SALVATORE SONNY BONO

Born February 16, 1935 in Detroit Michigan.

Also known professionally as Sonny / Don Christy, Ronny Sommers, Prince Carter, Little Joey, Caesar.

 

Dreaming of stardom since arriving in Los Angeles in 1945, Sonny survived post- high school with unskilled jobs and music on his mind. By 1955 he'd convinced local R&B honcho Johnny Otis to audition his voice, his ukulele and his song "Ecstasy". It was recorded, it bombed.The affable and charming songwriter hustle his way through his idol Frankie Laine's Crystal Records and landed on his feet at Art Rupe's legendary Specialty label. While talented white stars often aspire to R&B cred, it's notable that Sonny had that "in" long before he made anything like a white pop record. He peddled his songs to all the small and mainly R&B labels which proliferated on Sunset Boulevard and East L.A. at the time. Friends from the period remember him fondly.

Six years of scuffling while attempting to launch himself as a solo star (via records and lounge shows) were a gruelling apprenticeship. Sonny was more than ready for The Big Breaks, and they came shortly after he met Cher. More in love at second sight than first, Sonny soon saw in Cher his Muse and to his detriment became progressively unable to distinguish her from an employee. He certainly fell in love with Sonny & Cher, and his obsession with the entity eventually swamped the couple as individuals. Cher's "escape" in 1974 may have been motivated more by desiring relief from numbing dysfunction than by blind ambitions of superstadom.

Culture remembers Sonny as a lovable though untalented showbiz buffoon who eventually made it to Capitol Hill. But supremely talented artists don't often score hit records - Sonny did. Talented songwriters don't often write classics which define a generation - Sonny did. The same can be said of record production and onstage entertainment. Ditto prime-time television. Sonny once said: "It's two words: "show" and "business". Pay attention to both." Remarkably, Sonny Bono was able to pull off an amazing entrpreneurial feat not once but twice.

Sonny & Cher had no predecessors: they were true originals who inspired a truckload of would-be's. Sonny & Cher were a dream come true - as engineered by Sonny. It extended to setting up Cher as a true leading lady some twenty years before Hollywood picked up on the idea.

Sometimes people are blessed with vision and energy, and just enough genius to make it all seem better than talent alone.

 

1952 Sonny performs his co-composition (w. J. Bloomfield) "Ecstasy" on local Los Angeles KNXT television show Peter Potter's SEARCH FOR A SONG and wins. He also writes "Koko Joe" (inspired by Coco Joe's Cookies).

1955 Records "Ecstasy" for Johnny Otis' Dig label.

1956 Cuts another "Ecstasy" demo with his singing teacher.

In mid-1957 Sonny starts placing his songs with Larry Williams at Specialty, as B-sides. He also meets Jack Nitzsche, who he engages to write lead sheets for Specialty Records artists and begin an ongoing friendship and working relationship.. He also collaborates with Al Hazan on 45's for Sonny Lowery and Roddy Jackson, and first hooks up with saxophonist Harold Battiste Jr. who was formerly Specialty's man in New Orleans.

As arranger and musician, Harold will help define Sonny's musical vision on the records he produces, and much later on television. Sonny claims that adding instrumentation to Sam Cooke's scratch-track of "I'll Come Running Back To You" (after the singer leaves the label) is his first "production"; the "sweetening" was actually done by Harold Battiste, and Jack Nietzsche learns string arrangements as Harold's copyist. Specialty's major star Little Richard is refusing to record by year's end, and the loss of sales from Cooke and Little Richard is impacting heavily on the label.

 

June '57
Specialty 608
Larry Williams
High School Dance / Short Fat Fannie Both Prod "Bumps" Blackwell
Oct '57
Specialty 615
Larry Williams
Boney Moronie / You Bug Me Baby (SB) Both Prod "Bumps" Blackwell
Oct '57
Specialty CD
Larry Williams
Hey Now (SB / LW)  
Oct '57
Specialty 618
Rene Hall & Willie Joe
Flippin" / Twitchy (SB)  
Nov '57
Specialty 619
Sam Cooke
I'll Come Running Back To You / Forever SB adds HB arr overdubs
Nov '57
Specialty 620
Troy Cory
I've Just Lost A Ball In High Weeds / Yawning Both Prod SB, Arr Rene Hall
Dec '57
Specialty 621
Sonny Lowery
Do You Promise / Thank You For Your Kisses Prod A-side SB
Dec '57
Crystalette 712
Johnny Stark
Teenage Lovers / Waitin'  
Arr = Arranger - Eng = Engineer - Prod = Producer SB = Sonny Bono - SC = S. Christy
(Thanks to Troy Cory & Al Hazan for label scans)

 

Troy Cory recalls Sonny's attempts to launch him as a teen idol: "At that time, between June 1957 and June, 1958", recording studios were fighting to being unionised, and ASCAP had competition, BMI was established for the new breed of song writer. I was still in my first year as a serious recording artist with was collaborating with song writers Sonny Bono, Tip Tobin, Dorothy Swafford, and guitarist arranger, Rene Hall in the production of my first record album for Art Rupe's Specialty Records.

