Cher - 3614 Jackson Highway

Tuesday, May 20, 2014
Cher - 3614 Jackson Highway

Since today is Cher’s [AGE REDACTED] birthday, we thought we’d take a trip in the wayback machine to an album which, despite the fact that it failed to kickstart her solo career as substantially as the folks at Atco had hoped it would, remains one of the strongest entries in her entire discography…and that’s with or without Sonny Bono.

Released on June 20, 1969, 3614 Jackson Highway found Cher heading down Alabama way for the album’s recording sessions…but, of course, if you recognized the address that provides the album with its title, then it wouldn’t take much in the way of guesswork to work out that the project came together at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. Producer Jerry Wexler took Cher down south and, not coincidentally, set her up with the same bunch of musicians who’d helped work magic for Aretha Franklin: in alphabetical order, that’d be Barry Beckett on keys, Roger Hawkins on drums, David Hood on bass, and Jimmy Johnson on guitar. Also available for musical assistance were guitarist/songwriter Eddie Hinton and the Memphis Horns, with producers Tom Dowd and Arif Mardin around to chime in as Wexler might need them.

Oh, and big surprise: Sonny was there, too. By most reports, though, his production credit on the album was more or less purely for show.

If you only know Cher for her efforts as a dancefloor diva or for the way she belts out big, glossy pop ballads, then 3614 Jackson Highway is likely to be a revelation for you, even as the track listing might concern you a bit. And that’s fair enough: if your frame of reference to her work is more “Believe” than “Bang, Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down),” then the idea of Cher putting her spin on classics like “For What It’s Worth,” “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” “Cry Like a Baby,” and “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man,” not to mention a trio of Dylan covers (“Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You,” “I Threw It All Away,” and the gender-tweaked “Lay, Baby, Lady”), is likely to sound like the worst idea since Rod Stewart decided to tackle the Great American Songbook. But once you open your mind and factor in the band that backed her, the guys who twiddled the knobs on the sessions, and the fact that – beneath all the gloss of her more recent material, she’s got a truly kick-ass voice, what you’ll find is an amazing effort that can still blow away listeners almost four and a half decades after its release.

If only the record-buying public had figured it out back in ’69: the album only crawled to #160 on the Billboard Top 200, and the best any of its three singles could do was “For What It’s Worth” making it to #25 on Billboard’s Bubbling Under chart. The other two, a cover of Dr. John’s “I Walk on Guilded Splinters” and the aforementioned “Lay, Baby, Lay,” didn’t even get that much notice.

Since it’s her birthday, why not give Cher the gift of familiarizing yourself with 3614 Jackson Highway? Trust us: you’ll never listen to “If I Could Turn Back Time” the same way again…although you may wish you could turn back time yourself and make the album a hit in its day, the way it really should’ve been.

And, hey, if there’s enough interest, maybe one of these days we’ll bring Rhino Handmade’s expanded version of the album back into print, since there are 12 bonus tracks on that disc that are also well worth hearing, including covers of “Superstar,” “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy,” and – believe it or not – “Danny Boy.” But for now, just think of those songs as gravy…and know that 3614 Jackson Highway in its original 11-track form is damned tasty without them.