Actor, politician, producer and singer-songwriter from Detroit, Michigan, whose family moved to L.A. when he was only seven years of age. A high-school drop-out, he worked a variety of odd jobs whilst trying to launch his songwriting career.
On 3rd November 1954, he wed Donna Rankin, with whom he had one child, Christine. It was around 1957 when Sonny started making in-roads in the music biz, eventually winding up at Specialty Records, where he multi-tasked as their Artist & Repertory man and as a singer-songwriter. One of his early successes was “She Said Yeah”, which he co-wrote with the artist who recorded it, Larry Williams. It has since been recorded by Paul McCartney and The Rolling Stones. Other records bearing Sonny’s name in parentheses included “Needles and Pins”, which was a hit for The Searchers, and “Things You Do to Me”, recorded by gospel legend, Sam Cooke. His singing career didn’t get off to quite the same start, although he sang backing vocals for The Righteous Brothers and recorded under a variety of pseudonyms, such as Sonny Christy and Ronny Sommers.
In the 1960s, he found himself working in various capacities for Phil Spector, running errands, doing promotion work, and even playing percussion. It was during this time that he met Cher, which complicated things, considering he was still married to Donna at the time. He was so love-struck with the 16-year-old show-business wannabe, he divorced Donna and pursued a life and career with Cher. Sonny later said that he had never met anyone who wanted to be a star more than she did. He certainly did everything he could to make her one. He put her in touch with Spector, who utilized her voice on records such as “Be My Baby” by The Ronettes and “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” by The Righteous Brothers.
Sonny & Cher originally recorded as Caesar and Cleo, but none of their records did much, so they settled on the name that would bring them fame. It’s hard to tell if the name change helped, but it certainly didn’t hurt. They achieved success with a recording of “Baby, Don’t Go” and really hit the heights in 1965 with “I Got You Babe”. “The Beat Goes On” achieved similar success, and although Sonny was the mastermind of the duo, Cher was clearly the star of the show. While they were recording as a duo, Cher also enjoyed success as a solo artist with songs like “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” and “You Better Sit Down Kids”. Sonny tried to do the same, but his solo album, Inner Views, flopped. “Laugh At Me” achieved chart success, but “The Revolution Kind” only managed to reach #70.
In 1967, Sonny began pursuing an acting career, appearing as Jerry in an episode of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. He did not translate to film well: He and Cher released a couple of films that were box-office disasters, including 1969’s Chastity, the namesake of their only child. He continued to have success on TV, however, appearing on prime-time fare such as Love, American Style. In 1971, The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour was born, and it was an instant hit, starting as a five-episode summer try-out, and becoming a full-time member of the CBS family in January 1972. Sonny continued to get other acting roles during the run of the show, such as Rico Renati in an episode of Marcus Welby, M.D. entitled “Blood Kin”, which aired in 1973.
In 1974, Sonny and Cher went their separate ways amid a media feeding frenzy and allegations of adulterous sexual liaisons. It was a long, drawn-out, nasty divorce, with a treasure trove of spoils to be divided, including their royalties, which were split 50/50, and a mansion apiece. Cher got the big one; Sonny had to settle for the modest, 32-room one.
In 1975, the year their divorce was finalized, Sonny continued his acting career, appearing as Jack Marshall in the TV movie, Murder on Flight 502, and as John Perry on “The Song and Dance Spy” episode of The Six Million Dollar Man. He followed this up with a guest stint on Switch, as Darcy Taggart in the 1976 episode, “The Pirates of Tin Pan Alley”, and an ill-fated (not to mention bizarre) endeavour to resuscitate the Sonny & Cher phenomenon on TV. The Sonny & Cher Show fizzled. It was cancelled after one year. In 1979, he played Sonny Hunt in the TV movie, Murder in Music City, and Bruno Rotelli in the theatrical release, Escape to Athena. He escaped to Fantasy Island four times between 1978 and 1981 and boarded The Love Boat five times between 1978 and 1982.
In 1982, he played Joe Seluchi in Airplane II: The Sequel and Sam’s mom’s lover in The Vals. He became Mary Whitaker’s lover in 1985 and they wed the following year, a year that marked his return to the big screen as Tony Carlo in Balboa and Peter Dickinson in Troll. In 1987, he portrayed Maurice in Dirty Laundry and reunited with Cher on 13th November on Late Night with David Letterman. They performed “I Got You Babe”. In 1988, he split his time between film and TV as Franklin von Tussle in Hairspray and Valentino Reggioce on Murder, She Wrote.
By his own admission, he had never exercised his right to vote in 53 years. That all changed when he put himself on the ballot as a candidate for mayor of Palm Springs, California. He won. It was the beginning of a third career for the multi-talented celebrity, although he continued to take acting jobs, such as Ancient #2 in 1989’s Under the Boardwalk and as himself in an episode of The Golden Girls that aired on 17th November 1990. Ironically, in 1991, he appeared in two episodes of P.S.I. Luv U as The Mayor. In 1992, his stint as a real-life mayor ended and he sought the nomination of the Republican party for a U.S. Senate seat. He lost. In retrospect, perhaps his party should have anointed him its nominee, as the Democrats won in the general election. Undaunted, he ran for a seat in the House of Representatives and won in 1994. It was a landmark year for Republicans, who became the House majority after forty years of Democratic dominance. He was re-elected in 1996 in a landslide, 56-38.
His pet political projects included a copyright extension act, named after him posthumously, and the preservation of The Salton Sea, which is actually a large lake in Southern California. He was also in favor of protecting endangered species, but didn’t put his money where his mouth was when he found out how much it was going to cost the taxpayers. By the mid-‘90s, Sonny was the biggest draw at Republican speaking engagements, behind Newt Gingrich. He was well-liked by Democrats and Republicans, and was known for reaching across the aisle and befriending congressmen like Barney Frank with whom he shared little ideology. In 1996, they went their separate ways on the controversial issue of same-sex couple marriage. Sonny was opposed to it on principle, in spite of the fact that his daughter Chastity had become a lesbian activist. (She recently had a sex change and prefers to be known as “Chaz”.)
On 5th January 1998, Sonny was on a skiing vacation with his family at South Lake Tahoe’s Heavenly Ski Resort when he decided to split up with them and meet them later, opting to go solo on the slopes. Sonny was, by most accounts, an expert skier. When he went missing for several hours, the family notified officials at the ski resort and a ski patrol was sent out to go looking for him. Accounts vary as to when he was reported missing and when he was found. When he was found, he was dead. The local sheriff, Ron Pierini, said it was an accident, that Sonny had collided with a tree and died of head wounds. In the aftermath, his widow Mary asserted that he had had drug problems, but the autopsy revealed a minimal amount of valium in his system, not enough to impair an expert skier.
He was put to rest in Cathedral City’s Desert Memorial Park in California. His epitaph: “And the Beat Goes On”.
In 2008, Bob Fletcher, an investigator, and Ted Gunderson, an agent in the FBI, called the cause of Sonny’s death into question, telling the Globe that it was no accident, but an ambush. Fletcher contends that Sonny had enemies in high places who had been involved in illicit arms, drugs and weapon trafficking, and they feared exposure. Gunderson is convinced it was an assassination, and as of 2008, was pleading with authorities to unearth Sonny and investigate the events that led to his death more thoroughly.
Here he is singing with Cher in 1987…..