There’s divas, and then there’s Cher.
Her iconic Billboard chart career started 50 years ago, when the then-19-year-old’s single “All I Really Want to Do” arrived on the Billboard Hot 100 dated July 3, 1965. A little over a month later, as one half of Sonny & Cher, she was at the top of the chart with “I Got You Babe.” Ever since, it’s been a blur of smash singles, blockbuster films, hit TV shows and, of course, those fabulous Bob Mackie-designed gowns.
In total, she’s earned 33 solo hit singles on the Billboard Hot 100, including four No. 1s. Further, she’s tallied 29 albums on the Billboard 200 chart. The entertainer’s most recent album, 2013’s Closer to the Truth, marked her highest-charting solo effort ever, when it debuted and peaked at No. 3. Incredibly, she’s also earned a No. 1 single on a Billboard chart in each of the last six decades.
To commemorate the 50th anniversary of Cher’s debut on Billboard’s charts, we spoke to the woman herself. In our lengthy chat, we talked about her frustration of doing “poppy” songs in the early 1970s, how David Geffen “wasn’t that interested” in her musical comeback in the 1980s (on his own label!), and how an act of “desperation” led to the famed vocoder sound of “Believe.”
Cher also talks about her “hope” of heading back on tour, and her tentative plans of recording new music.
It’s the 50th anniversary of your debut on Billboard‘s charts. I don’t know if you can believe that, but it is indeed true.
Did I debut before Sonny & Cher?
You did, actually. [Cher’s solo single] “All I Really Want To Do” [a cover of a Bob Dylan song] debuted before Sonny & Cher.
Yes, we were in a huge fight with Terry Melcher.
Yep… Terry Melcher [produced] The Byrds‘ version [of “All I Really Want To Do”]… and said they would bury us. But they didn’t exactly bury us.
[Laughs] No, no. You did just fine.
On the Hot 100 dated July 3, 1965, both Cher and The Byrds’ respective versions of “All I Really Want to Do” debuted on the chart. Cher started at No. 86, and The Byrds bowed at No. 83. (A week later, Sonny & Cher’s “I Got You Babe” debuted on the list.) Cher’s version of “All I Really Want To Do” eventually peaked at No. 15 on the Aug. 21-dated chart — the same week The Byrds’ rendition topped out at No. 40.
Below, an image from the Aug. 28, 1965, issue of Billboard magazine: Sonny & Cher are pictured in a photo, where they were presented with an award recognizing their No. 1 single with “I Got You Babe.”
Do you remember at the time, was it a big deal for you [to debut on the charts]?
Are you kidding? I mean, Jesus, it was everything that we were living for. It was what we were breathing for. It was our goal to do it. We struggled and struggled and struggled because of the way we [Sonny & Cher] looked. And people didn’t get it until we went to England and then came back and they thought we were English. But I mean, we looked different than anyone else. We got thrown out of every place. We couldn’t get in. … Like, our friend Jack Good was the producer of [the TV variety show] Shindig! and he loved us. But we had a hard time getting on that show because we looked so strange to everyone. And then he said, “You’re wasting your time here, go to England, that’s where it will happen for you.” … But you know, we struggled. We had songs that didn’t do anything, and then all of a sudden we had all these songs on the [chart] at one time…
Between July and December of 1965, Sonny & Cher charted five singles on three different labels (Atco, Reprise and Vault), while as solo acts, both Sonny and Cher notched two hits each (on Atco and Imperial Records, respectively).
We had solo songs and we had [Sonny & Cher] songs. What happened was there were songs we made before, so when “I Got You Babe” became famous, they released the songs that we had done before “I Got You Babe.” So everything was just released at one time.
“I Got You Babe” was released on Atco Records, as was most of the duo’s material in the 1960s. When “Babe” broke, Reprise Records reissued the 1964 single “Baby Don’t Go,” while Vault Records re-released “The Letter.” The latter had previously been issued in 1963 under the artist name Caesar & Cleo — Sonny & Cher’s former stage name. “Baby” peaked at No. 8, and “The Letter” reached No. 75.
Sonny & Cher charted a total of 18 singles on the Hot 100, with five of them reaching the top 10. Their final entry together was 1973’s No. 77-peaking “Mama Was a Rock and Roll Singer, Papa Used to Write All Her Songs Part 1.” As Sonny & Cher found success on the charts, so did Cher as a soloist. She earned seven Hot 100 hits before the 1960s concluded, including the No. 2 smash “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down).”
