Elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1994, Sonny Bono (1935-1998) made a career out of reinventing himself. He played the straight man to his then-wife Cher, on the Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour in the 1970s and later served as mayor of Palm Springs, California. On Capitol Hill, he quickly established himself as a hard worker and a popular fundraiser for the Republican party.
Even though he was a dedicated congressman, a popular mayor, and a successful restauranteur, pop icon Sonny Bono will probably first and foremost be remembered, as the "shorter" half of "Sonny and Cher." From 1971 until mid-1974, this husband and wife team was one of the hottest acts on television. The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour presented elaborate song numbers, comedy skits, and lots of banter between the two stars. Sonny usually got the short end of the deal, with Cher making comments about his height, his Italian ancestry, or his limited singing voice. Through it all, he suffered the putdowns with good-natured, bumbling grace, and the audience loved it. No matter how many barbs and off-color remarks the couple exchanged, the act always ended on a happy note as they sang their signature song, "I Got You, Babe."
Salvatore Phillip Bono was born in Detroit, Michigan, on February 16, 1935, to Santo and Jean Bono, poor immigrants from Sicily. The family moved to Los Angeles when he was seven years old, and his parents later divorced. Although he was dedicated to writing songs, Bono did not have the same interest in school. He dropped out and tried to sell his tunes to recording companies. He did not have much luck with that either, although his song "Koko Joe" was somewhat successful for the Righteous Brothers. Between jobs as a waiter, butcher's assistant and truck driver, Bono occasionally worked with Little Richard and Sam Cooke, then was hired by Philles Records, where he worked with Phil Spector and got a complete education in the television and music business. For a time, he sang background for groups such as the Ronettes and Crystals.
Love and a brand new career came into Bono's life when he met an exotic-looking, dark-haired teenager named Cherilyn LaPiere Sarkisian, known as Cher, in 1963. By this time, Bono was breaking up with his first wife, Donna Rankin, with whom he has a daughter, Christy. Cher, born in El Centro, California in 1946, was trying to get into show business. Bono thought that her voice and his songs could make them stars. They were married in Mexico in 1964 and had a daughter, Chastity, in 1969.
Sonny and Cher became the entertainment world's "odd couple." According to the Detroit Free Press, "Bono was well-known for his droopy moustache, bell bottoms and playing the fall guy to his much taller and sharp-tongued wife." Their public personas were those of two kooky flower children in the advanced stage of puppy love. They dressed in outlandish outfits and sang Bono's songs in a way that delighted audiences. But underneath the affable, bumbling exterior, Bono was growing an uncanny showman with drive, talent, and ambition. He knew he could make them into top stars.
In June of 1965, Sonny and Cher hit it big with the recording of "I Got You, Babe." This was followed by "Laugh at Me," "All I Really Want to Do," and then the rock classic, Bono's most recorded song, "The Beat Goes On." At one point, they had five songs in the Top 20 at the same time. The only others ever to do that were Elvis Presley and the Beatles. After a 1967 movie, Good Times, in which the couple more or less played themselves, their popularity was on the downswing. In 1969, Bono mortgaged his house to put every cent he could into a film about a runaway girl, starring Cher, called Chastity. It was a flop, but Bono promised they'd be back on top. It took three years, but he was right.
To the Top and Back to the Bottom
Bono developed a nightclub act that featured Cher as the bored, generally superior wife who always gets the best of her husband who is a clown. Throwing in old and new tunes, many of them his, they exuded a kind of charm that intrigued audiences and led them to the weekly Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour on CBS. It lasted from 1971 until mid-1974 and propelled them into the hottest couple on television. Together, they were a hit. While critics debated the merits of the show, it consistently drew high ratings.
The show was still going strong when in 1974, Cher announced she was leaving her husband. In a blaze of headlines over their divorce, they charged each other with extramarital affairs and the parting was bitter. Claiming surprise at his ex-wife's unhappiness, Bono dropped out of show business, with the exception of a few guest appearances on television shows. He also married his third wife, model Susie Coelho, in 1982. They were divorced in 1984.
Show Biz Loss, Political Gain
Never one to be idle, Bono sought a new career. In 1983, he opened a restaurant called "Bono" in West Hollywood. There he met a recent University of Southern California graduate, Mary Whitaker, about 25 years his junior. They were married in 1986 and had two children, Chesare and Chianna. After moving to Palm Springs, Bono decided to open another restaurant. According to the New York Times, when he encountered frustrating red tape over his attempt to change the sign on the building, the consummate showman decided on another new career-politics.
As unlikely as it seemed to the world outside Palm Springs, a desert resort city of about 40,000, Bono ran for and won the mayor's election. His well-known face and affable manner may have gotten him the job, but many residents began to think he was good for the town. He donated his mayor's salary one year-$15,000-to an anti-drug campaign, banned skimpy bikinis, and started an international film festival. Although his time in office was not without controversy, he helped erase the city's $2.5 million dollar deficit and successfully promoted tourism.
However, there were many raised eyebrows when Bono decided to run for a seat in the U.S. Senate in 1992. He lost the Republican primary, and the seat was eventually won by Democrat Dianne Feinstein. But in 1994, swept in on a Republican tide, Bono won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. He beat his Democratic opponent by winning 56 percent of the vote. According to the New York Times, Bono arrived in Washington D.C. "with the image of a well-heeled but lightweight show-business celebrity. He quickly proved engaging and shrewd, a fairly dutiful legislator and an engaging speaker."
Bono had always taken pride in never having been taken too seriously, and according to the New York Times, he was almost proud of his lack of qualifications. He settled down to work, showed interest in protecting the environment and was according to the New York Times, "the second most popular fundraiser behind House Speaker Newt Gingrich." He was well-liked by his colleagues as a member of the Judiciary and National Security committees. He was re-elected in 1996.
Life was looking good for Congressman Bono, now age 62. He had a happy marriage, a job he liked, and the respect of his colleagues. His relationship with ex-wife, Cher had become friendlier, and he was closer to their daughter, Chastity, a gay rights activist, than he had ever been. He was happy with what he had.
Bono, his wife, and their two children, ages nine and seven, went to South Lake Tahoe on the California-Nevada line. In the early afternoon of January 5, 1998, Bono left them to ski alone. When he failed to appear after several hours, his wife called the ski patrol. He was found later that evening, having been killed in a skiing accident. He was mourned by political colleagues, family and fans. A few months after his death, Mary Bono won his congressional seat in a special election. In May of 1998, "Sonny & Cher" received a "star" on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. CBS also aired a special presentation hosted by Cher entitled "Sonny & Me-Cher Remembers," which provided a nostalgic look at Bono's career.
Shortly after he was elected to Congress in 1994, Bono was asked how he'd like to be remembered. The New York Times shared that Bono, although a little overwhelmed that he was actually there in Washington, D.C., replied, "As someone who is his own man, a maverick and really a person of substance like other people. Not necessarily the brilliant person, but recognize that there is substance there."
Further Reading on Sonny Bono
Bono, Sonny, And the Beat Goes On, Pocket Books, 1992.
Chicago Tribune, January 7, 1998.
Detroit Free Press, January 6, 1998; January 7, 1998.
New York Times, December 14, 1988; January 7, 1998.
New York Times Magazine, March 29, 1989.
People, March 21, 1988; October 2, 1989; January 19, 1998; May 11, 1998.
Rolling Stone, February 19, 1998.
Time, January 19, 1998.
U.S. News & World Report, December 12, 1994.
"Sonny Bono-Pop Song & Politics," A & E Biography Television Network, 1998. (Rebroadcast, May 22, 1998).