The greatest music debuts of all time #8: Sonny and Cher’s I Got You Babe

It’s a melding of minds and matters that bridged a divide that should’ve been unbridgeable. It’s a hammy little earworm, a simplistic example of pop-music showmanship at work. It’s the product of experienced studio hands, and its got some of its era’s greatest session musicians playing on it. It’s an example of the vaguely psychedelic, starry-eyed folk rock that was starting to take over in one of those big generation-divide moments. It’s got Cher reassuring Sonny Bono that his hair’s not too long. It’s not Bob Dylan, exactly, but it was pitched directly to the same young people who were buying Dylan records. It’s one of the most recognisable duets of all time. It’s I Got You Babe, and this is its story.

In the early ‘60s, folk music and rock ‘n’ roll were mortal enemies: the former, the “authentic” genre for mature, thoughtful college students/pretentious hipsters; the latter, for superficial teenyboppers and juvenile delinquents. Nevertheless, the two styles of music crossed over more than partisans might have liked to acknowledge. During the British Invasion, the Animals scored a hit with a traditional American song (House Of The Rising Sun), while the Searchers developed a jingle-jangle guitar sound more intricate than the clanging power chords of many of their contemporaries.

By the mid-’60s, the two seemingly divergent genres merged to create one of the most influential musical movements of the decade: folk rock. The nascent genre made its big break in 1965: Dylan went electric, the Byrds scored two No.1 smashes (Mr. Tambourine Man and Turn! Turn! Turn!) on the American Billboard charts, and even The Beatles delved into the style on Help! and Rubber Soul. The British Invasion was still going strong, but now America had its own homegrown competition, based on traditional song structures, thoughtful lyrics, and crisp, melodic guitars.

The true sign of the success of a new trend, however, is when it trickles down from the innovators and early adopters into the wider realm of pop culture. Married couple/pop duo Sonny & Cher looked the part of West Coast folk rockers, with their long hair, bell bottoms, and copious amounts of suede fringe. They borrowed liberally from Dylan — Sonny Bono channeled his nasal squawk, while Cher scored a solo hit earlier in the summer of 1965 with a cover of All I Really Want To Do, elbowing out a version released by the Byrds themselves. And for the duo’s first and biggest hit, they turned It Ain’t Me, Babe, inside out, inverting it from a kiss-off to a declaration of eternal love.

Cherilyn Sarkisian was 16 when she met Salvatore Bono in a Los Angeles coffee shop. She was a high school dropout who’d moved to LA to become an actress and who was working as a dancer in Sunset Strip clubs. He was a 27 year-old songwriter and producer who was working under Phil Spector’s umbrella. Soon after, Cher moved in with Sonny when he offered her a job as a housekeeper. They became a couple, and they got married in 1964.

Sonny wrote I Got You Babe one night 55 years ago when he and Cher were both living in their manager’s house. The “they” in the song— the ones who say that the couple shouldn’t be together — were entirely correct, seeing as how Cher was an actual child when they became a couple. (Cher’s song-opening line — “They say we’re young and we don’t know” — was half-right.) And they were ultimately right. Sonny and Cher broke up in 1975, though not before being married for more than a decade, having a kid, and launching a successful variety show.

But while I Got You Babe is flavoured with the spirit of ’65, its core is the sort of lush teen pop balladry that had ruled the airwaves earlier in the decade. No surprise, then, that the duo had studied under Spector: Sonny as a production assistant (who also co-wrote Needles and Pins with fellow alum Jack Nitzsche), and Cher as a back-up singer, whose pipes appeared on many of the producer’s biggest hits such as the Ronettes’ Be My Baby and the Righteous Brothers’ You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’.

When Sonny stepped into the producer’s chair on his own, he brought along his former mentor’s bag of tricks. With its low-rent Wall of Sound arrangement and grownups-don’t-understand sentiment, I Got You Babe sounds an awful lot like a Righteous Brothers record if they crooned Crystals lyrics to each other. The instrumentation is lush and gorgeous, heavier on those tinkling bells, and that tootling wind instrument. (It was either an ocarina or an oboe, depending on who you ask.) than on folk rock’s signature jangly guitars, while the orchestral build and false ending confirm that Sonny picked up on his mentor’s grasp of dynamics. That the arrangement is more stripped down than Spector’s usual aural onslaught is less a failure of ambition than a concession to the new era of rock. But the real discovery, of course, was Cher, who belted out all of her lines with tremendous gusto. On the bridge — “I got you to taaaalk to me” — she’s a force of nature. Sonny, meanwhile, sounds small and sheepish, totally overwhelmed on his own song.

The success of I Got You Babe owes a lot to Sonny & Cher’s keen ability to straddle both sides of the newly forming generation gap. The duo adopted elements of dress and slang from the nascent hippie movement but were also a devoted married couple who publicly abstained from drug use. I Got You Babe boasts mildly rebellious lines like “Don’t let them say your hair’s too long,” but a musical arrangement that’s pure lush pop. Folk rock’s own Steve and Eydie may have come across as lightweights to their more serious brethren, but their pop-friendly accessibility helped bring a high-minded, artistic musical movement to the masses and cement it as part of the popular culture.

By rights, a song this kitschy and simplistic — even one this good — should’ve led to Sonny And Cher becoming one-hit wonders. They never had a hit like this again, but they still managed a decade-long career as multi-media stars. Cher even went on to win a  bloody Oscar.

These days, she is very good at Twitter and very good at Vegas.

Cher (and Sonny) at the Park Theater-MGM, Las Vegas, 9 November 2018 © SD Pafford

Sonny, meanwhile, teamed up with the absolutely flabulous drag legend Divine by playing the villain in John Waters’ Hairspray, got himself elected mayor of Palm Springs, and represented California as a Republican Congressman before dying in a freak skiing accident in 1998.

Later that same year his ex-wife scored a surprise No.1 hit a whole 33 years after I Got You Babe, with the granny-down-the-disco smash Believe, proving that there is indeed life after love. Oh yes.

Steve Pafford

BONUS BEATS: In 1973, David Bowie invited swinging Sixties icon Marianne Faithfull up for a hastily cobbled take of I Got You Babe on his Midnight Special, the 1980 Floor Show. Then in the throes of a debilitating heroin addiction, Faithfull’s vocals left nothing to be desired, though the backless nun’s habit was just fine and dandy.

In the summer of ’85 the reggaeaish, resolutely not husband and wife pairing of UB40 and the Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde took I Got You Babe back to the top spot in Britain twenty years after the original. Wonder what Jim Kerr thought?

Previously, the greatest music debuts of all time include: Malcolm McLaren’s Buffalo GalsKate Bush’s Wuthering Heights, Roxy Music by Roxy Music, ABC’s The Lexicon of Love. Further instalments coming soon 

Liked it? Take a second to support Steve Pafford on Patreon!
Author avatar
Steve Pafford
We use cookies to give you the best experience.