Were you ever surprised by a single that did way better than you thought it was going to do?
Well, “I Got You Babe.” Sonny woke me up in the middle of the night to come in where the piano was, in the living room, and sing it. And I didn’t like it and just said, “OK, I’ll sing it and then I’m going back to bed.” So I was never a very good barometer. I loved songs that weren’t as big of hits. I loved “Just You” [a No. 20-peaking single]. I loved “All I Really Want to Do” too; that was fun. Everyone thought that was a Sonny & Cher record because they didn’t know I could jump the octaves that easily.
Sonny was working for producer Phil Spector in the early 1960s, and after meeting Cher in 1962, the pair sang background vocals on Spector-produced songs like The Righteous Brothers‘ No. 1 hit “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” (“That was the last song I ever did background on,” says Cher) and The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby.”
Your first No. 1 hit on your own was in 1971 with “Gypsys, Tramps & Thieves.” You had three No. 1s in the ’70s, and they were the story songs that were so successful for you. Are there any of those songs — because you’ve joked about how you always have to do these songs in concerts — where you’re just a little tired of doing them? Or do you still love doing them because the people love hearing them?
You know, I don’t love doing them myself. I love when Bob [Mackie, the fashion designer] makes me a great costume. [Laughs] And then, you know, everybody goes “oooh” and “ahhh.” And that’s fun for me to see… But I know people love them so much, that they don’t bother me. I actually never loved them that much when I recorded them.
I think most people would be surprised by that. Because we think when an artist records a song, they must really love it or want to record it for some reason.
But you know what, you had to be back in the time then. I mean, back in that time, people had A&R men and they brought you songs, and they gave you songs, and you did the songs. And especially women, you know? I didn’t really get a chance to pick my songs back then. … They were hits. You know, I don’t know a lot of times what a hit is because a lot of times commercial songs, I don’t really love them. You know, [at the time] I was into Jackson Browne and Joni Mitchell and the Eagles, and those were the kinds of songs I wanted to do, but they just didn’t seem… Like, I was doing these kind of poppy songs. I was not content, necessarily, to do them, but… Like, I never liked “Dark Lady,” and it was a big hit. [It went to No. 1 in 1974.] I was like hanging around with Anjelica Huston and Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty, and I was singing [“Dark Lady”]. They’re making like fabulous art and I’m making “Dark Lady.” But then they were huge hits, and so, you know, somebody says, “You can’t argue with huge hits, Cher.”
It’s still art. It just depends on how you look at it, I suppose. I mean, I still think [“Dark Lady”] is fabulous. I mean, come on. It’s “Dark Lady.”
Well, it’s very kitschy… and it seemed to go along well with people’s idea of who I was at that point. And I really kind of wanted to do rock and roll. I wanted to do harder rock. I got a chance to do it later.
When you did your Casablanca Records albums [Take Me Home, featuring the No. 8-peaking title track, and Prisoner, both released in 1979], was that sort of the same idea? People presented songs to you, and you’re like, “All right, I’ll do these songs…” Or did you have a little bit more control?
No, I had more… Bob Esty [who produced the two albums] and Neil Bogart [the founder of Casablanca], I mean, they came with songs, but if I didn’t like it, I didn’t do it. After I left Sonny [they divorced in 1975], I would listen to people, but if I didn’t like a song… And also, I did some really kitschy songs, like [1979’s] “Shoppin’.” But I liked it!
One of my favorite songs of yours is [1979’s] “Hell On Wheels.” I think it’s so fun, and I love that music video that you did where you’re roller skating around in the middle of the desert… I just think it’s awesome.
Well, it was really fun. You know, it wasn’t a great song, but it was fun to do.
You had this huge break [from music] in the ’80s when you were doing movies [like 1983’s Silkwood and 1985’s Mask]. Was there ever any sort of hesitation when you came back in 1987 with [the Geffen Records release] “I Found Someone”? [It was the first single from her self-titled album for the label — and her first album in over five years.] Or were you like, guns a-blazin’, “We’re gonna make this happen”?
