The United States Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998, which extended the term of copyright by 20 years, was named in honor of Bono when it was passed by Congress nine months after his death. Bono had been one of the original sponsors of the legislation, commonly known as the Bono Act.
Bono was born in Detroit, to Santo Bono (born in Montelepre, Palermo, Italy) and Zena "Jean" (née La Valle). His mother gave him the nickname "Sonny", which lasted his lifetime. Sonny was the youngest of three siblings; he had two older sisters, Fran and Betty. The family moved to Inglewood, California when he was seven. He attended Inglewood High School but did not graduate.
Bono began his music career as a songwriter at Specialty Records, where his song "Things You Do to Me" was recorded by Sam Cooke, and went on to work for record producer Phil Spector in the early 1960s as a promotion man, percussionist and "gofer". One of his earliest songwriting efforts, "Needles and Pins" was co-written with Jack Nitzsche, another member of Spector's production team. Later in the same decade, he achieved commercial success with his then-wife Cher in the singing duo Sonny and Cher. Bono wrote, arranged, and produced a number of hit records including the singles "I Got You Babe" and "The Beat Goes On", although Cher received more attention as a performer. He played a major part in Cher's solo recording career, writing and producing singles including "Bang Bang" and "You Better Sit Down Kids".
Bono co-wrote "She Said Yeah", covered by The Rolling Stones on their 1965 LP December's Children. His lone hit single as a solo artist, "Laugh at Me," was released in 1965 and peaked at No. 10 on the Billboard Hot 100. In live concerts, Bono would introduce the song by saying "I'd like to sing a medley of my hit." His only other single as a solo artist, "The Revolution Kind," reached No. 70 on the Billboard Hot 100 later that year. His solo album, Inner Views, was released in 1967.
Sonny continued to work with Cher through the early and mid-1970s, starring in a popular television variety show, The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour, which ran on CBS from 1971 to 1974. From 1976 to 1977, the duo, since divorced, returned to perform together on The Sonny and Cher Show. Their last appearance together was on Late Night with David Letterman on November 13, 1987, on which they sang "I Got You Babe".
Bono's acting career included bit parts as a guest actor in such television series as Fantasy Island, The Love Boat and the 1980 miniseries Top of the Hill. He played the role of mad bomber Joe Selucci in Airplane II: The Sequel (1982) and appeared in the horror film Troll (1986). He also portrayed racist entrepreneur Franklin Von Tussle in the John Waters film Hairspray (1988). In Men in Black (1997), Bono is one of several oddball celebrities seen on a wall of video screens that monitor extraterrestrials living among us. He also appeared as the Mayor of Palm Springs (which he actually was at the time) in several episodes of P.S. I Luv U during the 1991–92 TV season, and on Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (in Season 1, Episode 9, which aired November 21, 1993), in which he played Mayor Frank Berkowitz. He also made a minor appearance as himself in the comedy film First Kid (1996).
Bono guest-starred as himself on The Golden Girls episode "Mrs. George Devereaux" (originally broadcast November 17, 1990), in which he vied with Lyle Waggoner for Dorothy's (Bea Arthur) affection in a dream sequence. In Blanche's (Rue McClanahan) dream, her husband is still alive, and Bono uses his power as Mayor of Palm Springs to have Waggoner falsely arrested so he can have Dorothy to himself. After Blanche awakens, Dorothy is thrilled to learn that she picked Bono this time.
Bono entered politics after experiencing great frustration with local government bureaucracy in trying to open a restaurant in Palm Springs, California. Bono placed a successful bid to become the new mayor of Palm Springs. He served four years (1988 to 1992). He was instrumental in spearheading the creation of the Palm Springs International Film Festival, which is held each year in Bono's memory.
Bono ran for the Republican nomination for United States Senate in 1992, but the nomination went to the more conservative Bruce Herschensohn, and the election to the Democrat Barbara Boxer. Bono and Herschensohn became close friends after the campaign. Bono was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1994 to represent California's 44th congressional district. He was one of twelve co-sponsors of a House bill extending copyright. Although that bill was never voted on in the Senate, a similar Senate bill was passed after his death and named the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act in his memory. It is also known (derisively) as the Mickey Mouse Protection Act.
He championed the restoration of the Salton Sea, bringing the giant lake's plight to national attention. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich made a public appearance and speech at the shore of the lake on Bono's behalf.
In their book Tell Newt to Shut Up, David Maraniss and Michael Weisskopf credit Bono with being the first person to recognize Gingrich's public relations problems in 1995. Drawing on his long experience as a celebrity and entertainment producer, Bono (according to Maraniss and Weisskopf) recognized that Gingrich's status had changed from politician to celebrity and that Gingrich was not making allowances for that change:
You're a celebrity now, ... The rules are different for celebrities. I know it. I've been there. I've been a celebrity. I used to be a bigger celebrity. But let me tell you, you're not being handled right. This is not political news coverage. This is celebrity status. You need handlers. You need to understand what you're doing. You need to understand the attitude of the media toward celebrities.
Bono remains the only member of Congress to have scored a number-one pop single on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart.
Bono married his first wife, Donna Rankin, on November 3, 1954. Their daughter Christine ("Christy") was born on June 24, 1958. They divorced in 1962. In 1964, Bono married singer and actress Cher. They had one child, Chaz (born Chastity), born March 4, 1969. In 1975 the duo divorced. Bono then married Susie Coelho but divorced her in 1984. He wed Mary Whitaker in 1986 and they had two children, son Chesare Elan on April 25, 1988, and daughter Chianna Maria on February 2, 1991.
Bono was named a godparent of Anthony Kiedis, who would go on to become a musical artist with his band, Red Hot Chili Peppers. Sonny was a close friend of Anthony's father, Blackie Dammett, and would often take the boy on weekend trips.
Bono was a champion of the Salton Sea in southeastern California, where a park was named in his honor. The 2005 documentary film Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea (narrated by John Waters) features Bono and documented the lives of the inhabitants of Bombay Beach, Niland and Salton City, as well as the ecological issues associated with the Sea.
In 1996, a Golden Palm Star on the Palm Springs, California, Walk of Stars was dedicated to him.
He became interested in Scientology and took Scientology courses partly because of the influence of Mimi Rogers, but stated that he was a Roman Catholic on all official documents, campaign materials and websites. His wife Mary also took Scientology courses. However, after his death, Mary Bono stated that "Sonny did try to break away [from the Church of Scientology] at one point, and they made it very difficult for him."
The Church denied any estrangement with Bono.
Bono died on January 5, 1998, of injuries sustained when he hit a tree while skiing on the Nevada side of Heavenly Ski Resort near South Lake Tahoe, California. His death came just a little less than a week after Michael Kennedy, a son of Robert F. Kennedy, died in a similar skiing accident in Aspen, Colorado. After Bono's death, Mary Bono told an interviewer from TV Guide that Sonny had been addicted to prescription drugs, mainly Vicodin and Valium. Though Mary claimed that Sonny's drug use caused the accident, the autopsy performed by the Douglas County Coroner showed no indication of any substances or alcohol.
At Mary Bono's request, Cher gave a eulogy at Sonny's funeral. His remains were buried at Desert Memorial Park in Cathedral City, California. The epitaph on Bono's headstone reads: "AND THE BEAT GOES ON", written in uppercase.
Mary Bono was elected to fill the remainder of his congressional term. She was elected in her own right seven more times and was defeated for re-election in 2012.