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.
Cher isn’t Romani, but that didn’t stop her from recording “Gypsys, Tramps & Thieves,” her first solo #1. And she isn’t half Cherokee, either, but that didn’t stop her from recording “Half-Breed,” her second chart-topper. Cher’s father was Armenian, and her mother was mostly Western European but was also part Cherokee, at least according to a People profile of Cher from the ’90s. Cher is a show-business survivor with a long and varied career. But when she was at her commercial peak, at least as far as the pop charts were concerned, she had a formula: dramatic story-songs about ethnic discrimination. And in those songs, she always claimed to be ethnicities that she wasn’t. That’s pretty weird!
Cher was a big, big deal in the early ’70s. The Sonny & Cher Show, the variety show that she and her husband Sonny Bono hosted, was a huge hit. By the end of 1973, Cher had altogether stopped recording music with Bono; she’d stepped out as a solo artist. Cher was a statuesque beauty, with dark hair and sharp features, and not too many people on TV in the ’70s looked like her. So maybe that’s why she recorded so many songs about being so many different ethnicities. Maybe nobody knew any better.
So “Half-Breed” was some Rachel Dolezal shit. But Cher didn’t write it. The lyricist Mary Dean, who co-wrote “Half-Breed” with Al Capps, brought the song to Snuff Garrett, the man who’d produced “Gypsys, Tramps & Thieves.” Dean had Cher in mind when she wrote it. Garrett, mad that Sonny Bono said no to Cher recording the eventual #1 hit “The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia,” had quit working with both Sonny and Cher. But when he heard “Half-Breed,” he decided that he needed to record Cher doing it, and he kept the song for months, until he got a chance to work with her again. Talking to Rolling Stone in 1973, Garrett said, “To me, nobody could do that song but Cher — that was Cher’s story.” No! It wasn’t!
Maybe I’m being too literal here. Maybe people who listened to pop music in the ’70s knew that they were hearing stories, and that the people singing those songs were playing characters. And even if “Half-Breed” wasn’t Cher’s story, it was presumably somebody’s story. The song has empathy for its narrator. We, the listeners, are made to identify with her pain, to understand what it’s like to be called racial slurs wherever you go: “The other children always laughed at me / ‘Give her a feather, she’s a Cherokee.'” On the verses, her voice is steely, controlled, angry. On the choruses, it turns into a bit of a pained yelp: “Half-breed! That’s all I ever heard / Half-breed! How I learned to hate that word.” Eventually, the narrator consigns herself to a sad existence: “We weren’t accepted, and I felt ashamed / 19, I left them / Tell, me who’s to blame? / My life since then has been from man to man / But I can’t run away from who I am.” So it’s a tragic and melodramatic song, but maybe it’s a proud song, too.
Musically, there’s some interesting stuff going on on “Half-Breed.” The drums that open the track are clearly meant to sound like tribal toms. But combined with the icy string-shivers, they end up making “Half-Breed” sound like disco, before disco had quite become a genre. Cher sells the song with vaudevillian flair, and there’s a bit of cabaret in there, too. It’s all cheesed-out ’70s studio-pop, of course, but it’s ’70s studio-pop that’s at least absorbing different sounds and ideas.
On The Sonny & Cher Show, Cher sang “Half-Breed” in a full headdress and a sexy-Indian costume, while sitting atop a horse, a pretty clear sign that this wasn’t exactly a sincere song. She wore headdresses on the single and album covers, too. And she’s kept performing and defending the song for years afterward. In 2017, she had a minor Twitter meltdown when a whole bunch of people discovered the song and got mad about it. (Kaya Jones, a former Pussycat Dolls member who had become Donald Trump’s Native American ambassador and who also claims partial Native American ancestry, had tweeted about how she identifies with “Half-Breed.”) As recently as last October, Cher was still singing “Half-Breed” live. She should probably stop doing that.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s electro-pop quasi-rapper Peaches covering “Half-Breed” in an Australian radio session in 2008, really cranking up the problematic aspects:
THE NUMBER TWOS: Paul Simon’s jaunty gospel pastiche “Loves Me Like A Rock” peaked at #2 behind “Half-Breed.” It’s an 8.
THE 10S: Stevie Wonder’s elemental funk lament “Higher Ground” peaked at #4 behind “Half-Breed.” It’s a 10.