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When Cherilyn Sarkasian reinvented herself as half of '60s pop duo Sonny & Cher, no one could guess it was merely the first step in an ongoing artistic redefinition that would continue for decades. After the smash success of Sonny & Cher's recordings and TV show, Cher scored pop hits on her own, such as "Half Breed" and "Gypsys, Tramps & Thieves" in the '70s, before switching into disco mode for "Take Me Home." In the '80s, she became an esteemed actress, with lead roles in the highly acclaimed films Mask and Moonstruck (the latter earned her an Oscar). Incredibly, she followed that by returning to the pop charts in the late '80s with "If I Could Turn Back Time" and, ten years later, becoming a Madonna-like dance-pop diva with the megahit "Believe." The new millennium saw her upheld this latest reinvention with hit releases like 2018's Dancing Queen (a set of ABBA covers) and 2023's Christmas, which included originals like "DJ Play a Christmas Song."

Cherilyn Sarkisian was born in California in 1946; she was 17 when she first met Salvatore "Sonny" Bono, a songwriter and protégé of producer Phil Spector. Sonny brought her to Spector, who used her as a backup singer and produced one single by her, a novelty Beatles tribute record called "Ringo I Love You" issued under the name Bonnie Jo Mason. It disappeared without a trace, but the couple were undaunted -- they emerged as a duo, initially called Caesar & Cleo, later that year, and cut "The Letter," "Do You Wanna Dance," and "Love Is Strange."

Caesar & Cleo didn't trouble the chart compilers with any degree of success, but late in 1964, Cher (then known as Cherilyn) was signed to Liberty Records' Imperial imprint, and Sonny came along as producer. A Spector-ish version of "Dream Baby" managed to get airplay in Los Angeles, becoming a local hit, and they suspected they were onto something. That same month, Sonny & Cher, as they were now known, signed to Reprise Records and released their first single, "Baby Don't Go." The song became a major local hit in Los Angeles, after which the duo jumped from Reprise to the Atco label, a division of Atlantic Records. In April 1965 their first single, "Just You" was released and rose to number 20 on the charts. The duo was on its way, and Cher also had Imperial Records after her for a second single. The couple had seen the Byrds pioneer commercial folk-rock with Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man," and had witnessed them performing another Dylan number, "All I Really Want to Do" at a club in Los Angeles. The group intended to issue their own recording of "All I Really Want to Do," but Cher, with Sonny producing, beat them to the punch with her own recording of the song.

She pursued a dual career for the next two years, cutting solo recordings under Sonny's guidance that regularly charted, and duets with her husband for Atco. A month after "All I Really Want to Do," they released "I Got You Babe," which was one of the biggest-selling and most beloved pop/rock hits of the mid-'60s, and the couple's signature tune across two eras of success. Cher's solo career ended up slightly overshadowed by her work with Sonny & Cher, but at the time she was fully competitive on her own terms -- her first LP reached the Billboard Top 20 and was on the albums charts for six months. "Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)" was another hit, a million-seller that made number three in America and England, and she made the Top Ten once more with her 1967 single "You Better Sit Down Kids." The latter song, written by Sonny (and which was also a hit for Glen Campbell), dealt with divorce, an unusual subject for a 1960s pop record, and was one of a series of releases on which Cher's music broached difficult areas -- others were "I Feel Something's in the Air," which dealt with unwanted pregnancy, and "Mama (When My Dollies Have Babies)."

Cher's solo career at Imperial, which had created some political problems for the couple at Atlantic, ended with the lapsing of her contract in 1967, and she moved to Atlantic. Ironically, it was this move that contributed to the unhappy reversal of the couple's fortunes at the end of the decade.

By the end of the 1960s, Sonny & Cher were no longer selling records. A series of commercial missteps, coupled with a change in public taste, had sharply curtailed their sales, and a pair of movies (Good Times, Chastity) had lost millions. Additionally, they were no longer recording for Atlantic -- though they were still under contract to them -- owing to the label's decision to take Cher's solo recordings out of Sonny's hands and assign a new producer to her.

Coupled with the presentation of a bill from the Internal Revenue Service for $200,000 in back taxes, these events left the couple in dire financial straits at the end of the 1960s. They were forced to play club dates, opening for artists like Pat Boone, and it was there that their second career, and a second career for Cher, took shape. A new contract with Decca Records in 1971, coupled with a chance at a summer replacement gig on the CBS television network, brought them a second chance at success.

The tryout on television was indeed a success, as the couple proved to be as funny as they were musically diverse. It took a little longer to find a new formula for Cher's music -- her initial single on Decca's Kapp label, "Classified 1A," was a failure; a serious song dealing with a girl's feelings for a boyfriend killed in Vietnam, it was topical in a way inconducive to pop chart success. Producer Snuff Garrett was recruited to work with her, and he found a series of songs that were perfect for Cher's maturing talent.

"Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves," a conscious attempt to emulate Springfield's "Son of a Preacher Man" (which also recalled Cher's own "Bang Bang") was released late in 1971 and became a number one hit and a million-seller. The song's subject matter, unusual tempo changes, and an incredibly memorable chorus-hook became a vehicle for a transcendent performance by the singer, marking Cher's maturation as an artist. A follow-up album, featuring her covers of contemporary hits such as "Fire and Rain," sold well also, and her next single, "The Way of Love," a revival of a mid-'60s Kathy Kirby hit, solidified the image of a new, more confident and powerful Cher. And the debut of the couple's regular network variety series on CBS in January 1972 brought them back to the center of American and international popular culture in a more mature, wittier guise, and one that concentrated much more on Cher as a personality.

In 1974, it was revealed that the couple's marriage was coming to an end. Ironically, Cher came out of this split more secure than her husband, despite his having guided her career for a decade and having all of the real training in the entertainment business. She embarked on an acting career, even as she continued to make headlines for her romantic exploits, including two marriages to Gregg Allman. She found her footing more easily as an actress, as first revealed in Mike Nichols' Silkwood (1983) and then in Peter Bogdanovich's Mask (1985) and George Miller's The Witches of Eastwick (1987). She won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in Norman Jewison's 1987 romantic comedy Moonstruck.

In 1987, Cher also hit the Billboard 200 for the first time since the '70s with the platinum-selling Cher, which arrived on Geffen in November 1987. A combination of power balladry, rock-leaning anthems, and a surprise club hit in "Skin Deep," it peaked number 32 with help from her Top Ten-charting cover of Michael Bolton's "I Found Someone." She had an even bigger hit LP with the follow-up, 1989's Heart of Stone, which landed in the Top Ten in the U.S. (number ten), U.K. (number seven), New Zealand (seven), and Australia, where it went to number one. Heart of Stone produced three U.S. Top Ten singles in all: "If I Could Turn Back Time," "Just Like Jesse James," and the Peter Cetera duet "After All." Her starring role in the 1990 comedy-drama Mermaids was accompanied by a soundtrack album that featured her Hot 100 Top 40 cover of "The Shoop Shoop Song (It's in His Kiss)." Her version topped the singles chart in the U.K. and Ireland. Over the next five years, Cher charted outside the Top 40 with two more studio albums, 1991's Love Hurts and 1995's It's a Man's World, while appearing on the big screen as herself in Robert Altman 's The Player (1992) and Prêt-à-Porter (1994). A lead role in director Paul Mazursky's Faithful followed in 1996, the year she appeared in the Emmy-nominated TV drama If These Walls Could Talk, which took on the topic of abortion.

In 1998, Cher officially redefined herself as a club diva with the international chart-topping smash "Believe." The accompanying album, also called Believe, went to number four on the Billboard 200 and achieved gold, platinum, or multi-platinum status in dozens of countries around the world. The song also earned Cher her first career Grammy Award, in the category of Best Dance Recording. It was additionally nominated for Record of the Year, and the album was nominated for Best Pop Vocal Album. She followed that huge success with the darker, independently released Not.Com.mercial (2000), which was recorded with members of David Letterman's CBS Orchestra. It was available exclusively from her website. She soon re-entered the Top Ten of the Billboard 200 with 2001's Living Proof, which included two dance number ones, "Song for the Lonely" and "A Different Kind of Love Song." After appearing as herself on a pair of episodes of TV's Will & Grace, she duetted with Rod Stewart on "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" from his As Time Goes By: The Great American Songbook, Vol. 2 (2003). 2003 also saw the release of the U.S. Top Five-charting compilation The Very Best of Cher, which also charted well worldwide. By 2005, she had completed the three-year, high-grossing Farewell Tour ahead of a lucrative Las Vegas residency.

Cher made her return to the studio with two appearances on the soundtrack to the 2010 film Burlesque, in which she co-starred with Christina Aguilera (who took the lead on the rest of the album). One of the Cher songs, the Diane Warren-penned "You Haven't Seen the Last of Me," won the Golden Globe for Best Original Song. Her next solo album, Closer to the Truth, appeared on Warner Bros. in 2013 and, split between dance tracks and adult contemporary entries, became her highest-charting solo outing yet in the U.S., where it reached the Top Three. Highlighted by the dance chart-topping "Woman's World," it did nearly as well in Canada and the U.K., where it went to number four. Cher returned to the silver screen in a musical capacity in the mid-2018 sequel Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, playing Ruby, mother to Meryl Streep's Donna, in flashbacks. She appeared on two of the ABBA covers that comprised the movie musical's soundtrack, which went to number three on the Billboard 200 and topped several of the international charts. She followed its lead on September 2018's Dancing Queen, a full set of ABBA covers by Cher -- co-produced by the band's Benny Andersson -- that matched the chart success of the soundtrack. Still going strong and riding the rhythms of the dancefloor, she returned in October 2023 with the original song "DJ Play a Christmas Song," the lead single from her first Christmas album. Simply titled Christmas, it was released before the end of the month. ~ Bruce Eder & Marcy Donelson

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