"The only predictable fact of Cher's career is that it's unpredictable. Her need to experiment musically has led her to record in almost every American music idiom. However, it's the National Enquirer type focus on her private life that's made her one of the most visible celebrities of our time [and] a high tabloid profile doesn't translate into respect. And respect is something Cher has never received from the music community."
—Bil Carpenter, Goldmine, 1992
"A charismatic and sometimes outrageous media image, amply fueled with glamour, wealth, frankness, scandal and personal misfortune invariably overshadows any artists work."
"To be sure there is art in artifice."
— Ron Wilson, Goldmine, 1982
Everyone's a Critic Today
Cher recorded the album Stars when she was 29 years old. No one bought it. It stalled on Billboard at #153. The press ignored it and the critics hated it. They really hated it. Many were unjustly prejudiced against Cher, the TV Star, and others who gave Cher the benefit of the doubt still managed to miss the point of the album entirely.
Possibly the softest slam came from Billboard Magazine, but the perpetually chipper, pro-sales spinsters there found little to herald in Stars: "a mix of MOR type cuts, bluesy rock, progressive country and standard rock—standard Cher vocals buffered by big Webb productions—the major problem is that the artist's vocals sound strained and/or overdone on most cuts and the mood doesn't seem to change a great deal from song to song." Billboard complimented Stars on "excellent musicianship throughout from a number of prominent players" and named the best cuts as "Stars," "Love Hurts," "These Days" and "Geronimo's Cadillac." A note to dealers (a latent "on the bright side") reads: "artist certainly a more salable quantity with recent TV solo success and will undoubtedly perform LP songs on the show."
James Spina wrote in his review for Women's Wear Daily that Stars was Cher's "worst of many bad records." He chastised the "limp orchestra" and noted that "her mild pretense of some vague uphill battle in every piece is horrendously false...you can lead a horse to a song but you can't make her sing it well."
Other critics claimed that the album was too eclectic and over produced, as if the album had six producers and a mixture of Jazz, Polka and Ska. Whatever. Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times felt Cher failed to add insight into the material and that "the songs are too well known for her to hide behind them. The biggest mistake was doing songs that had been handled so well elsewhere, thus making comparisons so easy...all the grumbling about record producers holding her back was unwarranted...she had no one but herself to blame for the emptiness of her new album...maybe it's even time to send Sonny an apology. It doesn't look like she is ever going to top "I Got You Babe.''
Janet Maslin of The Village Voice called Cher "a stylist without true style" and said her versions sounded "second-hand...no matter how hard she and producer Webb try to prove otherwise on the record, Cher is just no rock and roller." Clearly these critics could not accept Cher singing rock songs. It stands to reason that they would never accept Stars.
Years later, Cher herself criticized Stars. She told Dance Music Authority in December of 1998, " I loved making the Stars album. I loved "Geronimo's Cadillac." I wish I'd been a better singer then because I would have done a better job on it. I had the emotion but I didn't quite have the control I needed. Also, I got so tired of people making fun of my vibrato that I worked really hard with my vocal teacher to control it, you know, to be able to get rid of it at will."
To keep things in perspective, this might be a good time to point out that the press had just turned an about-face against Cher. A change in favor had occurred in the middle of her whirlwind love life: a divorce from Sonny and subsequent hook-up with Gregg Allman. Cher's aspirations to sing rock struck many of her pop-fans as ungrateful. Rock fans saw the move as ambitiously egotistical. Cher was in the tabloids 24/7. Even Dr. Joyce Brothers was talking about her mass appeal. And some of Cher's foibles were just coming to light. The Cher of Sonny & Cher and the "real" Cher were different people. The new Cher was a little rougher, a lot blunter and the public adjustment was chaffing a little. Cher was riding the crest of not only a successful TV show but a few years worth of top-selling singles as well. She was one of the most photographed women of the mid-70s. Whatever record she would have released at that time was in danger of being ravaged by the backlash that was due at any moment.
