Time and history are kind to Gold Star Recording Studios for good reason: so many records which musically and culturally define the middle of the twentieth century were made there. You could say the same thing about Sonny & Cher.

Sonny & Cher are forever linked to Gold Star Recording Studios, and as the legend of the studio grows (along with the acknowledgment of all who toiled and created there), so the earliest Sonny & Cher recordings become part of that story. Both entities were sui generis, and neither were defined by the times. But people make records...tape machines, mixing consoles and echo chambers being also the work of people. Few products of Gold Star can truly be called "magical" because what we hear is underpinned by technical expertise and adventurous creativity. Across its thirty three and a third years in existence, Gold Star is remembered and experienced in a way that other recording studios like Abbey Road are not.

Undoubtedly it was Phil Spector who put Gold Star on the map: he after all acknowledged the studios on his hit albums in a time when pop records carried few credits. He did the same for arrangers and musicians, and in doing so elevated Top 40 musicians to the status of "serious artists". And deservedly so: many who comprised The Wrecking Crew were adept and respected musicians in other fields, most notably jazz.

Gold Star grew in the mid-'fifties, along with a fledgling California music industry which was in the shadow of the dominant movie studio scoring industry. Starting as a Hollywood storefront for a tiny studio which made demos, it expanded to include unique echo chambers invented and built by co-owner Dave Gold. ("...Star" is for the other owner, Stan Ross, who would engineer all of Sonny & Cher's sixties records.) Contrary to popular myth, Gold Star did not however offer a particular "sound" but instead featured custom technology, excellent acoustics and engineering skills which facilitated creative record-making outside the confines of conservative companies like Capitol who also recorded in Los Angeles.

Sonny was down on his luck when he met Cher, but that began to change when he scored a job assisting Phil Spector in 1963. Sonny's old pal Jack Nietzsche was Spector's key arranger, and Gold Star sessions included all the musicians known now as The Wrecking Crew, but known to Sonny & Jack then as the union guys who'd been playing as a changeable aggregation since their days with H.B. Barnum. Cher's elevation from girlfriend to singer happened in July when she became a Ronette on "Be My Baby". For the next twelve months Sonny, Jack and Harold Battiste Jr made Caesar & Cleo records in various studios*, including Gold Star, while C & C broke in their act anywhere there was an audience. (Everybody was young and scuffling: The Turtles backed Caesar & Cleo live on one gig.)

* "The Letter", "Baby Don't Go" and probably "I'm Gonna Love You" were recorded elsewhere - only the three Caesar & Cleo Reprise tracks were done at Gold Star, with Jack Nietzsche arranging and Jimmy Bowen producing.

 

Sonny & Cher were still with Spector at Gold Star when they hooked up with the management team of Charles Greene & Brian Stone, created York-Pala Records, and made "Baby Don't Go". Phil was impressed enough to pay Sonny $500 for half the publishing rights on the song. (Sonny & Cher's split with Phil Spector (after the "Lovin' Feelin'" sessions) wasn't as acrimonious as has been reported: Sonny & Phillip continued to "do business" for some time afterwards.) While the Brill Building girl group sensibility had been dealt a hard blow by the British Invasion, American music was was moving ahead. Records originating from both Detroit and LA were doing well, and the Californian surf-cars-and-girls genre was evolving.

The sounds of that evolution were coming out of Gold Star for the most part. The Wrecking Crew were working 'round the clock, and not just on Phil Spector records. By early 1965 - thanks to relentless promotion, and landing two major-label recording contracts - Sonny & Cher/Cher solo sessions (for York-Pala Records*) at Gold Star were becoming regular events. LOOK magazine got it very right early Summer by taking a cue from Shindig! **, and including Sonny & Cher in their "new teen rock" feature: within weeks "I Got You Babe" would be a worldwide breakout. As a new era in American pop was beginning, Sonny & Cher's epic love anthem would live on as a tribute to Gold Star long after fire destoyed it, and long after many of The Wrecking Crew had set up for that one last session in the sky.

* York - Pala sessions at Gold Star followed the Philles model, with Sonny substiting for Spector, Harold Battiste Jr for Jack Nietzsche and The Wrecking Crew of course filling the place. Details of Sonny's other York-Pala records are here.

** All Shindig! music pre-recording was also done at Gold Star

 

GOLD STAR, SONNY, AND THE WALL OF SOUND

 

Phil Spector inspired many to emulate his commercial success, as well as his art.

Working for him was an apprenticeship, and to some degree or another, Sonny Bono, Jack Nietzsche, Nino Tempo, Bill Medley, Jerry Riopelle, Steve Douglas and many others learned record production from him. The Wall Of Sound has a hypnotic effect on creative record-makers to this day, but doing it successfully wasn't as easy as booking time at Gold Star. (Nino Tempo was unable to mix "All Strung Out" at Gold Star without expert help, and to his credit he admits it.) Phil inspired the musical sub-genre of Spector Soundalikes, and there are hundreds of them from 1963 onwards. Few of them hit the mark.

(In fact, Phil Spector records weren't hitting the mark in the Summer of '65 either. As "I Got You Babe" cruised to the top with massive sales, programmers (and the public) hated "Hung On You" (the Righteous Brothers' "Lovin' Feelin" follow-up) so much they flipped it and eventually Bill Medley's production of "Unchained Melody" became the massive hit that was anticipated. That suited Phil's corporate goals, but the rejection of Bonnie & The Treasures' "Home Of The Brave" in favor of a cover by Jody Miller took him by surprise. "Home..." was on one of his subsiduary labels and his name was nowhere to be found on the record credits. . His sound was however, and Miller's apparently impassioned reading of one of the best protest songs ever written caught the public's attention worldwide at the peak of folk-rock...in a way that a Ronettes soundalike couldn't.)

