Family & Companions
He may not have elicited the same reception as his flamboyant and bedazzled partner, but that was just how Sonny Bono had planned it. Best known as the straight man to his wife, singer-actress Cher, on "The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour" (CBS, 1971-74), Bono was a singer, songwriter and television star with a career that spanned decades in Hollywood, including learning music production under the tutelage of Phil Spector during his "wall of sound" heyday. Later, after his marriage to Cher dissolved in the mid-1970s, he refocused his considerable energies less on entertainment and more on politics. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives representing California. The showbiz icon's life was cut short during a tragic skiing accident in 1998, yet he was forever remembered for his generosity of spirit and for giving the world the classic pop song "I Got You Babe."
Salvatore Phillip Bono was born on Feb. 16, 1935 in Detroit, MI, to a first-generation Sicilian-American family. His family moved to the Los Angeles area when he was seven years old. Bono began his music career working for music producer Phil Spector in the early 1960s as a promotion man, percussionist and "gofer." Even Spector - in his crazy haze - could see that this Salvatore kid was dedicated, so he eventually bumped him up to co-producing and backup singer. However, money was still tight, so as a struggling musician, Bono reportedly made deliveries for a butcher shop. A few industry people still remember the strange but ambitious man with the cutting-edge Caesar haircut who used to come to studios to promote new songs while still wearing a bloodstained apron.
The song "Needles and Pins," released in 1963 was one of his first hits, but it was not until Bono became the other half of the singing duo Sonny & Cher that his career took off. But much drama ensued before the soon-to-be-couple became the oddball duet hitmakers that they became during the still straight-laced mid-1960s. At the age of 16, a certain Cherilyn Sarkisian had quit school and headed to Hollywood, where she worked odd jobs and spent nights immersed in the music scene of the Sunset Strip. Through a mutual friend she met Bono, who offered the runaway a spare bed in his apartment, allaying her fears by assuring her that he "didn't find her attractive in the slightest." The 16-year-old Cher also allayed the 27-year-old's fears by assuring him she was 18. Despite his initial comments to her, Bono saw a spark in the intensely frightened oddball teen, and helped land her work as a session singer with Spector hitmakers like The Ronettes and The Righteous Brothers. By the time Cher turned 18 in 1964, she and Bono's friendship had turned into love. The couple were married, and shortly after, Spector gave the new bride her first shot at music stardom with the Bono-penned and Beatle-inspired novelty single, "Ringo, I Love You" (1964), which was released (and flopped) under the name Bonnie Jo Mason.
Having fallen for the young Cher, Bono wrote, arranged and produced a number of hit records for the new singing duo, including the classic pop tunes "I Got You Babe" and "The Beat Goes On" in the mid-1960s. They also produced something even more meaningful: a daughter, Chastity Bono, born March 4, 1969. With gold records in hand, the pair moved on to conquering another medium: television. Bono and Cher shared billing in the quintessential variety show, "The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour." Bono's self-deprecating humor worked well for the show and fans lapped up Cher's constant putdowns of Bono's inability to sing and his height (he was 5' 5"). The show lasted until 1974, when the couple's divorce took its toll on them personally and professionally. In fact, Cher would later site the show and Bono's control issues as two of the reasons their marriage ended. Bono continued with "The Sonny Comedy Revue" (CBS, 1974) that only lasted a few episodes. Audiences were not ready to see Sonny solo. Realizing this, in a surprising move, the now defunct couple decided to give another shot at a variety show even though their divorce had finalized. "The Sonny and Cher Show" premiered in the fall of 1976, although audiences felt the magic and chemistry between the couple was gone for good. In the meantime, Cher had also remarried, to rocker and notorious drug addict Greg Allman - with whom she had her second child, Elijah Blue in 1976 - and it made for an awkward and unfunny two seasons before getting cancelled just a year later.
Post-Cher, Bono continued acting, appearing in TV shows such as "Fantasy Island" (ABC, 1978-1984) and "The Love Boat" (ABC, 1977-1986). He reportedly became disillusioned with his showbiz career on the set of "Fantasy Island," with some people on the set recalling that while he was shooting a scene with the pint-sized Herve Villechaize as Tattoo, Bono forgot Tattoo's name. As second lead, Villechaize did not take this very lightly and lashed out at Bono. In an interview about the incident, Bono said that he "literally asked himself what the hell he was doing there." It appeared as though he had had enough of acting, yet Bono continued to appear in movies, albeit in small roles. On the big screen, he played the part of mad bomber Joe Seluchi in "Airplane II: The Sequel" (1982) and the part of Franklin Von Tussle in John Waters' "Hairspray" (1988).
