Original publication date: January 11, 1999
After more than three decades of hits, an artist like Cher could be expected to rest comfortably on the laurels of a catalog that already includes some of the most indelible pop anthems of all time. Think again. Somehow, as a recording artist, she’s managed to remain relevant, reinventing herself time and time again. And now she’s at it again. Her new album, Believe, is a knockout, with the blockbuster title track currently exploding on both sides of the Atlantic (it debuted at #1 on the UK pop chart!). Produced primarily by the METRO team’s Mark Taylor & Brian Rawling (with an able assist from Junior Vasquez and Todd Terry), the album has USA Today proclaiming things like “This is not your parents’ Cher.” That, if anything, is an understatement. With the album just hitting store shelves as we go to press, the buzz is unprecedented. The remixing talent roster on the first single alone reads like a Who’s Who of cutting-edge club fare (Almighty’s Martyn Norris & Jon Dixon, Xenomania, Wayne G, Club 69). Yet, it’s still, unmistakably, a Cher record.
The press, both industry and popular, have been quite enthusiastic in their coverage of the new album, even though Cher herself told us that she’s long since stopped paying attention to such matters. She had not read the Entertainment Weekly review (“I don’t read those things”) when we spoke to her for this story, but she couldn’t help laughing when we pointed out how reviewer Beth Johnson had closed with the line ‘you gotta love how her Cher-ness shines.’ And indeed it does. “I want to remain relevant and do work that strikes a chord…but at the same time, I don’t want to make a record with too many intentions beyond pleasing my fans.” We sat down recently with Cher in her New York hotel suite and, for the better part of an hour, talked with her about the new album and the ups and downs of her incredible career in music. First, though, a little background:
JUST THE FACTS: Born Cherilyn Sarkisian on May 20, 1946, in El Centro, California, Cher got her start in the industry working with future husband Sonny Bono as a backup singer for producer Phil Spector. After an unsuccessful attempt at recording as a duo under the name “Caesar & Cleo,” Cher recorded her first solo tracks under the names "Bonnie Jo Mason” and “Cherilyn.” Then, in 1965, as Sonny & Cher, the duo’s fortunes skyrocketed with the slew of hits that started with “I Got You Babe.” They were married at the time, divorcing in 1974 just as their weekly CBS television series was at its peak. Though she reunited professionally with Bono briefly in 1976, Cher was already involved in an expanded solo career.
THE BEAT GOES ON: By 1977, a subsequent two-year marriage to musician Greg Allman had also ended, and so had her 1970s pop chart hit streak. Despite a return to the Top Ten in 1979 with “Take Me Home,” it was evidently the right time for Cher to explore other creative avenues. She went on to emerge as one of the most acclaimed film actresses of the 1980s, winning the Best Actress Oscar in 1987 for Moonstruck. Her heart, though, was never far from the music.
“Acting is like having a party at your house and having to do all the work,” quips Cher on the publicity blurb that accompanied pre-release press copies of her new Warner Brothers album, Believe. She goes on to describe the difference between her two primary career paths by adding, “Music is like being at someone else’s house. I don’t have to worry about it. I just get caught up and carried away”.
THE PEAKS: A unique blend of panache and tenacity has always kept Cher’s musical inclinations sounding fresh and vital when many of her contemporaries falter. To wit, her earliest solo hits (circa 1966 and 1967) shared chart space with similarly successful singles from pop divas Petula Clark, Nancy Sinatra, Lulu, and Bobbie Gentry. By the 1970s, however, those other ladies had become, in terms of pop music relevance, little more than archival footnotes, while Cher’s hit streak began a second faze in the wake of the tremendous popularity of The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour. From 1971 to 1974, when high-profile chart competitors included Roberta Flack, Carole King, Helen Reddy, Gladys Knight, Melanie, and Carly Simon, Cher was reestablishing her own Top 40 credentials with hits like “Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves,” “Half Breed” and “Dark Lady.” She re-defined herself once again as the decade closed, emerging in 1979 at the height of the disco craze with the timeless dance anthems “Take Me Home” and “Hell On Wheels.” The latter track, featured on the Roller Boogie soundtrack, effectively captured the innocuous pleasure of the phenomenal late 70s roller-skating craze, which Cher herself had a hand in popularizing. Cher’s Billboard chart sorority sisters at that point in time included Gloria Gaynor, Amii Stewart, Donna Summer, and Anita Ward.