August 05, 1991 12:00 PM

THESE DAYS, HE IS A PUBLIC SERVANT who wears jeans to the office and parks his white BMW outside Palm Springs City Hall, where a sign announces that the space is reserved for Mayor Sonny Bono. Well-liked by his constituents, he delivers self-deprecating speeches before the Chamber of Commerce, presides over bike races and tries to persuade developers to place their faith, and their cash, in Palm Springs.

At 56, Bono has an enviable life. Yet it seems he still feels he has a score to settle with the past: In the years since their 1975 divorce, Cher, now 45, has made no secret of her disdain for her ex. After 20 years of reading stories about how he exploited her, Sonny says, he decided to tell his side. “I wanted to take a shot at saying who I am myself,” he says.

And so it was that he wrote his memoir, And the Beat Goes On—a book that portrays Cher as an insecure but ambitious ingrate who used to stand in front of the mirror and practice signing autographs. “She wasn’t a victim,” he says. “It wasn’t me [who was] fixed on the notion that we had to be stars.”

Cher’s public response has been short and to the point: “Of all the people who have known me well,” she said, “Sonny knew me the least.”

Of course, Bono always had his share of ambition. The son of Italian immigrants (father Santo was a truck driver, mother Jean a beautician), he tried to break into show business after graduating from high school in Inglewood, Calif., in 1952. Working as a deliveryman for a meat company, he ducked into record-company offices between stops to peddle his songs. By 1962 he was working in promotion for an independent record distributor.

Bono was 27 and separated from his first wife when he took a liking to 16-year-old runaway Cherilyn La-Pierre on a double date in 1963. But when the two couples went out a second time, he was thrown for a loop: Cher and her girlfriend took their dates to a lesbian bar and proceeded to dance together.

Though Cher told him later that she “wasn’t that way,” as he tells it, Sonny decided she was a “hot-blooded paradox.” After offering to let her live with him, he felt uncomfortable: They had agreed to keep things platonic, but he was attracted to her. Watching her with gay friends, he says, “I sensed an intimacy that excluded me.” Cher, he writes, was “taken aback” when he asked whether she was gay herself. To reassure him, she outlined her sexual history—which included a fling with Warren Beatty as well as some “experimentation.”

He and Cher roomed together for a month, he says, before they became lovers. Even then, he says, “we never had a good physical relationship.” But, he adds, “I can’t blame it on her. Maybe I was the lousy lover. Maybe I was the biggest pain because I’m a real physical person.”

If things were lukewarm in bed, the sparks flew in their professional relationship. Deciding that Cher was star material, Sonny brought her to impresario Phil Spector. Soon she was singing backup on hits like the Crystals’ “Da Doo Ron Ron.” Still too shy to perform alone when given a chance to solo on “Baby Don’t Go” in 1965, she insisted that Sonny, sing with her, and a duo was born.

Later that year their single “I Got You Babe” sold 3 million copies, and their debut LP went to No. 2. But after the failure of their second album in 1966, the relationship began to unravel. Sonny cheated on Cher repeatedly. He questioned Cher’s fidelity only once—during the 1968 shooting of Chastity (a film loosely based on her life story), when she and actor Stephen Whittaker sparked rumors. Bono tried desperately to win her back, telling her he wanted to marry and start a family. Cher agreed. They were married after she gave birth to daughter Chastity on March 4, 1969—just about the time when the movie flopped. Their every dime had been invested in the project; Sonny had to pawn a ring to pay for the baby’s delivery.

Saddled with debt, they hit the lounge circuit—where they developed the repartee that became their salvation. “We were so scared,” says Sonny. “We started talking to each other to ignore the audience. After a while, I knew there was something there.”

So did CBS programming chief Fred Silverman, who asked them to do a comedy series. By the fall of 1971, they had a prime-time hit. Says Bono: “I was elated and thought she was too, but she wasn’t. She really wanted it always to be just Cher—not Sonny and Cher.”

The marital collapse began in 1972, and it was the start of a long slide for Sonny. “I enjoyed the power of Sonny and Cher so much,” he says. “That took years and years to let go.” While Cher’s star rose, he did guest shots on The Love Boat and struggled through a bad marriage to model Susie Coelho.

With his career in a stall, Sonny opened a West Hollywood restaurant called Bono’s in 1983. There he met Mary Whitaker, a 22-year-old USC graduate. Two years after their love-at-first-sight meeting, they were married and now have two children. “I’m still totally content,” says Sonny.

Bono admits he wasn’t much of a father to Chastity in the early years but says they’re close now. Chastity even chose Sonny’s clothes for his reunion with Cher on Late Night with David Letterman in February 1988. After much prodding, the two got up to do a rusty rendition of “I Got You Babe.” In the director’s booth, Chastity and Mary broke into tears. Sonny choked up, and when it was all over, Letterman observed, “There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.” According to Sonny, only Cher seemed unmoved.


TOM CUNNEFF in Palm Springs