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