Stars Is Born
Stars was recorded and mixed at Sunset Sound studios in Hollywood California. This was the first full-length recording Cher would release on Warner Bros., the label David Geffen had successfully wrangled for her on a reported $2.5 million contract. Jimmy Webb, famous for many lush '70s pop hits like Art Garfunkel's "All I Know" 'and the Fifth Dimension's "Beautiful Balloon," was selected to produce and arrange the album. According to Cher biographer, Mark Bego, Cher selected most of the material:
"Love Enough" which was written by Tim Moore;
"Bell Bottom Blues" which first appeared on Derek and The Dominos'1970 album Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. Derek and The Dominos was Eric Clapton's attempt at anonymity and many songs on the album, like "Layla" and "Bell Bottom Blues," were inspired by Eric's then obsession with George Harrison's wife, Patti Boyd;
"These Days" which appeared on Jackson Browne's For Everyman album in 1974;
"Mr. Soul," almost a golden oldie compared to the other contemporary picks, was a scathing attack on the rock industry and written by Neil Young for the Buffalo Springfield Again album of 1967;
"Just This One Time" which was written by Jimmy Webb;
"Geronimo's Cadillac" which was written by Michael Martin Murphy (soon to record the easy-listening hit "Wildfire") for his 1972 album Geronimo's Cadillac;
"The Bigger They Come" which was actually entitled "The Harder They Come" and written by reggae artist Jimmy Cliff for his 1971 Soundtrack to the movie The Harder They Come which was about Shanty Town, Jamaica and the slums where reggae was born. The movie also included another cut Cher would perform live years later, "Many Rivers To Cross;"
"Love Hurts" which was written by the famous country songwriter Boudleaux Bryant who, with his wife Felice, wrote "Bye Bye Love" and "Wake Up Little Susie," two hits for the Everly Brothers and "Love Hurts" for Roy Orbison. The song was many times re-recorded by the likes of The Everly Brothers, Jim Lapaldi, Linda Ronstadt, Gram Parsons, Gary Morris and the most famous version by the band Nazareth;
"Rock n'Roll Doctor" which was written by Lowell George of Little Feat for their 1974 album Feats Don't Fail Me Now;
And "Stars" 'which was penned by Janis Ian (of the tragic ballad "Seventeen") for her 1974 LP also entitled Stars. Allegedly the song was heavily influenced by the 1971 Don McLean song "Vincent." The song, about celebrity, its loneliness and desolation, may have been too heavy for Cher's image to bear at the time, sentiments the 1975 public didn't care to hear about from her, let alone to have be the cornerstone of her new album.
Every cut on the Stars album was injected with detailed ornaments of woodwinds, strings, guitars, and steel drums. A veritable who's who of studio musicians were called in to carry out Webb's vision, including Little Feat guitarist Fred Tackett (who also played with The Allman Brothers, Jackson Browne, Bob Dylan and played on Allman & Woman, Two The Hard Way), guitarist Jesse Ed Davis (Jacskon Browne), drummer Jim Gordon (Derek and the Dominos and played on the album Cher, 1967), drummer Jeff Porcaro (Joe Cocker, CSN, The Fifth Dimension, Les Dudek, George Benson, and just about everyone else—he also played on many Cher albums including Bittersweet White Light, Mama Was A Rock and Roll Singer, Sonny & Cher Live II, I'd Rather Believe In You, Take Me Home, Prisoner and Love Hurts), drummer Gary Mallaber (Van Morrison, Steve Miller), drummer Jim Keltner (Bob Dylan), drummer Hal Blaine, a member of The Wrecking Crew (The Beach Boys, The Mamas and The Papas, The Fifth Dimension, also played on Sonny & Cher's debut album Look At Us), and Caribbean steel drummer Robert Greenidge (Earth, Wind & Fire, Harry Neilson, John Lennon).
The Word on the Street
The mislabeled "The Bigger They Come, The Harder They Fall" could well be the anthem of Stars. They tried hard and they failed hard. I think it is quite extraordinary that Cher fans, for the most part, vehemently disagree with the long-vanished critics of Stars. Both old connoisseurs of Cher music and new fans alike all consider Stars Cher's crowing moment and a sublime piece of work. There are a few conscious objectors among us, but Stars is resoundingly popular and the most coveted among Cher albums.
Even one Cher biographer, Mark Bego, stood apart and said that Stars was "the most complete album of music that she has recorded in her career." Bil Carpenter of Goldmine magazine admired the "lush styling" and said that Cher gave her "best—most wrenching work-out" on "Just This One Time" ending with that "searing high-note."
