When Cher brings her Here We Go Again Tour to New Orleans on December 13, she’ll be in the hometown of the musician who helped make her 55 years of stardom possible. Harold Battiste Jr. arranged Sonny and Cher’s biggest hits of the 1960s. In the ’60s and ’70s, Battiste put his jazz career aside while he worked as the duo’s musical director and conductor.
Battiste met Sonny Bono in Los Angeles in 1956, when they were both working for Specialty Records. In his memoir, Unfinished Blues: Memories of a New Orleans Music Man, Battiste describes Bono as “a confident charmer and deceptively smart. As we began to work together and he became aware of my background—my education, my experience as a teacher, and my skills as a jazz musician, arranger and composer—he placed me on a pedestal. He had dropped out of high school and had never even thought about music lessons.”
In 1964, Battiste arranged “The Letter,” a song originally released in 1958 by Don & Dewey, for Bono and his new singing partner, Cherilyn Sarkisian. After that unsuccessful single, credited to Caesar & Cleo, Battiste arranged the duo’s first release as Sonny and Cher, “Baby Don’t Go.” The subsequent “I Got You Babe” became a national number one hit in 1965 and the duo’s theme song.
Although Bono wrote “I Got You Babe,” Battiste filtered it through his musically hip sensibilities. He changed the original waltz tempo to a brighter 6/8 time signature and replaced the brass instrumentation Bono originally conceived for the song’s oompah-pah-style riff with two woodwind instruments, bassoon and oboe. “The distinctive sound is what hooked people,” said Karen Celestan, Battiste’s Unfinished Blues co-writer. “That was Dr. Batt’s gift to them.”
Battiste also arranged Cher’s biggest solo hit of the 1960s, “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” as well as Sonny and Cher’s 1967 top 10 hit, “The Beat Goes On.” The latter song, Celestan said, “has this funky New Orleans type of beat. And that ‘la-de-da, de-de, la-de-da, de-da,’ that’s a New Orleans kind of thing. Dr. Batt brought all of that to them.”
For Battiste, working with the ’60s’ hottest pop duo—and dealing with their musical limitations—was a mixed blessing. Although the income helped him support his family, he said, “in my soul, I was a jazz musician, or soul, R&B or blues even.”
If not for Battiste, Celestan speculated, the duo’s success might not have happened so quickly—or perhaps not at all. “Dr. Batt arranged the hits that put Sonny and Cher in the pop canon of that era,” she said.
Cher and Nile Rodgers and CHIC will perform December 13 at the Smoothie King Center.