Sonny and Cher were so famous in the 1960s and ’70s that there was no need for a last name to be associated with them. This famous duo was one of Hollywood’s power couples, but the relationship was not always as sunny as the couple made it out to be. Here we break down Sonny and Cher’s relationship and look at the good, the bad, and the ugly aspects of it.
The early days
Cher (born Cherilyn Sarkisian) and Sonny Bono (born Salvatore Bono) first met in 1962 in Los Angeles. When they first met, Cher was a 16-year-old high school dropout. Sonny, who was 28, was 12 years older than Cher, and worked as an assistant to record producer Phil Spector. When the duo first met, Sonny had already been married once but was separated from his first wife.
The two were not romantically involved when they first met. In fact, Sonny was first interested in Cher’s friend, not her. But even from the start, they had a deep connection. In a 2018 interview, Cher recalled seeing him and feeling like “everyone just disappeared.”
At the time, Cher was living with a friend of hers and Sonny moved into a nearby apartment. When Cher was kicked out of her place by her roommate, she moved in with Sonny, and the living situation worked for them.
Their relationship eventually shifted from platonic to romantic. Cher, who didn’t have a strong father figure in her life, said in a 1975 interview that her and Sonny’s relationship “wasn’t a fiery, sexy thing with us, but rather paternal, like we were bound together, two people who needed each other, almost for protection.”
As Sonny and Cher’s romantic relationship took off, so did their professional careers. Cher was soon singing backup in Phil Spector’s arrangements including the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'” and the Ronnettes’ “Be My Baby.”
Sonny was hoping to get Cher as a solo act, but Cher was not yet comfortable being on stage alone. To help with her nerves, the duo began performing and recording together, first as Caesar and Cleo and then as Sonny and Cher.
Major success came for the pair in 1965 with the hit song “I Got You Babe.” That same year, five of their songs were in the U.S. Billboard Top 20. They appeared on the top television shows of the time such as The Ed Sullivan Show and American Bandstand, further establishing themselves as major stars in Hollywood.
The times, they are a-changin’
By the end of the 1960s, Sonny and Cher’s music career had slowed down as public music tastes had shifted. Although Cher recognized that she and Sonny broke some big barriers, she realized that they “didn’t change our sound. That was really wrong.”
In 1969, Sonny self-financed the film Chastity starring Cher. This film flopped and left the couple in financial distress. That same year, they welcomed their son Chaz Bono into the world. Sonny and Cher and held a fake marriage ceremony in 1964, but after the birth of their child, they officially tied the knot.
Because the couple needed money to support their growing family, they started touring and performing their hits at nightclubs. During slower nights, the couple started talking to the band and audience. Slowly, this banter grew into a comedy act that would later be turned into a hit television show.
In 1971, Sonny and Cher landed their own television show: The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour. This show was a huge success and became a primetime television staple in the early 1970s. Their television show tended to focus on the closeness of Sonny and Cher’s relationship, and the series focused on raising Chaz Bono. At the end of each episode, Sonny and Cher would sing “I Got You Babe” to each other, giving viewers the idea that they had a perfect home life.
Unfortunately, behind the scenes, Sonny and Cher’s relationship was deteriorating. Sonny had many extramarital affairs that Cher did not find out about until after the eventual divorce.
However, even though Cher was unaware of Sonny’s womanizing ways, she was growing unhappy with the way Sonny treated her. In a 1999 interview, Cher stated: “He was like the father. You know how you can be frightened of your father even if he doesn’t ever do anything? It wasn’t like, I mean, he never hit me, never really yelled at me. He could be tough though. […] I could just never talk back to him, and so I never got any of my needs met that weren’t what he felt they should be.”
She went on to say that “when I was young, it didn’t make any difference because I was so crazy about him on so many levels. He was really everything to me, and after I had Chaz I started to grow up and he wouldn’t allow it. He was starting to kill my spirit.”
The end of Sonny and Cher?
In 1972, Cher told Sonny that she was romantically involved with a guitarist in their band. In 1973, Sonny was also in a serious relationship with a woman other than Cher. However, these affairs did not result in a divorce because the couple had to stay married for the sake of their television show.
At one point, Sonny was living with another woman in the same house as Cher while they were still married, but Cher has said she was fine with that situation because she and Sonny had a “strange relationship.”
The couple could not keep up their façade forever. In 1974, Cher filed for divorce, citing “involuntary servitude” as the reason for their split. However, the couple had been separated for a while before the divorce was finally filed. The divorce was very public and very messy.
In the process, Cher discovered that Cher Enterprises, the corporation formed by Sonny, was 95% owned by her husband and the remaining 5% was held by her lawyer. A few days after the divorce was finalized, Cher married Greg Allman of the Allman Brothers Band, though that marriage quickly fizzled out. Sonny then took Cher to court for custody of Chaz.
A new chapter for Sonny and Cher
After the divorce was finalized, Sonny and Cher both tried their hand at solo television shows. They eventually tried to replicate the initial success of The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour by relaunching The Sonny and Cher Show. However, audiences were not necessarily interested in an uncoupled Sonny and Cher, and the show was canceled only after two seasons.
In November 1987, the pair reunited on Late Night With David Letterman for an impromptu performance of “I Got You Babe.” Sadly this would be the last time the couple sang this song together.
On January 5, 1998, Sonny Bono tragically died in a skiing accident in Nevada. On January 9, Cher delivered the eulogy at his funeral.
She ended the eulogy by saying: “When I was young there was this section in Reader’s Digest called The Most Unforgettable Character I Ever Met. No matter how old I get, no matter how many people I meet, that person will always be Son for me.”