Tommy Garrett (known as Snuff) died in Tucson December 16 or 17 at the age of 77. Some sites erroneously list his age as 76 but he was born July 5, 1938 according to The New York Times. Another one down in the last few months from cancer.
Garrett gained prominence as a radio DJ in Lubbock, TX, where he was the first to play a new artist local named Buddy Holly. Eventually he made his way to Liberty Records in Los Angeles and became a “pivotal producer.” His obit accolades include Gary Lewis & The Playboys, Del Shannon and Cher, although he had left Liberty Records by the time he started working with Sonny & Cher on Kapp Records.
Best Classic Bands website also claimed he was responsible for hiring Phil Spector to work at Liberty and first employing Leon Russell. He also produced the movie scores to Smokey and the Bandit II and Cannonball Run.
Cher has often said she doesn’t much like these Snuff–era songs. Bob Dylan didn’t like them either according to the story about the “Dark Lady” listening party of 1974. And Snuff Garrett himself didn’t sound too proud of anything he ever made. Or take much effort to defend it anyway. But luckily for me I am not Snuff Garrett or Cher or Bob Dylan and am perfectly free to like this music. In fact I would argue here is some of the most creative Cher music of all time, some of the most articulately original in tone, production and flourishes of instrumental inspiration. There is plenty of filler around as well. I can’t defend it all but the best is right up there with anything Cher has done.
Consider the first guitar strums of All I Ever Need is You, the heartbeat of the muffled drum. This is the inaugural moment of Sonny & Cher in the 1970s. Consider that Garrett managed to get Sonny to sing better than he’d ever sung before. Garrett unveiled a comparatively pristine sound for Sonny & Cher with violins and horns. They cleaned up good those two. Garrett could have taken them down a completely dull, adult contemporary path; but the songs here are infused with western elements and Cher’s beautiful honey-flavored voice is pulled forward. There are some unforgettably well-crafted songs on this album including "A Cowboy’s Work is Never Done" (who else could invoke comparisons to Enni Morricone?) and "Somebody." More on the album.
According to Garrett he worked fast and kept his eye on the dollar. Allegedly, nothing else mattered much . And all while dealing with Cher’s broken manicures. Are we to believe he stumbled his way into some of Cher's most iconic songs? Was he being disingenuous or subtly self-abusing? This from an obsessive hit-maker who, like everybody else, could never deconstruct or predict the elusive formula of a hit single. Most of his songs for Cher were hit-less, all told. How then can we explain how "Gypsys Tramps and Thieves" has become the timeless, enduring track it has? You don’t need to add a symlin in there to get a hit record. Ask anybody, "Gypsys Tramps and Thieves" doesn’t stand the test of time because it has a hook or was a gimmick record. Who’s still delighting over "Monster Mash" or the "Surfin Bird" besides Elvira or Peter Griffin?
Not only is hit prediction practically impossible but cynical hits drop away from public consciousness pretty fast. We could argue this was the fate of maybe "Half Breed." But not "Gypsies." I would argue not for "Dark Lady" either. Garrett’s version of “He Aint Heavy (He’s My Brother)” is also a lovely and subtle rendition.
But it was “The Way of Love” that took Cher to a whole other level and has become her definitive example of torch. What’s so hit-sure about that big to-do of a song? Those heartbreaking strings and the soft-build execution? But what an opening to an album!
The Foxy Lady album sounds like it was a drama-filled experience behind the scenes. This seems reflected in the mishmash of its song lineup. But "Living in a House Divided" is another breathtaking opening to any album. The first cascading note unlike anything you’ve heard on a single anywhere. Shakers, horns, Cher’s anger at the end. What is formulaic here?
Of all Garrett’s albums for Cher, “Half Breed” has the most inexplicably subdued entrance with a Paul McCartney ballad (“My Love”). This strikes me as her most feminine album. “Carousel Man” is a thrill of texture. Garrett could have overplayed the carnival sound but he made the song more adult, more sinister than cotton candy and tilt-a-whirl music. Cher’s voice does the hard work of expressing life on the carnival grounds.
And I’ve always found “Chastity’s Song” better and more sincere than the original. Decide for yourself.
The "Dark Lady" tracks, like much of Cher’s work with Garrett, are not perfect but they are always ambitious and flavorful, much more so than either have ever admitted.
We’re back to a creative opening track here with that train whistle of the blues-pop sounds of “Train of Thought,” Cher singing through cigarette drags. The song is a suicide by gun, manic desperation, the keyboard sound evoking train travel, the backups doing the train’s horn. Truly delightful! And then the spiraling end. Who does all that work for a quick-off single?
“I Saw A Man Who Danced With His Wife” is the movie Casablanca on big band night. Then comes “Dark Lady” where Cher sings the word “laugh" like a cackle. This song is a perfect depiction of French folk/gypsy. And let’s be honest: a song like this would have created a sink hole on the charts if it hadn’t been perfect. The concept is too heavy, too near-cartoonish to bear any misstep. Only a master could have stepped so gingerly over this thing. It’s impressively un-embarrassing. It’s not one of my go-to songs, I admit, but I come back to it from time to time and I respect it. Some critic called it “grimly comedic” but considering its popularity with children in the mid-70s, it’s more like a Grimm’s lost fairy tale.
And THEN we get “Miss Subway” and Cher’s vaudevillian Mae West. And THEN we get the southern ballad Dixie and THEN the R&B cover “Rescue Me” and THEN the Great Gatsby’s Irving Berlin ballad “What’ll I Do” with Cher sounding full-bodied and contemporary compared to the tinny and sad original.
All this variety and no song feeling like it doesn’t belong together in the overall atmospheric and glamorous album set.
For all its faults Cherished even begins evocatively with violins and the sounds of seagulls. An accordion means sailors are about. Nothing feels as sharp on this album as other Garrett albums but there are lovely ballads here (“He Was Beautiful,” “Again”) and that cotton-gal song “Dixie” which always entertains me. This is the only Cher album from the 70s that truly devolves into kitsch.
Like Cher, Garrett wasn’t perfect but there are more creative elements in these songs than you’ll find in earlier and later hits. And despite all claims to the contrary, they all feel less formulaic.
Cher’s career is nothing if not ironic on many levels. And the fact that Snuff Garrett gets no cred for his work on Cher music in the 1970s is most problematically ironic. These songs built Cher’s reputation as a gypsy. Garrett played no small part in her success during that decade and in solidifying her eternal image as an icon evermore. It takes more than a Bob Mackie to get there.