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.
Sex has always been there in pop music. It’s been a defining force — the defining force — even when it’s lurking just below the surface. But in the early ’70s, it stopped lurking. If you’re going on sound alone, the pop music of the early ’70s is a lot tamer and less fiery than the stuff that was topping the charts a few years earlier. Most of those sexed-up ’70s hits are playful to the point of silliness — “Knock Three Times,” say. But darkness and consequences had to come in somewhere, and they came in with Cher’s “Gypsys, Tramps & Thieves.”
“Gypsys, Tramps & Thieves” is a story-song, told in quick strokes and innuendo. The first line is like the establishing shot of a movie: “I was born in the wagon of a traveling show.” Cher’s character is a girl born into a drifter family — probably Romani, though it’s also possible that the “Gypsys” of the title is just a slur she hears all the time, regardless of heritage. Her family scrapes and scams for money. One day, when she’s 16, she meets a boy who’s five years older. He gets her pregnant, and then he disappears. Her daughter is born into the same life as her, cursed to the same outcast status that was her own birthright.
Bob Stone wrote the song specifically for Cher; producer Snuff Garrett wanted something that would capitalize on her look, and so the song made the cut. (Cher wasn’t actually Romani; her father was Armenian, while her mother was part Cherokee and mostly white. But apparently, the mere fact that she wasn’t blonde was enough to set her apart in that particular pop-culture landscape.) But it’s an elegant piece of songwriting. Stone dances around the grim particulars of the girl’s story. There’s probably prostitution in the family, but it’s implied, not outright stated: “Every night, all the men would come around and lay their money down.” When the girl has sex with the boy, Cher describes it like this: “Papa woulda shot him if he’d knew what he’d done.” And when she gets pregnant: “Three months later, I’m a gal in trouble.”
Cher was only 25 when she recorded “Gypsys, Tramps & Thieves,” and yet she already needed a comeback. Six years earlier, Sonny & Cher had hit #1 with the folk-rock nugget “I Got You Babe.” But their whole act had come to seem more and more square as the decade went on, and their singles stopped hitting. Sonny and Cher got married and became parents, and they mortgaged their house to make the 1969 movie Chastity, with Sonny writing and directing and Cher starring. It flopped, and it left them in debt.
There’s a possibly-apocryphal story about how Sonny & Cher ended up getting their own variety show. It goes like this: Their nightclub show was depressing, so crowds would heckle them. But Cher would clown the hecklers in the crowd, and then she’d clown Sonny when he tried to stop her. TV executives liked Cher, and the playfully teasing chemistry that she had with Sonny, and so they ended up on TV. I don’t know how much of that is true, but The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour debuted in August of 1971, and it was an instant hit. Around that same time, Cher started working with Snuff Garrett. She’d made six solo albums, most of them with Sonny producing, and none of them had gone anywhere. But with Garrett, she found her sound, and she clicked.
“Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves” is an effective bit of operatic, melodramatic pop music. As with “I Got You Babe,” Cher recorded with the Wrecking Crew backing her up. There’s a lot going on in the music: Flamenco guitar flourishes, a chilly horror-movie piano line, a whole lot of string-swirl. It’s probably too much. It’s fast, over in less than three minutes, and the central hook isn’t especially strong. But the story is powerful, and so is Cher’s voice, a towering contralto that gives the song a whole new dimension. The story of the song might be a tragedy, but there’s a defiant pride in the way Cher sings it, a resolute toughness that gives the song more meaning than it had on paper. Bob Stone’s song puts the darkness into sex, and Cher puts the sex back into the darkness.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the recording of Nirvana playing a genuinely terrible cover of “Gypsys, Tramps & Thieves” at a 1987 rehearsal, with Krist Novoselic singing:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the bit from the Japanese-restaurant episode of The Simpsons (“extra tentacles, please”) where someone sings a karaoke version of “Gypsys, Tramps & Thieves”:
THE 10: Marvin Gaye’s bleak, eerie, tingling “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” peaked at #9 behind “Gypsys, Tramps & Thieves.” It’s a 10.