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Bob Esty Remembers... Producing Cher

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Bob Esty Remembers… Producing Cher

One of the hallmarks of the disco era was the shear number of acts who jumped on the disco bandwagon hoping to reignite their career. From Frankie Avalon to Ethel Merman, nearly every major musical personality flirted with the 4/4 beat, often to less-than-stellar results. Among the few actually notable exceptions was Cher. After a few years of poor-selling albums on Warner Bros., Cher signed with Casablanca. Naturally, Neil Bogart decided a disco album would help bring her back to the charts…and it did just that. With producer Bob Esty, Cher landed a Top Ten gold single with “Take Me Home”, laying the foundation 20 years early for the most successful single of her career (“Believe”). Bob Esty recalls how Cher came to Casablanca:

Neil Bogart says to me, “How’d you like to produce Cher?” I thought, “Why? I’m doing disco stuff for the label and you have KISS on the other side. Where are you putting her?” She had not had a hit for years and no was really buying her albums. I knew she was more into rock, and she did her standards and show tunes, but basically her heart was in rock and roll where she started. She had divorced Greg Allman by that point. I just thought, “Do I want to be involved in that because that’s going to be a lot of drama”. That was partly because I was completely intimidated by the idea. It’s one of those things where you try to find all the reasons you shouldn’t do it because maybe you can’t, maybe it won’t work out or you won’t get along.

Neil said, “I want you to write a song like ‘Last Dance’”. Michele Aller and I got together and we wrote “Take Me Home” based on Cher’s personality—the fact that she would ask, and it was from a strong woman’s point of view. It was romantic and it was done in a way that had a melody.

I had broken my leg tripping on a subway grate and not realizing it’s serious. I ended up in the hospital for eleven days with knee surgery. I arrived to play this song idea in crutches and full-leg cast and had to prop my right leg up on the keyboard to play the song. It was sort of a cool thing—“Hi I’m Cher”. Charles Koppelman was over in the corner smoking a cigar, being obnoxious. It was decided that I’ll do the record and we’ll record “Take Me Home” and we’ll write more songs. Meanwhile, they had already done a whole album, Charles Koppelman and Ron Dante. That’s one of the reasons I was leery, because I knew Ron. We were associate friends and I thought, “This means they’re going to throw his album out and I’m going to do it”. I felt like a traitor. What I decided to do was keep some of Ron’s cuts on Side Two.

We went in to record “Take Me Home” and, generally, by that time I was doing the guide vocal for most things. I did the guide vocal and we did the track. I would do the guide vocals as her and she would get so annoyed! She went out and had a vocal session with me. I probably was too obnoxious or too controlling. I think just out of, “What am I going to do?” I tried to direct her, which I’d done with every act I’d worked with. I don’t think she had been directed, except by Sonny. At the time, it didn’t occur to me. I just wanted to get the vocal done. She was very obviously upset, distant. She would come into the studio, sit in the corner of the control room, and never say a word. We decided it was too high so we transposed it. We had another session with all the musicians and the rhythm section in a whole new key. It was better. We got it down. We had a rapport and that worked out good. We got through the album. It was a great experience for me because I actually liked her and I think she like me at the time.

We did another album a year later, which was a disaster because that was when Casablanca was being sold to PolyGram and disco had just been burned at the stadiums of the world, big bonfires. She was not into it. Our original concept of it was it was going to be called Mirror Image and it was about having a picture of her in her bed surrounded by all the Enquirers and all those magazines and sitting there just looking like, “What did I do?” Then we’d have a glamour side and so you’d see her mirror image. We wrote a song called that. She decided to bring in Toto, which was the band she used when she went out on the road with Sonny. David Paich wrote a song called “You’re My Prisoner”. She loved it. She was a rock and roller and sang the hell out of it. Then the album became Prisoner (1979) with this photo of her in chains against a pillar. A beautiful photo.

Take Me Home created a whole persona for the rest of her career. “Believe”, and everything else from then on, is based on the Take Me Home experience, the same audience. She still does the song live!

Christian John Wikane is a NYC-based journalist and music essayist. He's a Contributing Editor for PopMatters, where he's interviewed artists ranging from Paul McCartney to Janelle Monae. For the past three years, he's penned liner notes for more than 100 CD re-issues by legends of R&B, rock, pop, dance, and jazz. Since 2008, he's produced and hosted Three of Hearts: A Benefit for The Family Center at Joe's Pub. He is the author of the five-part oral history Casablanca Records: Play It Again (PopMatters, 2009). Follow him on Twitter @CJWikaneNYC. 

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