In the early 1980s, an artist named Paul Davis sang a song about love circa 1965. "65 Love Affair/Rock 'n' Roll was simple and clear." He could have been singing about "I Got You Babe" because when people remember the summer of '65, they remember "I Got You Babe," the hot summer single of that year. Thirty years have passed and "I Got You Babe" is still as inseparable from our notions of the mid-60s, innocent love, and Sonny & Cher as they ever were. This song not only took Sonny & Cher from obscurity to super-stardom but also charted a course for their lives to follow and cemented their image as casual, likeable and accessible pop-stars. This very course would lead to the destruction of their relationship long before the end of their respective topsy-turvy celebrity careers.
I Got You Babe, The Making of
In 1965 Sonny Bono sat in his Laurel Canyon garage at his $85 piano with its three broken keys at the bass end and wrote late into the night, scribbling words down on a scrap of cleaner's cardboard. Cleaner's cardboard was his talisman, the good-luck charm he needed in search of that illusive hit song that would rocket Sonny & Cher to riches and fame. IGUB was completed in one late-night hour. Allegedly, when Sonny completed a song, he woke Cher up and asked her to sing it for him, which was always a struggle because not only was Cher too shy to sing, even in front of Sonny, but she had trouble reading the lyrics. Sonny, she said, "had the worst handwriting in the modern world." Sonny became irritated and Cher finally sang the song. She was not impressed with Sonny's latest effort, but the song did have one major requirement she desired. Jackie de Shannon had just released a song with modulation (where a verse goes up one key in the middle of the song). Sonny's modulation in IGUB came between the lines "You're always around" and "So, let them say" and Cher dug the effect.
It has been said that IGUB fell right out of the lesson book of Phil Spector's Wall of Sound. It had a hook and Phil's 6/8 rhythm. It also had the trendy '60s Dylan inspired Babe theme. Years later, the former disgruntled manager of Sonny & Cher, Charlie Greene, would bitterly assert that IGUB was, in reality, a rip-off of Donovan's "Catch the Wind." (Check it out yourself as Cher covered that song on her 1967 self-titled LP.)
With a new record contract from Atco records and a $2,000 advance (and a promise of 7.5% royalties), Sonny took IGUB into the studio. The sound included a piano aided by a balalaika mandolin guitar. Friend and Soul Station entrepreneur Harold Battiste arranged the track in a cram session at Gold Star Studios in Hollywood, California, between July 7 and 9, 1965.
Back in the day when a record-buyer could get two songs for their 45-single-buying dollar, IGUB found itself as the likely b-side or flip side to the song "It's Gonna Rain." Today, we listen to "It's Gonna Rain" and it sounds dated, very 60s mod, but Ahmet Ertegun, the president of Atlantic and the head of Atco, didn't see it that way in the beginning. He was set to release Rain as the A-side, although Sonny, among others, saw IGUB as the hit-maker. So while Atco promoted Rain, Sonny promoted IGUB, making deals with radio stations, promising exclusives. A testament to Sonny's skill as a promoter, he succeeded in finding IGUB a home in the hands of program director Ron Jacobs at KHJ-LA radio and successfully ensured that the song would receive saturation airplay. The DJs loved it and played it.
Meanwhile, hobnobbing with The Rolling Stones, Sonny & Cher were advised that their look was too radical for American audiences to "get." The Stones recommended they tour England. During the month of July, Sonny & Cher did just that and with the behind-the-scenes trickery of their managers, Charlie Green and Brian Stone, Sonny & Cher managed to make headline news the day they arrived. Some stories have Charlie Greene allegedly paying 100 pounds to the manager of the Hilton Hotel in London to publicly throw Sonny & Cher out on the street for the way they were dressed. Mysteriously, the press were on hand to document the whole incident and Sonny & Cher were on the cover of The Daily Telegraph by 7 PM. Whether it was show-biz manipulation or just the happenstance of an overbooked hotel, Sonny & Cher moved to the lower-key Hampshire Hotel but were still trailed by the press at every appearance and shopping jaunt. This PR did the trick because by the time Sonny & Cher returned to the states, their reputations had preceded them. Americans treated them as if they were part of the British Invasion.
I Got You Babe, The Stats
By mid-July, Ahmet had changed his mind about IGUB after watching it float up to the number one spot on the local LA chart in only one week. On July 31, IGUB entered Billboard's Top 40. In three weeks of its release, on August 14, it sat squarely in the number one spot. The chart looked like this:
- Satisfaction—The Rolling Stones
- Save Your Love For Me—Gary Lewis & The Playboys
- I'm Henry VIII, I Am—Herman's Hermits
- What's New Pussycat—Tom Jones
IGUB even went to number 19 on the R&B charts. In 21 days the record sold 3 million copies. Sonny & Cher went on their first publicity binge. On August 6, they appeared on Ready Steady Go; August 7, Thank Your Lucky Stars; August 8, Easy Beat; August 9, BBC's Gadzooks; August 11, Disc A Go Go; August 13, Ready Steady Go again; August 14, BBC's Light Programme's Folk Room. By August 26, IGUB was number 1 in the UK, knocking the Beatles'"Help" off its perch. But the media blitz wasn't over (by years). The lessons Sonny had learned on his trip to the top would influence his decisions for years to come. Sonny had been waiting a long time for recognition. He would soon learn that fame was a fleeting thing and it wasn't long before he had a longevity plan.