No, I wasn’t guns a-blazin’. I worked with [Geffen A&R executive] John Kalodner, and you know David [Geffen, the founder of his namesake label] wasn’t that interested. I mean, you know, David is one of my best friends and I love him, but he wasn’t that excited. But John Kalodner… I remember Dave and I were somewhere. It was an awards show, and I remember we were sitting behind John Kalodner, and Dave said, “You know, I have to go with John Kalodner. He believes that you have another… another time in you. He believes that the fat lady hasn’t sung. He believes that it’s not over,” you know? So I put my hands in John Kalodner and he brought [me] songs.
One of those songs was the rocking “I Found Someone” (co-written and produced by Michael Bolton), which debuted on the Hot 100 dated Nov. 21, 1987. It was the first single from Cher’s self-titled Geffen Records album, and it was her first Hot 100 hit since 1979 (“Hell On Wheels”). “I Found Someone” ultimately peaked at No. 10 on the March 5, 1988-dated chart, shortly before Cher would win the Academy Award for best actress (for Moonstruck). Cher scored two more hits from that self-titled album: “We All Sleep Alone” (No. 14) and “Skin Deep” (No. 79).
I had a really good time with those songs. They were songs I wanted to do, you know? I mean, maybe all of them didn’t come out perfectly, but they were songs I really loved, and it was what I wanted to do. I wanted to do that kind of music. It fit me well, and I felt it. I really felt that music. I wasn’t a very good singer then, even though that was a pretty good song. I’m a much better singer now.
You think that you’ve been able to sort of grow into your voice and become a better singer? Have you taken singing lessons?
I did. Before I did that album, I had just been doing movies and hadn’t sung at all. I think I sang at Paul Newman’s house one night, around the piano, but I just wasn’t sure how this [her self-titled Geffen album] was gonna go. Bernadette Peters told me about this fabulous teacher named Adrienne Angel. She really helped me with my voice and made it so much better. Gave me control, gave me higher notes. I mean, I sing a billion times higher than I was ever able to sing in the beginning.
Listen to “You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me” and “I Hope You Find It.” When I went in to sing “You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me,” I kept telling everybody, “I can’t do this song, I’ve tried to do it a million times, and I can’t do it.” And then walked in and did it.
I thought the range on the last album — Closer to the Truth, which contains “You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me” and “I Hope You Find It” — was wonderful. I think people might be surprised, like, “Oh, this is Cher?” People assume that [your voice] is going sound one way…
I honestly think that the most fun I ever had making a song was “Believe.” Because you didn’t know it was me in the beginning, and I was so excited.
Was that the intention?
No, it just came out of desperation.
Mark [Taylor, “Believe” co-producer] hated what I was doing and he kept saying to do it better, because it didn’t really pop until the chorus. I just couldn’t do it. We had a huge fight. I stormed out. I mean, we were really close — we’re still really close — but he just kept going “It’s not good, it’s not good.” And then I said, “Well, if you want it better, get somebody else.” And I walked out.
And then the next day I saw this boy named Roachford [on TV]… and he was [using] a vocoder. And so I called Mark, and I said, “I’m coming over.” Walked in, and I brought [Roachford’s] CD and played it for him. And he said, “Cher, we can’t do the vocoder because you’ve already sung it.” And so he said, “You know, I’ve been playing around with the pitch machine. Go home and let me see what I can do.” I came back the next day and he started to play it for me, and … I said, “We have to just stop and hold on to this moment.” And then he kept going, and we were high-fiving and jumping up and down. Then we had to fight the record company because as fabulous as Rob Dickins was [the then-chairman of her label, Warner Music U.K.] … he said, “You know, the Germans don’t like it because they can’t tell it’s you.” And I said, “You can change it over my dead body.”
And then it was great. And everyone loved it. I came home to play it for one person. I only wanted one person to hear it, and it was [producer/songwriter/record executive] David Foster. He listened to it with his back to me. He was over the [control] board, and he had his hands out, and he was kind of bent over a little bit. And then, after he heard it, he turned around and he said, “There’s only one thing wrong with this song.” And I thought, “Oh my God, what is it?” And he said, “I didn’t do it. I didn’t produce it.”
