Biography of Sonny Bono, Pop Star and Politician

Sonny and Cher perform on the NBC show 'Hullaballoo' in 1965 in New York City.
Sonny and Cher perform on the NBC show 'Hullaballoo' in 1965 in New York City. Donaldson Collection / Getty Images

Sonny Bono (born Salvatore Phillip Bono; February 16, 1935 - January 5, 1998) was a successful pop musician who performed as part of the duo Sonny and Cher. Later, he became a politician, and ultimately won election to the U.S. House of Representatives. His most enduring political achievement occurred nine months after his death, when the Copyright Extension Act of 1998 extended the term of copyright by 20 years. The act became known as the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act.

Fast Facts: Sonny Bono

  • Occupation: Pop musician (Sonny & Cher), U.S. Congressman
  • Born: February 16, 1935 in Detroit, Michigan
  • Died: January 5, 1998 in Stateline, Nevada
  • Top Songs: "I Got You Babe," "The Beat Goes On," "All I Ever Need Is You"
  • Spouses' Names: Donna Rankin, Cher, Susie Coelho, Mary Whitaker
  • Children's Names: Christine, Chaz, Chesare, Chianna

Early Life and Career Beginnings

Born in Detroit, Michigan to an Italian immigrant father, Sonny Bono was the youngest of three children. He had two older sisters, Fran and Betty. Bono's mother nicknamed him "Sonny." The family moved to Inglewood, California when Sonny was seven years old. He attended Inglewood High School, but dropped out to pursue a career in music. While striving to break into the music industry, he held a number of different jobs, including waiter, truck driver, and construction worker.

Sonny Bono's first success in the music industry came as a writer, arranger, and producer for Los Angeles R&B label Specialty Records in the late 1950s. He worked on rock and roll records by Don and Dewey and Larry Williams. When Specialty Records closed up shop, Sonny Bono tried recording on his own under the names Sonny Christie, Ronny Sommers, and Prince Carter, but the records didn't sell.

Sonny Bono co-wrote the song "Needles and Pins" in 1962 with Jack Nitzsche. Singer-songwriter Jackie DeShannon recorded it in 1963, but it barely scraped into the Billboard Hot 100. Finally, in 1964, the British band the Searchers took the song into the pop chart's top-20.

Sonny and Cher

Sonny Bono's next major breakthrough occurred when he was hired to work as a general assistant and promoter for legendary pop producer Phil Spector. In 1962, while working out of Gold Star Studios in Hollywood, Sonny met Cherilyn Sarkasian in a nearby coffee shop. Cherilyn, who would soon be known simply as Cher, was 16 years old. Bono was eleven years her senior. The pair began a relationship, and Bono helped Cher get a job singing backup on classic Phil Spector recordings like the Ronettes "Be My Baby" and the Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost That Loving Feeling."

Adopting the name Caesar and Cleo, the pair began performing and recording as a pop duo. Soon, they changed the name of the act to Sonny and Cher. By 1965, they were pop stars. "I Got You, Babe," the first single from their debut Sonny and Cher album, reached #1 on the charts. By the end of the decade, they released seven more top 40 pop hit singles. They each had their own success as solo artists, too. Sonny Bono hit the pop top 10 with "Laugh At Me," and Cher had five top 40 pop solo hits including two top 10s. Sonny wrote and produced Cher's smash successes "Bang Bang" and "You Better Sit Down Kids."

TV Star

The commercial fortunes of Sonny and Cher began to fade by the end of the 1960s. They began to hone new skills as a musical comedy duo with a series of performance dates in Las Vegas. After a well-received TV appearance in 1970, CBS' head of programming Fred Silverman offered Sonny and Cher their own variety show.

The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour debuted in the summer of 1971 and quickly became a hit. In its first three-season run, the show earned more than a dozen Emmy Award nominations. It was a top 20 ratings hit for its entire run, but the show imploded in the fall of 1974 amid the very public separation of the show's stars.

TV executives tried to create hit shows for each of the stars individually. The Sonny Comedy Revue lasted for only 13 episodes. Cher's show did better, but she brought it to an end when the couple decided to work together again despite their divorce. The Sonny and Cher Show ranked inside the top 25 in ratings for the 1975-1976 season, but it came to an end when the popularity faded the following year.

Becoming a Politician

Sonny Bono spent the next decade appearing in bit parts as a special guest on a variety of TV shows, but in the late 1980s, his career took an unexpected turn. Frustrated with the bureaucratic red tape involved with the opening of a restaurant in Palm Springs, California, Bono decided to run for mayor of the community. He won election to the office and served from 1988 to 1992. In 1992, he lost a campaign for a U.S. Senate seat as a member of the Republican Party.

Two years later, Bono won election to the U.S. House of Representatives from the 44th Congressional District in California. Shortly after being sworn in during January 1995, he quipped, "The last thing in the world I thought I would be is a U.S. Congressman, given all the bobcat vests and Eskimo boots I used to wear."

Sonny Bono won re-election to Congress in 1996, but he did not serve out his term due to his death in a skiing accident in 1998. Bono's wife Mary won the special election to succeed him in Congress.

Sources

  • Bono, Sonny. And the Beat Goes On. Pocket Books, 1991.