplayer, tucked away as it is half-way through side B. Ok, so it’s not like Sonny & Cher top the iconic Ben E. King hit recording, but nevertheless, I’ve always enjoyed this version for it’s sheer over-the-top backing track. It sounds as if Sonny gathered a zillion percussionists and what not and made them all have a field day in Gold Star. The end results is a powerhouse backing track that is all over the place.