In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
In 1993’s Groundhog Day, Bill Murray plays an asshole weatherman cursed to live out the same day over and over again. Every time, he wakes up in the same place: a small-town Pennsylvania bed-and-breakfast, closed off by a blizzard, with the local radio hosts yammering about Punxsutawney Phil’s big appearance. And every morning, he wakes up to the same song.
For the movie to work, that song had to be trite and chintzy, and Murray had to get realistically grumpy about hearing it over and over. But the song also had to be good enough that we, the audience, would be able to hear the song over and over without getting sick of it. Sonny And Cher’s “I Got You Babe” might be the perfect combination of those two competing needs, and it’s a weirdly big part of the reason why that movie works as well as it does.
When it came out, “I Got You Babe” also 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. But it’s also 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. And, because it’s a great song, they bought it.
Cherilyn Sarkisian was 16 when she met Salvatore Bono in a Los Angeles coffee shop. He was 27. 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 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.
The “they” in “I Got You Babe” — 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.
Sonny wrote “I Got You Babe” one night when he and Cher were both living in their manager’s house. Cher was sleeping. Sonny woke her up, she said what she didn’t like about it, and then he rewrote it after she went back to sleep. They recorded it with the members of the Wrecking Crew, the LA hired-gun studio musicians who’d played on so many of Spector’s records. (Cher herself had been a sort of auxiliary Spector player, singing backup on many of his peak-era hits.) Bono produced it, and he did a nice job making it sound as much like a Spector track as possible.
The arrangement on “I Got You Babe” is lush and gorgeous, with those chiming guitars, those tinkling bells, and that tootling wind instrument. (It was either an ocarina or an oboe, depending on who you ask.) 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.
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 went on to win a fucking Oscar, and she scored a #1 hit 33 years after “I Got You Babe.” These days, she is very good at Twitter. Sonny, meanwhile, played the villain in John Waters’ Hairspray, got himself elected mayor of Palm Springs, and represented California as a Republican Congressman before dying in a skiing accident in 1998.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s David Bowie and Marianne Faithfull doing a beautifully insincere cover of “I Got You Babe” in Midnight Special in 1973:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s David Letterman badgering Sonny and Cher into singing a charming rendition of “I Got You Babe” together in 1987, 12 years after their divorce:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the video for the kind of incredible version of “I Got You Babe” that Cher recorded with Beavis and Butt-Head, for their album The Beavis And Butt-Head Experience, in 1993: