Hand color tinted photo of Sonny Bono
Salvatore Phillip “Sonny” Bono (February 16, 1935 – January 5, 1998) was an American recording artist, record producer, actor, and politician whose career spanned over three decades.
Born in Detroit to Italian immigrants Jean and Santo, Sonny was the youngest of three siblings; he had two older sisters, Fran and Betty. Bono attended Inglewood High School in Inglewood, California, but did not graduate.
Bono began his music career working at Specialty Records where his song “Things You Do to Me” was recorded by Sam Cooke, and went on to work for the legendary record producer Phil Spector in the early 1960s as a promotion man, percussionist and “gofer”. One of his earliest songwriting efforts was “Needles and Pins” which he co-wrote with Jack Nitzsche, another member of Spector’s production team. Later in the same decade, he achieved commercial success, along with his then-wife Cher, as part of the singing duo Sonny and Cher. Bono wrote, arranged, and produced a number of hit records with singles like “I Got You Babe” and “The Beat Goes On”, although Cher received more attention as a performer. He also played a major part in Cher’s early solo career with recordings such as “Bang Bang” and “You Better Sit Down Kids”.
Bono also recorded as a solo artist under the name of Sonny. He had only one hit single as a solo artist, “Laugh At Me”. “Laugh At Me” was released in 1965 and peaked at #10 on the Billboard Hot 100. In live concerts, Bono would sing the song with an introduction of, “I’d like to sing a medley of my hit.” His only other single as a solo artist was a follow-up release, “The Revolution Kind”, which reached number 70 on the Billboard Hot 100 later that same year. Bono also recorded an unsuccessful Sonny album titled Inner Views in 1967.
Sonny continued to work with Cher through the early and mid-’70s starring in a popular television variety show, The Sonny and Cher Show, which ran on CBS from 1971 to 1974. From 1976 to 1977, the couple returned to performing together on The Sonny and Cher Show despite being divorced. Their last appearance together was on Late Night with David Letterman on November 13, 1987, when they sang “I Got You Babe”.
Bono continued his acting career, doing bit roles in such shows as Fantasy Island and The Love Boat. He played the part of mad bomber Joe Selucci in Airplane II: The Sequel (1982) and in the 1986 horror movie Troll. Bono also played the part of Franklin Von Tussle in the 1988 John Waters film Hairspray. In the 1997 film Men In Black, Bono is one of several oddball celebrities seen on a wall of video screens that monitor extraterrestrials living among us. He also appeared in several episodes of P.S. I Luv U starring Connie Sellecca and Greg Evigan during the 1991-92 TV season as the Mayor of Palm Springs which he really was at the time. His last acting role was in the television series Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (Season 1, Episode 9, originally aired on November 21, 1993), in which he played the Mayor Frank Berkowitz. He also made a minor appearance as himself in the 1996 film First Kid.
Sonny poked a little fun at himself when he guest-starred on The Golden Girls, in the episode “Mrs. George Devereaux”, aired November 17, 1990, as himself vying with Lyle Waggoner for Dorothy’s (Beatrice Arthur) affection in a dream, where Blanche (Rue McClanahan) dreams her husband is still alive. In the dream, Sonny uses his power as mayor of Palm Springs, California to have Waggoner falsely arrested just so he can have Dorothy to himself. Later on, after Blanche awakens from the dream, Dorothy is thrilled to learn she picked Sonny this time.
Bono entered politics after experiencing great frustration with local government bureaucracy in trying to open a restaurant in Palm Springs, California. With conservative talk radio host Marshall Gilbert as his campaign manager, Bono placed a successful bid to become the new mayor of Palm Springs. He served four years (1988 to 1992). He was instrumental in spearheading the creation of the Palm Springs International Film Festival, which is now held each year in Bono’s memory.
Bono ran for the Republican nomination for United States Senate in 1992, but the nomination went to the more conservative Bruce Herschensohn, and the election to the Democrat Barbara Boxer. Bono and Herschensohn became close friends after the campaign. Bono was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1994 to represent California’s 44th congressional district. He was one of twelve co-sponsors of a House bill extending copyright. Although that bill was never voted on in the Senate, a similar Senate bill was passed after his death and named the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act in his memory.
