3614 Jackson Highway: Cher’s Best Performance

by Marshall Bowden


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3614 Jackson Highway is easily the best and most ambitious recorded work of Cher’s career, and demonstrated early on the potential she had as a performer when separated from the artistic influence of Sonny Bono. The duo hadn’t managed a major hit since 1967’s “The Beat Goes On”, which reached #8 on the Billboard charts. Sonny had been concentrating on his own solo album, Inner Views, and sex, drugs, and rock were in. That meant the hippy-vaudeville cuteness of Sonny and Cher, as well as their pop sound, were pretty much out.

Atlantic’s Executive Vice President Jerry Wexler sought to revitalize Cher’s career by utilizing a formula similar to that employed on the classic Dusty In Memphis. Wexler selected the tunes for the album, including no less than three songs from Bob Dylan’s alt-country Nashville Skyline album. He didn’t do any work at the controls, though, as a bout of pneumonia put him in the hospital before any vocal tracks were cut. Tom Dowd and Arif Mardin did the actual production work.

Over the course of ten days in late April 1969 and one session in mid-May, the tracks for 3614 Jackson Highway were recorded at the Muscle Shoals Sound studio whose address was to be the album’s title. Supposedly the location had been a funeral home or casket factory (sources vary) before it was converted into a studio. Sonny had no real role in the making of the album, though he is credited as “spiritual advisor” by Cher in the original notes. As Sonny recounted in his autobiography The Beat Goes On, “Not only did I lose my role as producer, my credibility went out the window too.”

Sonny had been working with L.A. producer Phil Spector and had grand aspirations as a songwriter and producer.  No doubt he felt fairly insecure at the idea of Cher working with one of the top production teams in the country, one who would give her a new sound. The bottom line here is that this was a major pop music act that was at a tough time in their career. It’s easy to see Sonny as a major part of the problem here, but this was a guy who worked hard and amassed a decent resume over the course of a career. If you doubt that, read this excellent piece at vinyl site Runout Numbers.

The songs chosen for the album are a mélange of pop and rock hits of the day, or in some cases a bit before the time this album was recorded. The arrangements are smooth southern soul, and instantly recognizable as the sound heard on Dusty In Memphis. Perhaps the first thing that can be said is that Cher is not as good a singer as Dusty, but she does have a distinctive voice, and that seems to help make the whole thing work. Her vocal delivery works best on “For What It’s Worth”, the Dylan numbers, the Dr. John-penned “I Walk on Guilded Splinters”, and “Cry Like a Baby”.

“For What It’s Worth” opens the album with a surging drum and tambourine beat, followed by percussive acoustic guitar punctuated by electric piano trills until the chorus, where Cher is joined by male and female backup vocalists and some slide guitar work. While soulful, the whole thing has a country-blues feel that certainly isn’t present on the original Buffalo Springfield recording. Unfortunately, the song was already a little dated by the time this record was cut.

The Dylan songs include “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You”, “I Threw It All Away”, and “Lay Baby Lay”. “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” opens with a horn section riff and the familiar blue jean sound of drum, strummed acoustic guitar, and electric piano. Cher leans nicely on the blue notes of the song, giving a bluesier feel than she could manage by sheer delivery alone.

“I Threw It All Away” is a bit less successful in the arrangement department, waffling between soul and country rock in a way that makes the song’s overall structure unclear. Still, Cher’s vocal is made for a song like this. She is a sympathetic Dylan interpreter because his songs utilize a limited vocal range, yet demand strength within that range-a textbook definition of Cher’s vocal abilities. “Lay Baby Lay” is very much like Dylan’s recording of the song, with some bongos and gospel organ added. None of the Dylan songs are a revelation, but they are all credible performances that keep the album moving along nicely.

“I Walk On Guilded Splinters” is an odd number by any standards, coming from Dr. John’s very first album Gris-Gris, which was also released by the Atco label. Dr. John recorded the album, a strange and powerful mix of incantation, percussive swamp dance music, and adaptations of a couple New Orleans staples, with leftover Sonny & Cher studio time that Sonny famously donated.

When Ahmet Ertegun, Atlantic label head, first heard the album, which he did not know was being recorded, he flipped out, saying he couldn’t release it. But he changed his mind, and Gris-Gris gained a cult following among the hippies drawn by its strange brew. While Dr. John’s version of “I Walk on Gilded Splinters” is menacing and atmospheric, Cher’s is powerful and gritty, prefacing the sound and delivery she would use on records like “Half Breed”, “Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves” and “Dark Lady”.

“Please Don’t Tell Me” is a country-influenced track on which Cher turns in one of the best vocals of her career. It helps that the song’s lyrics could be the life story of one of Cher’s hard luck film heroine characters. Still, the arrangement and her excellent rendition remind us just of how closely this album fits the Dusty In Memphis mold.

Some of the other tracks are less impressive, but overall this is an album you can play from beginning to end and be well entertained. One can only imagine the direction Cher’s singing career might have taken had this album been a huge success. Unfortunately, such was not the case, as it was pretty much ignored and peaked at #160 on the Billboard charts, disappearing after only three weeks.

Nonetheless, recordings were made for a followup Atco Cher solo albu m, and they are available on the Wounded Bird reissue, which duplicates the original Rhino Handmade reissue, now out of print.

A few of these additional tracks were released as non-charting singles, but many have never before been available. Also included is the track “Chastity’s Song (Band of Thieves)” from the Chastity film project, which was supposed to establish Cher as an actress (even as 3614 Jackson Highway was supposed to have established her as a serious contemporary recording artist), and Cher’s recording of Leon Russell’s “Superstar”.

“Superstar” was Cher’s last Atco single, released in 1970. It might have been a hit if the arrangement and production had been a bit more opulent, but instead it is rather flat despite a good vocal. As a result Karen Carpenter walked away with the hit single of the song in 1971, though Cher let it rip with a hot performance on Sonny & Cher’s Live In Las Vegas 2 album (only available on vinyl).

Of the tracks recorded for the followup to 3614, the best performances are “Easy to Be Hard” (from the rock musical Hair), a souped-up gospel-infused “I Believe”, and the anti-war song “Momma Look Sharp” from the Broadway musical 1776 (!) There is some of the same Muscle Shoals production work here as on 3614, including horns and funky beats, but there is a lot less focus, which probably is why the new album was never released.

In the confusion that no doubt followed the release of 3614 Jackson Highway, there were probably many different ideas about which way Cher should be going. Sonny was livid at the album’s failure, which he blamed in no small part to his lack of input in the project, and basically refused to deliver any more Sonny & Cher records to the label despite the duo’s contract. There was no lawsuit, though, and the contract was allowed to lapse.

The movie Chastity was a colossal flop, and Sonny and Cher were left with a lagging career and huge debts. They solved that problem by becoming one of the 1970s most popular and glamourous Vegas and telelvision acts. Cher’s brief solo Atco period was all but forgotten as she moved on to later fame as a solo recording artist and Academy Award-winning actress. Thankfully, you can now hear once again the best recording of this pop diva’s long career.

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