Before mashups jammed together songs that previously hadn’t shared the same area code, people in search of cross-pollinating musical thrills had to make do with the Vegas-style medley. And in this six-and-a-half minute performance from November 1975, David Bowie and Cher commit fully to the form, taking the medley to someplace glorious and insane.
It happened on Cher, the variety show that replaced The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour on CBS’s schedule after Cher and Sonny Bono got divorced. (Bono went to ABC for The Sonny Comedy Revue.) Cher’s guests on the show included Steve Martin, Teri Garr and on this night, looking natty if unhealthily skinny, Bowie. The duo performed on a round stage, surrounded by live musicians in the shadows, doing some synchronized dance steps and even bumping their rumps.
The medley began with “Young Americans,” Bowie’s great soul single from earlier in the year (it had hit Number 28, only his second top-forty hit in the United States at that point). Then Bowie took a sharp left turn into Neil Diamond, doing his “Song Sung Blue.” That was followed by “One” (written by Harry Nilsson, but then most famous in the Three Dog Night version), “Da Doo Ron Ron” (the Crystals), “Wedding Bell Blues” (written by Laura Nyro, but a Number 1 hit for the 5th Dimension), “Maybe” (the Chantels), “Maybe Baby” (Buddy Holly), “Day Tripper” (the Beatles), “Blue Moon” (the Rodgers and Hart standard), “Only You (And You Alone)” (the Platters), “Temptation” (Bing Crosby), “Ain’t No Sunshine” (Bill Withers) and “Young Blood” (the Coasters), in a frantic search for one damn song that could make the crowd break down and cry before the duo returned to “Young Americans” and vamped to the finish line.
Bowie didn’t sing these songs winkingly, even the schlockier selections: When he tackled the 1958 doo-wop single “Maybe,” he showed real passion, theatrically falling to his knees. Cher seemed content to be rocking a spectacular red wig, but she delivered the “break down and cry” line in “Young Americans” in her lower register, putting it across like a pro.
This appearance was a short, incongruous break from the sessions for Station to Station, one of the darkest chapters of Bowie’s life. Living on cocaine and red and green peppers, he explored black magic and would stay in the studio for 24 hours straight, with the curtains always drawn because he “didn’t want the L.A. sun spoiling the vibe of eternal now.”
Bowie finished the album, left L.A., and got healthy. Cher and Sonny Bono reunited in 1976 (professionally, not romantically — she had married Gregg Allman in the interim) for The Sonny and Cher Show. In 2007, the fake rock biopic Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story parodied variety-show rock with a schlocky version of Bowie’s “Starman,” but even John C. Reilly crooning with sideburns in a spacesuit couldn’t be weirder than the reality of Bowie and Cher.