By the time Sonny could afford to cut at Gold Star, his initial efforts there were stellar: Cherilyn's "Dream Baby" and Sonny & Cher's "Just You" are superb Wall Of Sound records. They represent the two main arms of Spector Souudalikes: girl-group with a rolling beat in the first instance, a "Lovin' Feelin'" knockoff in the latter. The Standells' "The Boy Next Door" lies somewhere in between. Sonny knew exactly what he was doing, and his superbly balanced mono mixdowns prove it. Sonny was arguably the most proficient Son Of Spector to take on The Wall, but he was certainly the most prolific. He put out eight albums and numerous hit singles of the stuff over less than three years, at a time when Phil Spector was neither selling nor recording. Spector (and a newer version of the wall) would of course make a ferocious return at the end of the decade via Apple artists; but for a few years in the mid-'60s Sonny's musical vision, Gold Star and the Wall Of Sound were inseparable.

Was it all due to the ambience of the room and the fine-tuned layering of tape-upon-tape with meticulous mic'ing setups? Or did perhaps David Gold lock a magic talisman in the echo chambers all those years ago? The sound of Gold Star is certainly etched into the collective consciousness reaching far beyond the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Vine Street.

 

Gold Star 1963: Phil Spector, Darlene Love, Cher

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Caesar & Cleo rockin' out...

 

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...and with Jack Nietzsche

 

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Sonny takes a smoke break with Jack outside Gold Star

 

With "Baby Don't Go" an L.A. hit, the act becomes Sonny & Cher
 
Stan Ross, Sonny & Reb Foster cutting "Something You Got"
With Charlie Greene & Brian Stone finishing "Look At Us"

 

On the"Shindig!" set with Righteous Brothers and The Blossoms
 

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With Harold Battiste Jr cutting Cher's second solo LP 1966
 
As stars, with Gold Star alumnae Nino Tempo & April Stevens...
 
The Paris Sisters

 

Jackie Deshannon
 
and Phil Spector with Ahmet Ertegun

 

L.A. RADIO: GOLD STAR TO ON-THE-AIR IN 24 HOURS!

 

donsteeleCo-owner and Sonny & Cher engineer Stan Ross enthuses over the making of "I Got You Babe", and how he tested its radio-readiness:

(Michael Fremer's extended interview with Stan Ross on the history and workings of Gold Star can be found HERE.)

There was a disc jockey named Don Steel(e) who was a very dear friend of mine. He started [to play] Sonny and Cher. He got the first release on KHJ Boss radio. So the thing is this, when we made Sonny and Cher’s record I took the tape, played it on the thing and listen to it on my car speaker and I’d say here’s what’s on this side, so I add a little more bottom, little more top, then I make the master and get it a demo over to Don Steel (pictured left with Sonny & Cher in 1966) and he had it on the air. The next day at three o'clock we went on the air. So everything was equalized. I knew exactly what it was it going to sound like."

 

And so it came to pass (in less than a month) that "I Got You Babe" replaced Cher's "All I Really Want To Do" as KHJ's #1 record.

Rock Revisionists like to refer to the "KHJ Appreciation Concert in '66", but it was three concerts (one afternoon, two evening) and there's no mistaking who the appreciated headliners actually were.

 

 

 

Although Sonny gave "exclusives" to KHJ, Boss Radio's competition in Los Angeles was KRLA. Their weekly newspaper KRLA BEAT (KYA BEAT was the San Francisco version for that affiliate station) chronicled the local and international music scene in detail - if not accurately - from late 1964 onwards. "BEAT" was the American version of the weekly UK pop/rock tabloids Melody Maker and Record Mirror, and set the stage for Rolling Stone and Creem to follow.

Their rise exactly paralelled Sonny & Cher's, and they dutifully added melodramatic teen puff to major and minor events behind The Making Of Sonny & Cher. The friendly "truce" with the Byrds re "All I Really Want To Do" (long-term bitterness actually underpinned the truce), and Sonny's hurt at being booted out of Martoni's (resulting in "Laugh At Me") were prime BEAT fodder, and their "Salutes Sonny & Cher" edition on Cher's 21st birthday in 1967 gave no indication that - for the time being at least - it was essentially all over for Sonny & Cher.

 

 

Fascinating reading, the KRLA BEAT Archives can be accessed HERE.

 

 

GOLD STAR AND THE WRECKING CREW ON FILM

 

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Wrecking Crew guitarist (and all round plucker of anything with strings) Tommy Tedesco's son Denny has taken fifteen years to put together an awesome documentary which is awaiting cinema and DVD release, while playing festivals and arthouses. Click on Denny's logo to watch a mouthwatering trailer, find out all about the film and see some wonderful then-and-now pictures. Cher is featured in "The Wrecking Crew", along with her warm memories of some brilliant and amazing men (and one woman). The film includes interviews with Wrecking Crewmen who've passed on since Denny began his momentous project.

 

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Sonny & Cher in Studio A at work on "The Wondrous World of Sonny & Cher", with Stan Ross at the the console but who's the guy in cap and shades?

 

Interest in The Wrecking Crew and Gold Star attracts fans and scholars alike nowadays, but as a working business in its heyday it attracted little documentation. And as an independent studio it documented virtually none of its sessions (the Musician's Union did that) since there was no way of knowing that posterity would need anything preserved. But unknowingly, Sonny & Cher played no small part in documenting the great studio. While researching exactly what studio set-up Brian Wilson used (for some PET SOUNDS sessions at Gold Star) archivists found vintage color film of Sonny & Cher at Gold Star. Using this fim as a guide, Josh Hoisington and Craig R. Clemens have mapped out a diagram of a Gold Star session set-up in 1966. It's a great read - especially if you're intrigued by the mystery man above right!

 

 

 

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