A Cher fan from Toronto named Michael Young posted a review of Stars on the British fan web site Cher Dedication in 1998. He called Stars "ahead of its time" and asserted that the renditions were indeed interpretations vs. covers. "This album stands out for me because for the first time I heard her do something I knew she was capable of doing...specifically during the track "Just This One Time" where "at the end, her lonely voice soars high above the music."
He acknowledges the problems of releasing the album during the chaos of Cher's life at the time: the love affair with Gregg Allman, the Average White Band scandal. He says, "perhaps the change was too dramatic...But Stars showed us an artist with depth and beauty and one who was willing to grow and take risks."
Michael compares Stars to It's A Man's World (1995), over-flowing with ballads, heavy on interpretations, and guided by men who respected her talents and knew how to guide her. Likewise, both were ignored by Warner Bros.
My Two Cents on the Matter
I agree and feel certain that each time Stars is revisited, praise will emerge concerning not only the quality of Cher's voice (another essay in itself) but also the interpretations she gave to the music on the record and the value of this album against the rest of her comparatively large catalog of albums. After her dramatic life story, her over-the-top style and other medium distractions (TV shows, movies, commercial ventures), the songs on Stars will stand for themselves someday quite respectably.
In 1975, many were not familiar with the alternate earthy image of Cher in blue-jeans, or even Cher singing songs about blue-jeans. This was a hurdle as high as Bob Dylan might face handling an Oscar & Hammerstein tribute, the stuff jokes are made of. This is why we, John Q. Public, have little tolerance for being asked to sit through David Cassidy's new album of Music-I-Always-Wanted-To-Make. We bought your image, hook line and sinker. Don't tell us now that this wasn't the "real-you." We pegged you. Don't contradict us. Cher has bucked this phenomenon before. And had she managed an image overhaul before the release of Stars, everyone might be listening to a different track listing on Cher's Greatest Hits today, having seen that the material really did match the artist. Soulful melodies were suited to her resonant voice, the experimental mellow orchestra a fine bed for her occasional vibrato.
As a collective, the songs have a remarkable coherence, slow drawn-out melodies, much more ethereal than their original versions. Eric Clapton's "Bell Bottom Blues" sounds like he has his shorts on too tight. The album packaging even toes the line, lights strung around a close-up of Cher's face, sparkly nails and a deadpan stare. The image matches the melancholy ballads and the popping-light quality of the pianos on songs "Love Hurts" and "Stars." Cher's voice weaves among the instrumentals on the album where she often competes with and bullies other instrumentals on later albums.
Cher's voice was at its vintage peak in 1975, empowered by her independence, forceful with a new maturity. After emerging from the flatter sound of the 60s records, the early 70s recordings were just testing Cher's new chops, flirting with the Cher-drawl, seeing what it could do. On Stars, Cher's voice is working 9 to 5, still clean of the under-enunciated over-drawl (really, her voice defies verbal description) that could be heard creeping into her later 70s cuts.
"Love Enough" sets the tone with a melancholy longing, a lackadaisical pace, a rise and fall melody. Cher, with the clarity and delicacy of her vocal, draws the jazz-speak of the lyrics out like a long thread. Soft back-up vocals and unobtrusive percussions are lightly interwoven with a light guitar strum. Cher's vocal sears throughout with beautiful contrast, the whole song floating on an ocean's tempo. I am always so taken by the mesmerizing sound that I can never keep clear what the song is literally about—something about loving enough, like "Love & Understanding" only much better, I'm sure of it.
"Bell Bottom Blues" begins with a piano moving at a faster clip than the original Clapton version. A charismatic guitar replies to Cher's wailing lyrics. The Clapton liner notes read, "I don't want to fade away," but that doesn't sound like what Cher is singing. Her lyric sounds like a better, falsetto new word. Her whole vocal is pleading against the bass skeleton, piano garnish, a steel guitar and a shadow of back-up vocals where you can almost hear Jimmy Webb's wife singing in the back. The song flows together so completely, it's hard to tell where one line ends and the next one begins.
A piano rolls down steps in the opening notes of "These Days." Cher sings philosophical lyrics about withdrawing and reflecting above delicate guitar picking and piano plunking. The strings pick up after the first half of the song, a steel guitar stretches around them, Cher's sublime end falsetto, sprouting and sailing into the fade out.
