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Appreciation: The Sonny Side of Life

Sonny Bono: 1935-1998

By Ginia Bellafante

(TIME, January 19) -- Can a life composed of second acts bring off a grand finale? Sonny Bono did just that. His opera buffa culminated in a Palm Springs, Calif., funeral in a Roman Catholic church, attended by three wives, his gay-activist daughter, conservative G.O.P. hierarchs from Washington and stand-up eulogists getting laughs from leather-clad bikers listening in from the streets and a worldwide audience watching live on cable TV. Even when his life finally got suddenly and fatally out of control, his timing was impeccable. He died like a Kennedy, on skis, against a tree. And if that's funny, it is something he'd appreciate. He knew all about the power of laughter. (His lone solo hit was called Laugh at Me.) And with celebrity funerals turning into serious newsfare, Bono provided existential comic relief. For, despite being opera buffa, his life was as grand and as quintessentially American as those of the Massachusetts dynasts -- but more exuberantly, more accessibly so. It was not carved like granite; it was curved like a smile. As his friend Tony Orlando the singer said last week, "They're flying a flag half-mast at the White House and all America is watching on TV for a guy who really started out delivering meat in a truck."

The third child of Sicilian immigrants, Bono never graduated from high school nor did he ever receive formal musical training. But, in the late '50s, he began hawking his songs to Sunset Boulevard record labels between making stops as a butcher's delivery boy. His big break came when he landed a job as an assistant to superstar record producer Phil Spector. It was during his tenure with Spector that Bono learned to hone his craft as a writer and arranger. In 1964 the Searchers recorded what is considered one of his best songs, Needles and Pins. During that period he met Cherilyn Sarkisian, then 16 years old. The two married in 1964, and beginning with the sweetly simple love song I Got You Babe, recorded just a few months after they exchanged vows, Bono created a stream of hits for the duo. By the end of 1967, Sonny & Cher had sold 40 million records worldwide and become rock's "it" couple.

Bono never aimed for poetry in his songs (nor, of course, was he blessed with good pipes), but he came to occupy an important place in the history of rock regardless. "He helped usher the genre from '50s-'60s pop to the folk-rock era of the later '60s," notes Jim Henke, chief curator of the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame and museum. "People didn't think about it at the time," says singer Chrissie Hynde, "but Sonny was a great songwriter."

As rock became increasingly politicized by the end of the 1960s, the couple's popularity waned. Having spent lavishly, Sonny & Cher were broke in 1969, so Bono remade them into a nightclub act of kitsch hippiedom. By 1971 they were starring in the Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour, the CBS variety show that brought a jokey, mass-market, safe feminism to TV as Sonny played emasculated buffoon to Cher's smart aleck. It was all his idea. As Cher said during her astonishing funeral oration last week, "He had the confidence to be the butt of the joke because he created the joke." But he was also in charge of the joke. The show ended in 1974 when Cher left Sonny, accusing him of virtually keeping her in indentured servitude.

Bono gave up show business to become a restaurateur in the early '80s. The career switch landed him in Palm Springs, Calif., where his efforts to revamp his restaurant brought him into conflict with city zoning officials. He took on and took over city hall, becoming mayor in 1988. Bono found he had a taste for politics. A run for the Senate failed, but two years later the G.O.P. takeover of Congress swept him into the House as the Representative from California's 44th district. He was re-elected in '96. Bono sat on the House Judiciary Committee as one of the group's two nonlawyers. He was, from time to time, made fun of by his Judiciary peers, but the former songwriter eventually proved himself with his expertise on intellectual-property issues. "He had a native intelligence that caused him to be very effective," says committee chairman Orrin Hatch. "He was bluntly honest."

He also had a subtle, charming guile. In his eulogy last week, Newt Gingrich recalled how Bono defused a tense congressional meeting with a joke at his own expense. Even Cher couldn't stay mad at him. (Bono jokingly explained away her barbs as proof she was really still in love with him. And after last week's tribute -- the final episode of the Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour -- who's to say he was wrong?) He recognized few barriers. Parties at his Georgetown home were smorgasbords of Republican stalwarts consorting with Bono pals like Democratic Congressman Barney Frank and John Waters, who directed Bono in Hairspray, a 1988 film starring the drag queen Divine.

Waters poses a delicious what-if. "Even though I didn't agree with some of his politics, I'm sorry that he didn't get the White House," he says. "In my mind it would have been wonderful anarchy to have Sonny Bono as President."

--With reporting by Laird Harrison/South Lake Tahoe and Chandrani Ghosh/Washington

In TIME This Week

Cover Date: January 19, 1998

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The G.O.P.'s Troublemaker
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