Before she was an icon, Cher was simply a soul singer
Cher has been around long enough that most people have a fixed idea about who she is, depending on when they discovered her. Along with David Bowie, she is one of the original chameleons in pop music, constantly in flux and challenging our perceptions of her — well before Madonna, Beck, and Lady Gaga assumed that mantle.
Her story, going back nearly five decades, has given pop culture some of its most iconic moments — on record, on film, onstage — from her bohemian-chic days with Sonny Bono to any number of images of Cher in outrageous armor by designer Bob Mackie.
In the 1970s, she sang about gypsies, tramps, and thieves and dark ladies. A decade later she turned heads, in black leather (and not much else) in the video for “If I Could Turn Back Time.” And then there’s Cher the dance diva, who staged an unlikely comeback in the late ’90s buoyed by hits such as “Believe” and “Strong Enough,” which made use of Auto-Tune before it became rampant in pop music.
There’s also the celebrated actress you remember from “Silkwood,” “Mask,” and “Mermaids.” “Snap out of it!” you might hear her say in your head, one of her signature lines from her Oscar-winning turn in “Moonstruck.”
In short, Cher is many things to many people.
The one distinction that has gotten lost over the years, though, is the notion of Cher as blue-eyed soul singer. Like most artists do, Cher has distanced herself somewhat from her earliest years, back when she was singing alongside Bono, her late husband who helped shape her into an icon, starting with their biggest hit, “I Got You, Babe.”
Next year marks the 50th anniversary of Sonny & Cher’s debut, “Look at Us,” but in my mind, her string of solo albums from around the same time are the ones that have aged best. They present Cher (or, as she spelled it on many of her early album covers, Chér) before she became CHER. If you’re reading that sentence aloud, say “Cher” with an exaggerated emphasis on the “Ch” and act like you’re brushing back long hair; that’s how we seem to think she talks and behaves — with an over-the-top sultriness.
In 1965, Cher was 19 and lined her eyes with what looked like coal. Her straight hair, dark as midnight, hung like a velvet curtain down her back. And she sang, with an unvarnished directness, as if her life depended on it.
My own enthusiasm for Cher’s late-career material has waned over the years, largely because it buries the asset I prize most about her as a pop star: her voice. Two listens to last year’s “Closer to the Truth,” her latest album, left me cold, wanting more of the warmblooded woman you hear on her earliest recordings, not the digitized robot who sings club bangers these days.
With Cher in town next week, coming to TD Garden Wednesday with Pat Benatar as the opener, it’s a good time to dig deep into her legacy. Beneath the glitz and gloss, there has always been a lot of heart in her music. Here are three ’60s albums worth revisiting or, if you’re under 40, discovering.
All I Really Want to Do (1965)
Fun fact: Like many of her peers, Cher was an early champion of Bob Dylan’s genius. Released the same year as Sonny & Cher’s first album, her debut solo effort (also produced by Bono) featured three of Dylan’s songs: the title track, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” and “Blowin’ in the Wind.” With nods to girl-group pop and Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, Cher proved herself a nimble interpreter of others’ work and a real presence on record. “All I Really Want to Do” holds up as a quintessential artifact of 1960s folk-pop: jangly and inexplicably infectious.
With Love, Chér (1967)
There’s something unsettling about the children’s chorus that introduces “Mama (When My Dollies Have Babies),” a sign that the times were changing for Cher. With Sonny once again at the production helm, Cher tackles heavier material on her fourth solo album, including Phil Ochs’s “There But for Fortune” and perhaps the most surreal ode to divorce, Bono’s “You Better Sit Down Kids.”
3614 Jackson Highway (1969)
Hands down, this is the most evocative Cher album you’ve probably never heard. A stone-cold classic recorded in Muscle Shoals, Ala. (the title is a reference to the studio’s address), it’s a mix of horn-stoked Southern soul shot through with country and pop touches. Just as she appears on the album cover, smiling and surrounded by the musicians who played on it, Cher sounds at ease and particularly expressive here. She got to stretch as a vocalist on a wide-ranging set that included Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay” (rechristened “Lay Baby Lay”) and a down-and-dirty take on “Cry Like a Baby.” Her rendition of Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay” is by far my favorite, after the original version, and a reminder that Cher can really sing. You just need to be able to hear her.