I Got You Babe, The Aftermath
In Goldmine, Rick Wilson defined "I Got You Babe" as "neither calculated or sleek," much like the image of Sonny & Cher themselves. This was no accident.
Sonny & Cher, the act, found instant fame. There was no percolating underground swell that finally broke them over into the mainstream of popular culture. Within weeks they found themselves going from anonymity to being trailed by autograph seekers and general gawkers. Here's how Sonny would explain the phenomenon in the sanctioned IGUB mythology to be found on the LP Sonny & Cher Live in 1971: "Seven years ago, we had three things. I bought a piano for $85, we had each other and we had a philosophy and literally that was it. And then, I don't know how or why, but somehow I put some words and music to the philosophy and it changed our lives in a week and they've been changed ever since."
There are some interesting and subtle elements to this story. The very casual rambling nature of Sonny-speak serves to appear very uncalculated. Sonny & Cher, the act, came across as very casual and uncalculated, as well. They were go-with-the-flow kinds of artists. We know, in retrospect, that Sonny put a lot of time and thought into their image. Sonny would usually downplay the think-tank nature of his personality. He always came across as very chatty. This was part of his "get to know us" philosophy, not unlike the philosophy that inspired IGUB. We are average, simple people just like our fans. We are very straightforward and here is the song that explains our very straightforward, elemental love. Everybody, come on in.
This open door policy of Sonny's was essential to his theory of stardom and longevity in the business. That his signature song laid bare their relationship (or appeared to lay bare their relationship) is not a coincidence. I prefer to think that the song was a genuine sentiment, but also a sidebar message that they were just like the kids who bought the record. Sonny always spoke of being an advocate for the kids every step of the way. Years later, Sonny let his strategy slip out to Rona Barrett in 1973, despite the risk of showing the audience how the show-biz trick worked: "If the public buys you at a personality level then they're accepting you, not the song or the act. The public feels that it knows the performer. I think that's how you can solidify a career. And that's all we're out to do." This strategy would turn out to make a private life, and even the decision to have a private life, very precarious not only for Sonny & Cher in the 1970s, but for Cher forevermore.
A Teen Screen interviewer uncovered how available Sonny & Cher were to their fans in 1967, even so far as letting fans know where they lived:
Sonny: "As for the fans, I don't even like to call them fans. I like to call them friends. When we're not busy, they come in the house. During the summer they come more often, sometimes—we have a buzzer outside our gate—sometimes they hit it at 2:00 am in the morning."
Teen Screen: How do you think they found your house?
Sonny: "We post it! We don't try to hid it because I don't try to hide from the kids or the people."
This was both a brilliant and dangerously naïve approach. Dangerous because it worked too well. We did feel like we knew Sonny & Cher by 1973, aggressively so. We saw them rise and fall, bicker and coo. We watched their child grow up. We were invited into pseudo moments of the TV-show home, variety mock-ups, home movies, personal stories in monologues and interviews. We felt like friends and like friends of Sonny & Cher, we felt and still feel (because the power of Sonny's invitation still feels potent today) that we knew what was best for them, felt we had the right to assert our opinions about the lives of virtual strangers, (not unlike the ones I am asserting now).
When you put your life in a pop song, your life then becomes entertainment for other people. What is real and what isn't? We usually can't tell the difference. Sonny's very charismatic philosophy pulled us in and we became, for better or worse, attached.
The marital weather changed between the first Sonny & Cher Live album and the second, a mere two years later. The tonal difference in the dialogues from one to the other is sadly unmistakable. Again, Sonny tells that very sanctioned story of how IGUB changed their lives. This time, we get the sense that Sonny is alone on stage and his voice has a twinge of melancholy. IGUB has turned from a universal love letter (love may not pay the rent, but love is all we need) to a signature song heavy with residuals. Sonny rambles much longer through the story this time as if trying to hang on to the mythology of it for as long as he can. On this last version of the IGUB story, Sonny's final words leave behind a haunting epigraph to IGUB and Sonny & Cher's singular policy of glasnost:
"the philosophy became a song and then it became a record and then it became us."
It is rumored that Cher still has that piece of cleaners cardboard where Sonny scratched the beginnings of IGUB and the philosophy that started it all. We can only hope she never lets the people near it. For possibly it was that very act of sharing their private lives with the world that set Sonny & Cher on a track they couldn't step off of. Share your treasures with the world and the world will taketh away. ◙
(Cher Scholar, 2000)
A&E Biography of Sonny Bono; Sonny & Me: Cher Remembers; Sh-Boom Magazine, July 1990; The First Time, by Cher and Jeff Coplon; Look At Me re-issue by Sundazed records, liner-notes by Ward Lamb and Jud Cost; Behind The Music—Cher; The Beat Goes On by Sonny Bono; Cher by Michael St. Michael; Cher, In Her Own Words by Nigel Goodall; Rolling Stone, May 1973 by Chris Holdenfield, (a particularly nasty piece but at least he took them seriously enough to do an in-depth, researched expose); Goldmine article by Rick Wilson, 1982; Sonny & Cher Live, 1971; Sonny & Cher Live, 1973; Rona Barretts Hollywood, Summer 1973; Teen Screen, April 1967.
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