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PERSPECTIVE

Written Off ... Unfairly?

When artists consistently disappoint, we tend to forget their successes. Case in point: Cher. She once showed artistic promise--really.

August 18, 2002|ROBERT HILBURN

As she moved into other material, I kept thinking about what might have been with Cher.

Although blessed with a dynamic voice, she has never shown much instinct for subtlety or phrasing. There's very little in the form of character or unexpected emotional twists. Rolling Stone once underscored that lack of character by declaring that Cher's vocal style was "pancake-flat."

Sonny Bono, however, knew how to add syrup to that voice in a way that made it appetizing. In the best of their records together, Bono employed many of the lavish, even melodramatic arrangement principles he learned from being in the studio with Phil Spector, the legendary producer whose "girl group" recordings in the '60s are among the most articulate pop expressions ever of teen innocence and yearning.

Although various producers crafted hits for Cher, none showcased her vocal traits as convincingly--except, interestingly enough, Spector himself.

In a comeback attempt of his own in the mid-'70s, Spector went into the studio with Cher. After his string of teen hits such as "Be My Baby" and "He's a Rebel" in the early '60s, Spector crafted even more ambitious adult pop dramas in the Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin' " and Ike & Tina Turner's "River Deep, Mountain High."

Spector wanted to scale those creative heights again. First, he teamed Cher with Harry Nilsson on a lush remake of Holland, Dozier, Holland's "A Love Like Yours (Don't Come Knocking Every Day)," and then he had Cher tackle "A Woman's Story," an epic tale of survival instincts.

Neither track was a hit, but they were impressive works. If they had caught on, it's interesting to speculate about how Cher's career trajectory might have been different, what artistic achievement she might have tapped.

She has continued to be a star, but, I swear, Cher could have been a contender.

*

Robert Hilburn, The Times' pop music critic, can be reached at robert.hilburn@latimes.com.

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