In the 1990s, Bono appeared as one of several celebrities seen on a wall of video screens monitoring aliens running amok in Earth in the 1997 film "Men in Black" starring Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. In 1992, FOX-TV announced that it was making an autobiographical movie about Sonny & Cher. True to form, Bono suggested that distinguished actor Kevin Costner play him and outrageous (and oversized) TV personality Roseanne Arnold be cast as Cher. Another film titled "And the Beat Goes On: The Sonny and Cher Story" aired on ABC in 1999, based on Bono's autobiography, which Cher was reportedly not happy with. In fact, for the vast majority of the rest of Bono's life, Cher and her ex were often at odds, with little good to say of the other. Their one touchstone was their daughter, Chastity, who eventually came out as a lesbian. Being that Bono was definitely the more conservative - i.e. Republican - of the two parents - and with Cher being a gay icon at that point - it was surprising to learn years later that Bono was far more accepting of his daughter's sexual identity than his liberal-minded ex-wife. However, the often at-odds couple did have one last grasp at glory - though they did not know it at the time. In 1987, both were guests on "Late Night with David Letterman" (NBC, 1982-1993) and during the show, Letterman was able to convince the reluctant couple to reunite in song. When Sonny and Cher sang "I Got You Babe" together for the first time in decades, it was a moment in television history and was surprisingly affectionate, with the couple singing with arms around one another.Despite being off the radar in light of Cher's comeback as an Academy Award-winning actress, Bono's personal life was just as interesting as his career. Married four times, he had had a daughter, Christine, with his first wife, Donna Rankin, whom he married in 1954 and divorced in 1962. After Cher and Chastity, he married Susie Coelho in 1981, but they split up in 1984. Bono married again in 1986, this time to the much younger Mary Whitaker. The couple had two children, Chianna and Chesare. In an interview, Bono acknowledged an illegitimate son, Sean, born in 1964, from an affair with Mimi Machu. Fortunately for Bono, the fourth time was the charm, as his marriage to Mary Bono finally brought him the personal happiness and calm he had longed for all his life.
Bono became interested in politics late in life, when he wanted a bigger sign for a restaurant he was opening in Palm Springs, CA where he had relocated. He encountered so much red tape from the city that he resolved to change things by running for mayor. It was a surprising move for someone who had never even registered or voted before. With conservative talk radio announcer Marshall Gilbert as his campaign manager, Bono ran for mayor and won the election. He served from 1988 to 1992. He also led to the creation of the Palm Springs International Film Festival, now held each year in his memory.
After an unsuccessful bid for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in 1992, Bono then tried his luck in Congress, where he was elected in 1994 to represent California's 44th District. He quickly made his stamp on the floor; he was one of 12 co-sponsors of a House Bill extending copyright. While the bill never made it to the Senate, a similar bill was passed later, named the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act in his honor. During his tenure in Congress, he became an advocate of the restoration of the Salton Sea, where a park was named in his honor. He also tried to get federal aid to preserve the habitats of the endangered species in Riverside, CA. But he was not a bleeding heart either; when the Endangered Species Act required millions of dollars from local government and property owners to protect Stephens' Kangaroo rat in Riverside, he remarked, "We all love the environment, but we have placed creatures above people. A rat is a rat." When asked about illegal immigration, Bono once said, "What's to talk about? It's illegal."
Bono was an avid skier, frequenting the Heavenly Ski Resort in South Lake Tahoe, CA, for more than 20 years. Ironically, it was his much-beloved sport that eventually took his life. On Jan. 5, 1998, while on a family vacation at the resort, the former TV personality-turned-politician died of injuries after hitting a tree while skiing. In newspaper accounts, the resort manager said that Bono was skiing alone at the top of the Orion slope when he crossed beneath a chairlift and struck a tree. He was only 62. Bono's widow, Mary, was elected to finish the remainder of the Congressional term. His former co-star and ex-wife Cher gave a moving, tear-inducing eulogy at his funeral - one which even she was not emotionally prepared to make after years of estrangement - after which the attendees sang the song "The Beat Goes On." The epitaph on Bono's headstone at Desert Memorial Park in Cathedral City, California, read: "And the beat goes on."
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Landed songwriting/producing job with Sam Cooke, Little Richard and Larry Williams
First radio hit, "Koko Joe" performed by The Righteous Brothers
Formed duo with new wife, Cher, "Caesar and Cleo"
Worked as an A&R man for Phillies Records, writing, singing, and playing with such artists as Darlene Love and the Ronettes; met the teenaged Cher for whom he got work as backup vocalist for the Ronettes and the Crystals
Feature acting debut, "Wild on the Beach"
Changed to "Sonny and Cher" for recording purposes
Starred as himself with Cher in feature, "Good Times"
Formed nightclub act with Cher; discovered by CBS TV executive Fred Silverman
Acted in first TV-movie, "The First Nine Months Are the Hardest"
Hosted (with Cher) TV series, "The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour"
Hosted own TV series, "The Sonny Comedy Review"
Opened Bono's Restaurant in West Hollywood
Opened Bono's Restaurant in Palm Springs
Reunited with Cher for one performance and sang "I Got You Babe" on "Late Night with David Letterman" (February)
Elected mayor of Palm Springs, CA (April 12)
Founded the Palm Springs Film Festival
Unsuccessfully ran for the US Senate from California
Elected to Congress as representative from California (November), assumed office in January 1995
Re-elected to Congress