“Believe” was a hit throughout Europe at the end of 1998, including a seven-week run at No. 1 on the Official U.K. Singles Chart. (It’s the U.K.’s best-selling single by a solo woman, with 1.8 million sold.) “Believe” crossed over to American shores that December and would hit No. 1 on the Hot 100 dated March 13, 1999. With the ascent, Cher notched her first No. 1 since 1974’s “Dark Lady.” “Believe” would spend four weeks atop the chart and finish 1999 as the No. 1 Hot 100 single of the year. Cher’s album of the same name would sell 3.6 million copies in the U.S. (according to Nielsen Music) and reached No. 4 on the Billboard 200 chart — her then-highest-charting solo album ever. Cher’s next album, Living Proof, was released in 2002. But fans would have to wait more than 10 years for her next studio effort, 2013’s Closer to the Truth. It was led by the single “Woman’s World,” which reached No. 1 on the Dance Club Songs chart. It was the first of three top five singles on the chart from Closer to the Truth.
Your career trajectory has been so crazy. You can come back after so long with an album like Closer to the Truth, which was your highest-charting solo album ever (debuting and peaking at No. 3 on the Billboard 200). And then you go out on tour and you remind people about how much wonderful music you have. I think people kind of forget, or don’t realize, because your career has been so varied…
No, it’s just been so spotty. I mean like, I didn’t realize that I hadn’t done anything in so long. Was it 11 years? I don’t know. I didn’t think about recording again. And then finally, one of my managers said, “You really should do that.” And so I finally got in [to the recording studio]. The first song I did was “Woman’s World.” The [record] company [Warner Bros. Records] wasn’t excited, truthfully, but they gave me the shot, so I have to give them credit. But then when I did that, and everyone heard it, they thought, “OK, maybe she still has it.”
Well, you do. [Laughs] Are you working on anything right now?
I was supposed to go to… Mark [Taylor] has a song and I loved it, and I was supposed to go to England to do it. But then I wanted to go on vacation. And so…
Well, you know…
…I went on vacation instead. So I’m going to be in England to do something in October, so I’ll go early and work with Mark.
I have to ask, you went on tour for the last album [the Dressed to Kill Tour], and because of your health issues [an acute viral infection that affected her kidneys], you had to cancel the second leg. Is there hope that you might be able to go out on the road again?
Yes, absolutely. … I’ve got everything. Nothing went anywhere. … I will keep “Dressed to Kill” and “[Welcome to] Burlesque” [in the set list], because those are my two favorite songs to do, actually. We’ll probably get rid of “Take It Like a Man” [from Closer to the Truth] and we’ll put in some more hits, probably. I don’t know. You know, I’m hoping that I’ll be able to do this. That’s my wish. But I can’t say that I actually will be able to… My will is pretty strong, so… I don’t know.
And also, you have all those Bob Mackie outfits that we haven’t seen yet. Which, you know, would be amazing to see.
Mackie has regularly designed wardrobe for Cher’s performances and tours through her career, but initially couldn’t provide outfits for the Dressed to Kill Tour. However, he was slated to contribute new outfits for the tour’s second leg.
Oh my God. You can’t believe how amazing they are… Oh, he did stuff that you just cannot even believe. It’s so far out. And he didn’t want to do it either, because he thought he didn’t have it to do. And he came back with stuff that you cannot even believe how beautiful they are. And so outlandish, but perfect.
That would make the perfect sense. Outlandish goes with you just a little bit sometimes, you know.
Truthfully… we thought I was going to be well a lot earlier than I was. But honestly, the doctors didn’t tell me how sick I was at the time. They just kind of led me to believe that I would be able to go on tour a lot earlier. But I was so sick for such a long time, so there was no way. So I got out of the hospital, and I think I was home for what, a couple of days, and went over to a [wardrobe] fitting. As a matter of fact, I had to sit down a bunch of times because I kept going ‘I’m gonna pass out, I’m gonna pass out.” But I was so excited that I just was standing up. And drinking lots of Dr. Pepper.
The Dr. Pepper, of course. [In Cher’s concerts, the diva regularly jokes about her love of the beverage.] But everything is fine, you’re OK now? You’re all good?
Yeah. I’m much better. I’m so much better. But kidneys take a huge toll on you.
I can only imagine. Literally. I would have to imagine because fortunately I have not had that issue yet.
I’ve never had any issue like that, truthfully. Nothing ever happened to me. I was so lucky. I’ve been so lucky.
Well, you’re kind of … you can’t be knocked down. You’re kind of a superhero.
You know what? I’m kind of a warhorse. Tina [Turner] and I are such… we just knew to do it. You know, we just worked until the work was over. And I got that kind of ethic from Sonny, because he never wanted to stop working.
(Our interview with Cher was lightly edited and condensed.)