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Written Off ... Unfairly?

There were a lot of great records by female singers in the early days of rock--from the gospel-shaded R&B; of Faye Adams’ “Shake a Hand” to the youthful intensity of Brenda Lee’s “Sweet Nothin’s.”

None, however, reflected the authority and command that we associate with rock ‘n’ roll today as much as the key early hits by--brace yourself--Cher.

The fact that Cher is rarely, if ever mentioned now as a touchstone of rock underscores how we pop critics and fans can let an artist’s image and worst work blind us to the occasional successes.

For years, Cher’s music has been so anonymous and annoying, and her persona so cartoonish, that it’s hard to remember the sensual dynamics of her voice in the records that first brought her fame in the mid-'60s.

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These ranged from the best of the Sonny & Cher hits, highlighted by the underdog spirit and punch of “I Got You Babe,” to a solo rendition of Bob Dylan’s “All I Really Want to Do” that was more absorbing than competing versions by the Byrds and Dylan himself.

Rock was subsequently blessed with the staggering blues exclamations of Janis Joplin in the late ‘60s and the raw poetic force of Patti Smith in the mid-'70s. Yet no one matched the pure, seductive wallop of Cher until Chrissie Hynde arrived with the Pretenders in 1979.

Hynde was 13 in the summer of 1965 when Sonny & Cher’s “I Got You Babe” spent three weeks at No. 1 on the sales chart, and it’s easy to picture the Akron, Ohio, native listening to the song over and over in her room.

Hynde, who is likely to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame the moment she’s eligible in 2004, even recorded “I Got You Babe” in 1985 with the British reggae-pop group UB40. It was a Top 30 hit in the U.S.

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By the time Hynde came on the scene, Cher’s recordings--from the plodding “Gypsys, Tramps & Thieves” to the passionless “The Way of Love"--were so inconsequential that few critics or fans would even mention the two singers in the same context.

Hynde is near or at the top of most lists of great rock singers. Her rivals would almost all come from the last two decades: Kate Bush, Polly Jean Harvey, Sinead O’Connor. Cher is rarely even cited as an influence in glowing critical appraisals of Hynde.

Cher’s not the only singer whose early contributions to pop and rock have been largely erased from much of the pop consciousness because their careers took disappointing turns.

Although Rod Stewart is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, many young rock fans must think his presence in the hall is as strange as Frankie Valli’s.

The truth, however, is that Stewart was widely hailed as one of rock’s most engaging singers in the early ‘70s, as a member of the band Faces and on his own. His “Every Picture Tells a Story,” which contains the wistful “Maggie May” and the anguishing “Reason to Believe,” is considered to be his definitive statement. Two earlier solo collections, “The Rod Stewart Album” and “Gasoline Alley,” also showcase his custom mix of soul and rock influences.

Though less consistently, Stewart continued to come up with some moving tracks in the ‘70s, including “You’re in My Heart,” one of the most graceful love songs of the rock era. But Stewart became a parody of himself, caught up in the “stud rocker” role around the time of “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?”

The Carpenters and Billy Joel are among other artists whose contributions to pop or rock have been downplayed because the genuine highlights are lost in a much less distinguished body of work.

But our focus today is on Cher because she is saying goodbye to concert touring.

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I had plans to review her show earlier this month at Staples Center, and when I made those plans, my intent was to look for ways to give her thanks for the early days. I was surprised by my enthusiasm, because I haven’t had a kind word to say about Cher’s music for years. I thought her 1999 concert at the Arrowhead Pond was painful, and I designated her “Believe” as worst single of that year. This time, I thought, would be different.

But what if it wasn’t? What if she opened the show by butchering U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” just as she had at the Pond? What if she ran through all of the unimaginative hits, from “Just Like Jesse James” to “Believe”?

In the end, I decided to go to Staples Center as a fan, not a critic, and it was a liberating change. Ever the optimist, I even imagined that Cher, one of the true comeback kids of show biz, might even use the final tour to reconnect with her early promise. The show quickly brought me back to reality.

She indeed opened with the U2 song and the hits followed like lava from a volcano, many of them dressed in the same, recycled disco trimmings of “Believe.”

My single moment of excitement was when Cher went into “All I Really Want to Do.”

The song came and went so fast that it even felt as if she had shortened it for the show. Neither she nor the audience treated it as anything special.

As she moved into other material, I kept thinking about what might have been with Cher.

Although blessed with a dynamic voice, she has never shown much instinct for subtlety or phrasing. There’s very little in the form of character or unexpected emotional twists. Rolling Stone once underscored that lack of character by declaring that Cher’s vocal style was “pancake-flat.”

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Sonny Bono, however, knew how to add syrup to that voice in a way that made it appetizing. In the best of their records together, Bono employed many of the lavish, even melodramatic arrangement principles he learned from being in the studio with Phil Spector, the legendary producer whose “girl group” recordings in the ‘60s are among the most articulate pop expressions ever of teen innocence and yearning.

Although various producers crafted hits for Cher, none showcased her vocal traits as convincingly--except, interestingly enough, Spector himself.

In a comeback attempt of his own in the mid-'70s, Spector went into the studio with Cher. After his string of teen hits such as “Be My Baby” and “He’s a Rebel” in the early ‘60s, Spector crafted even more ambitious adult pop dramas in the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ ” and Ike & Tina Turner’s “River Deep, Mountain High.”

Spector wanted to scale those creative heights again. First, he teamed Cher with Harry Nilsson on a lush remake of Holland, Dozier, Holland’s “A Love Like Yours (Don’t Come Knocking Every Day),” and then he had Cher tackle “A Woman’s Story,” an epic tale of survival instincts.

Neither track was a hit, but they were impressive works. If they had caught on, it’s interesting to speculate about how Cher’s career trajectory might have been different, what artistic achievement she might have tapped.

She has continued to be a star, but, I swear, Cher could have been a contender.

*

Robert Hilburn, The Times’ pop music critic, can be reached at robert.hilburn@latimes.com.


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