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30 Years Ago: Sonny and Cher Reunite on ‘Late Night With David Letterman’

As Sonny and Cher sat side-by-side, arm-in arm as guests on Late Night With David Letterman, they happily if awkwardly reminisced about the old days. It was Nov. 13, 1987, and Letterman, whose relationship with Cher was already marked by tension, convinced the two to reunite. Things were going well. But then Letterman threw a surprise punch.

“I mentioned this to Sonny, now is there any chance in hell that you’d sing?” he asked. The crowd cheered, but suddenly Cher appeared deflated, and sank in her seat. “None of this has been discussed prior to the show. This is a last-minute thing. It’s entirely up to you,” the host continued.

“Oh, you are so full of s—,” she retorted. They go back and forth, before she finally relented: “I might do a couple of bars.”

Decades of history led up to this moment that Rolling Stone called one of the Top 10 musical performances in the history of the show. In 1965, Salvatore “Sonny” Bono and Cherilyn Sarkisian were on top of the world. They were young and recently married, with a burgeoning musical partnership that had already resulted in a hugely successful debut album. Look at Us spent eight weeks at No. 2, and featured the No. 1 single, “I Got You Babe.”

Twenty-two years later when they reunited on The Late Show With David Letterman, the former couple’s tears and body language told a different story about the ensuing years.

It was 1962 when Sonny and Cher first met — she, a shy 16-year-old and he, at 27, working promotions for record producer Phil Spector. First, Bono helped his paramour secure a gig singing backup on some of Spector’s projects. She recorded vocals for popular songs by the Ronettes, the Righteous Brothers and Darlene Love, but that was only the beginning. Soon they forged ahead with their own songs, leading to the success of Look at Us.

But their musical success as a duo was short-lived. Their second and third records only reached No. 34 and 45, respectively. No longer banking on their albums, the couple began touring the country, doing a variety act that included their music as well as comedy. It worked. As a result, The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour premiered on CBS in August 1971, catapulting the duo back into the limelight. Originally a mid-season replacement, the show was an instant success, becoming a Top 10 hit for the entirety of its run and earning 15 Emmy nominations. They took the opportunity to release a fourth record, All I Ever Need Is You, in 1972, which garnered another two Top 10 hits: “A Cowboy’s Work Is Never Done,” and the title track.

The couple, on the other hand, didn’t fare as well. In the show’s third season, they went through a public divorce, with the former partners each trying their hand at solo variety shows. Neither lasted very long. They eventually gave a joint show another try, but they had already lost their audience.

Neither was to be counted out, though. Bono went to enjoy a successful political career, first as the mayor of Palm Springs, and then as a California congressman, while Cher became a successful actress, starring in movies like Silkwood, Mask and Moonstruck, for which she received an Oscar, and solo performer.

That’s when Letterman managed to bring the couple back together for an interview. They had only reunited once before, on The Mike Douglas Show in 1979. Letterman’s get was a surprising occurrence, especially given that in an appearance on Letterman’s show the previous year, Cher told him she had previously avoided his show because she thought he was an “a–hole.”

In the interview, while affectionately cuddling with Bono, and taking lighthearted swipes at Letterman, she admitted to being anxious about the reunion. She and Bono told stories of how they met, their early days together — deflecting Letterman’s repeated stabs at trying to ignite a more romantic moment between them. When asks if their joint appearance was bringing up any emotions, Cher quickly pans, “I feel nothing,” before explaining that she and her ex-husband have a unique relationship that not even the two of them understand.

But when the crowd urged them on, Sonny and Cher finally agree to perform their biggest hit, “I Got You Babe.” They’re so out of practice that when the music begins, Cher asks “Do I start?” She later misses her cue, and Bono encourages her to just keep going.

Indeed, their performance brought up feelings not just for the audience, but certainly for the couple, who seemed nervous and openly emotional.

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