By Richie Unterberger

When Cher recorded 3614 Jackson Highway in the spring of 1969, her commercial prospects were at a low ebb. Her last big hit as a solo artist, "You Better Sit Down Kids," had been in late 1967; her last smash as part of Sonny & Cher had been in early 1967, with "The Beat Goes On." In the late 1960s pop market, a year or two without a major chart entry was enough to brand you as an ice-cold commodity. On top of that, Sonny & Cher's first attempt to move into movies, 1967's Good Times, had failed to establish them as film stars. Unsurprisingly, it was decided that a change of direction was needed.

    While most of Sonny & Cher's series of mid-1960s hits had been on the Atlantic subsidiary Atco, Cher's solo discs had appeared on a different label, Imperial, that wasn't affiliated with Atlantic. By early 1969, however, Cher was on Atco as a solo artist, though she continued to record for the company as half of the Sonny & Cher duo. Atlantic had recently created a huge critical success by recording Dusty Springfield in the South on Dusty in Memphis, which yielded the Top Ten single "Son of a Preacher Man." With Cher's first Atco LP, the label also took the strategy of recording her in the South with top session musicians of the region, hoping to put her in a more contemporary and soulful bag.

    That did mean that Sonny Bono—who'd produced Cher's (and Sonny and Cher's) big hits, writing most of them as well—was frozen out of the picture. Atlantic executives Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler went with another approach, and as Bono was fighting both a commercial slump and major financial problems, he took poorly to the shift. "Cher's solo LP, 3614 Jackson Highway, only added insult to injury," he wrote in his autobiography, And the Beat Goes On. "Ahmet still believed in us, but his right-hand man, producer Jerry Wexler, wanted to record Cher without me. He wanted to produce too. Not only did I lose my role as producer, my credibility went out the window too. I would've been dealing with a major identity crisis, but the LP stiffed, and we were all down the tubes." (At the time, though, Bono expressed pleasure with the results, writing in his diary entry for May 11, 1969, "It's a great album. I think it's the best she's ever done.")

    Obviously, Wexler's hope was not to send Cher's career down the tubes, but to revive her record sales. She'd record the album with some of the South's best session men, including guitarists Eddie Hinton and Jimmy Johnson, bassist David Hood, keyboardist Barry Beckett, and drummer Roger Hawkins. All but Hinton had pretty much functioned as the house band for numerous soul hits by the likes of Percy Sledge, Aretha Franklin, and Arthur Conley at the FAME studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. In early 1969 they bought a different studio in Muscle Shoals, and Cher would be the first artist to record in the facility after it had been christened Muscle Shoals Sound. Her album, recorded in late April (save for one track laid down in May), would be named after the studio's address, 3614 Jackson Highway.

    "I went down to produce that record," remembered Wexler in his autobiography (written with David Ritz), Rhythm and the Blues. "I love Cher's voice and was excited about the project. 'In case of a tie,' I told Sonny before the sessions began, a little worried about who would be the boss, 'I win.' I picked the songs—three by Dylan, an Aretha cover, a Stephen Stills, an Eddie Hinton (lead guitarist on the date)—but I also picked up pneumonia and went to the hospital before the actual singing started, so [Tom] Dowd and [Arif] Mardin took over. I never made it to the control room." Dowd had been instrumental to Atlantic's success as an engineer, and by this time was moving into production with considerable success; Mardin had also been a vital part of Atlantic, as both an arranger and producer.

    Observed Wexler in 1973 in Rolling Stone, "I don't think Cher has a conscious, sophisticated, head appreciation of music. She's not formal or academic. Just flows, you know? No sense of propulsion, it's a sublimation of personality and suppression of the personal musical signature in favor of complete surrender to music." His choice of material reflected his preference for the kind of music to which he wanted her to surrender, including no less than three songs from Bob Dylan's recently released Nashville Skyline LP: "Lay Lady Lay" (here retitled "Lay Baby Lay," Cher singing it that way on the track itself), "Tonight I'll Be Staying Here with You," and "I Threw It All Away."

    Most of the other songs were also covers of numbers that had likewise recently been successful for major artists, including "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man," a highlight of Aretha Franklin's first Atlantic album in 1967; "Cry Like a Baby," a big hit for the Box Tops; "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay," a classic chart-topper for Otis Redding shortly after his death; Stephen Stills's "For What It's Worth," which Buffalo Springfield had taken into the Top Ten in 1967; and "I Walk on Guilded Splinters," from Dr. John's great debut LP Gris-Gris. Though not as familiar, the Gosdin Brothers had a small country hit with "(Just Enough) To Keep Me Hangin' On." "Save the Children" was Eddie Hinton's contribution, and while Grady Smith and Carroll W. Quillen's "Please Don't Tell Me" was the most obscure composition on the record, the country-soul-pop ballad brought out one of Cher's strongest performances on the album.

    In spite of the conscientious efforts Cher and Atlantic had put into 3614 Jackson Highway, it wasn't a commercial success, peaking at just #160 in the Billboard chart.  Nor did it produce a hit single, and though Atco did try to crack the 45 market with "For What It's Worth," it merely bubbled under Billboard without rising above #125 in spite of positive reviews in Billboard, Cash Box, and New Musical Express. All of those publications, as well as Melody Maker, gave the LP itself decent if brief reviews, Billboard hailing it as "an impressive collection for this talented stylist" that made for "Cher's most interesting and therefore her most commercial package in some time," and Melody Maker calling it "a tremendous album."

    It would in fact take quite some time for Cher to get her next true hits, and when she landed them, she wouldn't be with Atco. She did make some additional recordings for the label in 1969 and 1970, including a 1970 single of "Superstar" that preceded the Carpenters' huge hit with the same song the following year. A 1970 album combining five tracks cut in late 1969 with five non-LP cuts that appeared on Atco singles was assembled, but not released at the time. When Cher finally stormed the charts with the #1 single "Gypsys, Tramps & Thieves" in late 1971, she was on Kapp Records—as were Sonny and Cher, whose career had revived in a big way after their television variety series made them household names all over again.

    3614 Jackson Highway might not have been a landmark in Cher's commercial career, but had substantial historical significance as the first album to made in a studio that became a powerhouse in the music business. Singers not known for soul music would record in Muscle Shoals Sound in years to come, starting with Lulu, who recorded there for Atlantic just a few months later; eventually Wexler would even produce Bob Dylan in the studio. Cher's record ended up as but the first of many by superstars in Muscle Shoals Sound, the Rolling Stones using it in late 1969 to record part of Sticky Fingers there. And in terms of Cher's own career, 3614 Jackson Highway, despite its failure to become a big seller, possibly remains the most concentrated attempt to find the rootsiest and highest-class contemporary material and production for her vocal talents. – Richie Unterberger

contents copyright Richie Unterberger , 2000-2010
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