He championed the restoration of the Salton Sea, bringing the giant lake’s plight to national attention. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich made a public appearance and speech at the shore of the lake on Bono’s behalf.
In their book Tell Newt to Shut Up, David Maraniss and Michael Weisskopf credit Bono with being the first person to recognize Gingrich’s public relations problems in 1995. Drawing on his long experience as a celebrity and entertainment producer, Bono (according to Maraniss and Weisskopf) recognized that Gingrich’s status had changed from politician to celebrity, and that Gingrich was not making allowances for that change:
You’re a celebrity now, … The rules are different for celebrities. I know it. I’ve been there. I’ve been a celebrity. I used to be a bigger celebrity. But let me tell you, you’re not being handled right. This is not political news coverage. This is celebrity status. You need handlers. You need to understand what you’re doing. You need to understand the attitude of the media toward celebrities.
Bono remains the only member of Congress to have scored a #1 pop single on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart.
Author Ronald Kessler mentioned Bono in his expose book Inside Congress. Kessler pointed out that Bono was widely ridiculed and was named one of the “dimmest bulbs” in Congress by Progressive Magazine and that The Washington Post referred to him as the “idiot savant from way beyond the Beltway”. Kessler also mentioned that a young staffer named Frederique J. Sandretto had accused Bono of sexually harassing her.
Bono married his first wife, Donna Rankin, on November 3, 1954. Their daughter Christine (“Christy”) was born on June 24, 1958. They divorced in 1962. In 1964 Bono married singer/entertainer Cher; their daughter Chastity (now legally named Chaz after gender transition) was born on March 4, 1969. In 1975 the couple divorced. Bono then married Susie Coelho, but divorced her in 1984. He wed the much-younger Mary Whitaker in 1986 and they had two children, son Chesare Elan on April 25, 1988 and daughter Chianna Maria on February 2, 1991. He became a Scientologist, partly because of the influence of Mimi Rogers, but stated that he was a Roman Catholic on all official documents, campaign materials, web sites, etc. Mary Bono also took Scientology courses.
Bono was named a godparent of Anthony Kiedis who would go on to become a musical artist with his band, Red Hot Chili Peppers. Sonny was a close friend of Anthony’s father, Blackie Dammett, and would often take the boy on weekend trips.
Bono was a champion of the Salton Sea in southeastern California, where a park was named in his honor. The 2005 documentary film Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea (narrated by John Waters) features Bono and documented the lives of the inhabitants of Bombay Beach, Niland, and Salton City, as well as the ecological issues associated with the Sea.
Bono died on January 5, 1998 of injuries sustained when he hit a tree while skiing on the Nevada side of Heavenly Ski Resort near South Lake Tahoe, California. His death came just a little less than a week after Michael Kennedy, a son of Robert F. Kennedy, died in a similar skiing accident in Aspen, Colorado. After Bono’s death, Mary told an interviewer from TV Guide that Sonny had been addicted to and was seriously abusing prescription drugs, mainly Vicodin and Valium. Though Mary claimed that Sonny’s drug use caused the accident, the autopsy performed by the Douglas County Coroner showed no indication of any substances or alcohol.
Bono was survived by his wife Mary Bono and children Christy, Chianna, Chesare, and Chaz. His mother Jean Bono, also survived him, and died on January 15, 2005 at the age of 90. At Mary Bono’s request, Cher gave a eulogy at Sonny’s funeral. His remains were buried at Desert Memorial Park in Cathedral City, California. The epitaph on Bono’s headstone reads: “And the Beat Goes On.”
Bono’s wife, Mary, was elected to fill the remainder of his Congressional term. Over 10 years after his death, she continues to champion many of Sonny’s causes, including the ongoing fight to save the Salton Sea.
American hip-hop artist Eminem references Bono’s skiing accident in his songs “Who Knew” and “Role Model”
British alternative rock band “A” references Bono’s death in his song “I Love Lake Tahoe” (included in the 1999 album “A” vs. Monkey Kong and also released as single)