"Aww!" Something funky and soulful is happening in "Mr. Soul." As a child, I loved this sarcastic and cheeky song. The lyric "I thought that my head was the invent of the season" sounded as if Neal Young was undercutting his own vanity. Very cool! Cher plays this character with 100% attitude to the "end of letter," not her '80s-decade strut and conquer attitude but a sullen, "sit back in a chair and flip a deck of cards at the world" attitude. Strips of the decadent Neal Young-inspired guitar tumble down a spiral that holds this song so cynically together.
"Just This One Time" begins with strings. Then drums tumble in, a bigger part of this song, recurring like a constant slap. Cher's falsetto wail comes and goes, the chorus is pure gospel, the steel guitar is a herald. The back-ups bolster the chorus and then pull away from it. The bass bridge is guitar sprinkled and the steel guitar leads into a shivering falsetto wail, the back-ups step up, the whole song rolls up to but never goes over the top. A superbly satisfying track.
Flip the record over and you hear the soul piano intro dipping and twirling while Cher wails the memorably arresting first lines of "Geronimo's Cadillac." This song is soul, soul, soul and Cher makes no vocal missteps. A steel guitar blips and accents her while Cher is supported by marvelously soulful back-ups.
We are suddenly listening to the horns of reggae in "The Bigger They Come." Kettledrums like fat raindrops layer themselves among intricate drumming, a groovy jiggy guitar and Cher's swaggering bravado. This woman has heard soul. A trumpet bridge comes and goes, a saxophone's honks are meshed into the background and all the elements come together in a collage at the end.
"Love Hurts" comes in with the soft rain of a piano, the plucking of a guitar, and the soft crashes of percussion. This is a very quiet song. The drum steps up in a roll, strings come in like light wispy clouds. Cher's vocal stays consistent through the whole track, hinting at something lost and sad under the surface. A quivering of strings takes you into the meditative guitar and piano showers, the heartbeat drums and the sailing string solo.
"Rock 'n' Roll Doctor" is Side B's answer to "Mr. Soul." A chance to rock it up before the end. A funky, sassy guitar leads the song, accented with a neck-snapping parade of horn support. Cher is running fast with the lyrics and it's a treat to hear her sing "limousines." The song breaks out into a funky bridge. Throughout the track are clean, crisp instrumentals you can separate out. Cher gets scary at the end in her parlance dance with the back-up singers. "It makes you feel so fine!"
"I was never one for singing what I really feel" captures the more guarded Cher in a recording nutshell. Even the "biographical" songs on the Prisoner album seem Hollywoodized. The song "Stars" begins with a tragic piano intro, Janis Ian's depressing specialty. The melody is then sprinkled with soft piano rain songs similar to "Love Hurts." This album always hangs around in the same key. The heartbeat drum is back as well. This version of "Stars" loses the more personal Janis Ian verses. Cher leans on important words, draws out the sad parts. Stings match her in the melody or tightly shadow her. The song contains some contextual pauses for emphasis but the lyrics never relent and keep rambling on until the end. For me, the most sublime Cher moment on the album, in her entire recording history, comes as the song reaches its quiet before the storm, right before the climax. She sings the final lines of the chorus, "They always have a story" although it sounds more like "They always come up singing" or "swinging." A truly heartbreaking falsetto stands on the edge of a cliff and takes a final bow, sailing into the kettledrum stars of the sky. A truly divine sound.
Stars is not overt. Stars is subtle, not something we usually associate with Cher. The vocals are not strained, nothing on the album is overdone. Cher doesn't belt out the numbers in an '80s full-tilt. She works in a wider range, soft sounds drawn out into textually calculated soul wails. Stars shows a quiet, more contemplative Cher. The mood doesn't change and that's what makes the whole album so collectively satisfying. The consistent melancholy has a quiet powerful energy, an exhausted powerlessness that carries a pathos punch. For Cher fans, gems are to be found on every single Cher album. But I believe, even for those particularly ear-muffed Cher-doubters, Stars will shine long after her life stops pushing it back into the shade. ◙
(Cher Scholar, 2000)
Cher by George Carpozi, Jr.; Cher! by Mark Bego; Dance Music Authority, January 1999; Goldmine, 1982; Goldmine, 1992; Totally Uninhibited, L.J. Quirk (what a dork!); Cher, Michael St. Michael; Interview Magazine, 1980; Cher Dedication website at www.cher.org.uk; Billboard at www.billboard.com.
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