At the moment he was killed unexpectedly on the slopes of the eerily named Heavenly Resort in Lake Tahoe on Jan. 5, the result of injuries sustained in a skiing collision with a tree, Sonny Bono epitomized what he would have once dismissed as the Establishment. Most likely he was proud of it, too. A 62-year-old man vacationing with his family at a posh resort, Bono was a conservative Republican congressman, a former mayor of Palm Springs (1988-92), and a work buddy of Newt Gingrich (who mourned Bono’s ”unique talents”). But for all the trappings of success, Bono also remained slightly apart from the crowd. ”In Washington, he always had an outsider quality,” eulogizes Republican diva Arianna Huffington, ”which was attractive about him.”
In fact, being the odd-man-in may have been the ultimate secret weapon of Bono’s eclectic and far-flung career. Possessed of hangdog looks and a sinus-challenged voice, pop’s first Bono was both Svengali and self-deprecating shlub, a savvy businessman and a willing punching bag. Long before his star-making years with Cher, his second of four wives, Bono was the scrappy, determined outsider who was driven to be somebody, even if it meant being somebody’s fool.
It had been that way for most of the past 40 years. In the ’50s, Bono, born Salvatore Bono in Detroit in 1935, began a decade of hustling on the L.A. music scene. Failed solo act and producer, writer of obscure B sides, gofer (and occasional tambourine player) for the monomaniacal Phil Spector — Bono did it all. Despite a buffoonish image later cemented by the couple’s TV series, he took the craft of making music very seriously early in his career. In 1963, at 27, Bono met 16-year-old would-be singer Cherilyn Sarkisian LaPiere, who would soon shorten her name to a showbiz-friendly monosyllabic moniker. They dated, he started producing a record for her — and she was so insecure about her voice that she asked him to sing on it too.
With that duet, Bono’s professional life clicked. Warbling with his younger, heavily mascaraed romantic partner while wearing outlandish garb, Bono became America’s first mainstream hippie freak — and an increasingly savvy producer and songwriter. As the duo’s tightfisted control nut, Bono concocted songs that addressed their seeming physical incompatibility (”But You’re Mine”) and crafted oompah carnival pop on such hits as ”The Beat Goes On.”
The Sonny and Cher era amounted to a paisley roller-coaster ride. Their initial run of hits was followed by a late-’60s drought, but The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour (CBS, 1971-74) revived their careers by playing up the couple’s snippy rapport and Cher’s glamour-alien wardrobe by Bob Mackie. The program, at once both irreverent and safely family oriented, was one of the first to slickly package the counterculture for mass consumption. With the help of carefully scheduled appearances by their daughter, Chastity, the duo remade themselves as an affable flower-child family, anchored by groovy, goofy dad Sonny and hippie-chick mom Cher. (Chastity would later become estranged from Bono after she publicly came out as a lesbian. ”Although my father and I differed on some issues,” she said in a statement last week, ”he was very supportive of my personal life and career.”)