Lucky for me, I was signed by Specialty, as their first "vanilla ice" performer, under the guidance of both Rene Hall and Sonny Bono, who were known for their excellence in producing the Sam Cooke, "I'll Come Running Back To You", and most of Larry Williams sessions. I'll never forget the attention Art Rupe gave me as a young singer, it was the fastest learning curve experience I've ever experience in my life.


In just a short period of time, I saw how hit songs were written and made by the greatest black singers of all time, Larry Williams, Little Richard and Sam Cooke, lyrics and all, I also was made to understand, that if the artist wrote the song, be ready to share the publishing and writers credit with others."

Above: Roddy Jackson (L), Larry Williams (R)

 

January 1958 sees Sonny replace Robert "Bumps" Blackwell at Specialty as an A&R man. Blackwell has departed with Sam Cooke. With the loss of Cooke (to Keen Records) and Little Richard (to Jesus: Richard has had an epiphany around a crashed aircraft), Specialty Records begins to slide. Only scoring one Top 10 record all year - an old Little Richard track - Sonny scores no success for the label or himself as he places his compositions with the Specialty acts he's supevising sessions for.

Apart from Troy Cory, potentially great and unique acts in the form of raw rocker Roddy Jackson and Don & Dewey fail to break out nationally (with "Hiccups" and "The Letter" respecively) and it's looking like the label has seen better days. During the year Sonny's role in and out of the booth is notably enhanced by Harold Battiste Jr who has done the same Specialty job in New Orleans prior to moving to Los Angeles.

Pictured: L. Don & Dewey, R. Wynona Carr

 

 

 

Jan '58 Specialty 623
Roddy Jackson
Love At First Sight (RJ) / I've Got My Sights On Someone New (SB) Prod SB
Feb '58 Specialty 625 The Titans Don't You Just Know It / Can It Be (SB)  
Apr '58 Specialty 628 Wynona Carr The Things You Used To Do (SB) / Touch And Go (SB)  
Apr '58 Specialty 629 Rene Hall Thunderbird (RH / SC) / When The Saints Go Marchin' In  
July '58 Specialty 639 Don & Dewey The Letter (Harris/Terry) / Koko Joe (SB)  
Sep '58 Specialty 646 Troy Cory Down On The Beach / Just One More Chance Both Prod SB
Oct '58 Specialty 649 Roddy Jackson Hiccups (AH /SC) / There's A Moose On The Loose A-side Prod SB
Nov '58 Specialty 650 Wynona Carr If I Pray / I'm Mad At You (SC) Arr HB, SB in booth

 

1959 At year's onset it's becoming clear that both the raw R&B and Gospel genres - Specialty's specialties - are on the decline, and Sonny begins recording himself as Don Christy and Little Joey. Allegedly furious at Sonny's many moonlighting activities, Art Rupe fires him and begins winding down the label and pursuing other business interests. Although Specialty has closed by the end of the year, a subsidiary (Fidelity) issues Specialty masters for a few more years, with the label returning briefly with some reissues in 1972 / '73.

Sonny's co-composition with Roddy Jackson "She Said Yeah" will become a beat classic in the following decade.

 

 

Jan '59 Specialty 658 Larry Williams She Said Yeah (RJ/SC) / Bad Boy Arr H.B. Barnum / LW, SB in booth
May '59 Specialty 666 Roddy Jackson Any Old Town / Gloria Prod SB
June '59 Specialty 672 Don Christy Wearing Black (SC) / One Little Answer (SC)  
Dec '59 Fidelity 3014 Little Joey w/ Little Tootsie Comin' Down The Chimney / same Arr H.B. Barnum / SB in booth + vocals
1973 Specialty 733 Sonny Bono & Little Tootsie One Little Answer (SC) / Comin Down The Chimney reissue

 

1960

Very little is well-documented about Sonny's activities for the ensuing two years or so. Sonny's own recounting of this period is at best unreliable. He collaborates with H.B. Barnum (right) on The Robins (left) and Darlene Paul's self-penned 45 on Lute Records, as well as continuing business with Jack Nietzsche.

 

It's alleged that Sonny and Jack's business dealings include running solicitation ads in publications offering to turn "Your Poems Into Songs!" - a common feature for decades in the back pages of many low-rent U.S. periodicals. (Your "poems" are invariably accepted by the "record company", but a recording fee is involved and the lucky "songwriter" gets a pile of cheaply-made demo records for their investment.) Sonny apparently plows the proceeds of his poetry-to-record activities into making professionally-produced records of himself singing his own songs.

Fidelity 3020 Don Christy Wearing Black / One Little Answer
Satellite 672 Don Christy Wearing Black / One Little Answer
Go 1001 Don Christy As Long As You Love Me (SC / HBB) / I'll Always Be Grateful (SC/HBB)
Go 1002 Don Christy Teach Me (SC/HBB) / I Don't Care
Name 3 Don Christy (same as Go 1001)
The Robins Arvee 5001 Just Like That (SB/HBB/JN) / Whole Lot of Imagination
Darlene Paul Lute L-5907 In Darkness, In Daylight (DP) / You're Just You (DP)

1961

Bigtime success continues to elude Sonny although one of his compositions "Little Miss Cool" sees low-level chart action, with Jack Nietzsche arranging for a major label. The Marathon's (right) Coaster-ish "Tight Sweater" (co-written with Russ Regan), and his latest noms-de-chantez Ronnie Sommers and Prince Carter each lay an egg apiece.

The other Summers boy (actually Russ Regan) tries a gimicky "Calling All Cars" - the popular expression being lifted from the hit TV show "Car 54 - Where Are You?" The Marathons are a teen group rounded up to substitute for The Marathons of "Peanut Butter" fame...who were actually Chess/Checker artists The Persuasions moonlighting on Richard Vaughn's Arvee label. The talented young Marathons include a version of Sonny's old Larry Williams cut "You Bug Me Baby" on their LP.

 

Ronny Sommers Sawmi 1001 Don't Shake My Tree (SC) / Mama Come Get Your Baby Boy (SC)  
Prince Carter Go 711 Shake Me Up (SC / Jerry Cole / Mr. Pawnshop  
Daniel A. Stone Capitol 4590 Little Miss Cool (SC) / It Must Be Raining Arr Jack Nietzsche Prod Nick Venet
The Marathons Arvee 5038 Tight Sweater (SC / Russ Regan) / Percy Mercy  
Davey Summers Vim 101 Calling All Cars / Good Ship Love (also Zen 101, WB 6363) Arr Jack Nietzsche Prod Sonny Bono

1962 Sonny nevertheless continues to make records, strikes a deal with Sid Talmadge (of Highland) and the label Rush is born. Sonny is confident that between him and his old Specialty pals Don & Dewey a buyer's rush will follow. Poor distribution is blamed for the bum's rush the Rush releases actually get. Sonny's claims that he owns the label don't extend to the masters: Sid Talmadge will re-release Rush 1001 as a Sonny 45 on his Highland label in 1965.

His song "Every Day" becomes "Every Daye" on the B-side of Miss Daye's single, and will be recycled on the back of The Pearlettes' (left) modestly-charting answer to "The Duke Of Earl". Lester Sill bankrolls an excellent Al Hazan / Sonny effort for Willie Gibson, while Al produces an unreleased version of "I'll Change" for Sonny. (The released version is produced by "Teenage" Steve Douglas, who'll go on to play those searing sax solos to productions by another up-and-coming talented young producer: Phil Spector.)

 

 

Johnny de Costa Highland 301 Watchin' Watchin' Watchin' / Stop Playing Our Song (SC)  
Roberta Daye Abner 702 I'm Never Gonna Cry Again / Every Daye (SB)  
Don Christy Rush 1001 I'll Change (SC) / Try It Out On Me (SC) Prod Steve Douglas
Don & Dewey Rush 1002 Soul Motion / Stretchin' Out Prod Sonny Bono
Don & Dewey Rush 1003 Don't Ever Leave (SC) / Heart Attack (also Highland 150) Arr D&D, Prod Sonny Bono (?)
Don Christy Rush 1004 Little Miss Cool (SC) /  
The Pearlettes VeeJay 435 Duchess Of Earl / Every Day (SB)  
Willie Gibson WB 5294 Cheatin' On Me (Al Hazan/ SC) / Baby Boy (SC) Arr Gene Page, Prod AH/Sonny Bono
Johnny Gamboa Star Revue Why Lover / She's Never There (Jack Nietzsche / SC)  
Ophelia McFall Saturn 403 He's Never There (Jack Nietzsche / SC) / Did You Know?  
Romeo Jones Little Star 119 Eternal Love (inst) / How Bout That (SC) inst  

 

 

Midyear finds Sonny depressed - a condition exacerbated by Jack Nietzsche's full entree into the only game in town: Phil Spector's erecording sessions. His Wall Of Sound and his elegant bubblegum records are storming the charts, will inspire imitators for decades, and become celebrated for their production values. These powerhouse singles aren't random hits from a haphazard release schedule: each monthly release on the Philles label is a refined and completed artwork which follows its predecessor on to the airwaves and into the cash registers. And each has Jack Nitzsche's name emblozoned on it as arranger, with Sonny's name being seen nowhere at all.

In November, a pal advises that perhaps "a broad" will lift his spirits - something apparently his wife and daughter are unable to do. The date is duly set up, the broad isn't interested but the pal's date is. The aura she swears she sees around Sonny will prove to be far more prescient than merely the projections of a teenage girl who marches to a strange interior drummer...

 

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