- Written by Randal C. Hill Randal C. Hill
Thomas “Snuff” Garrett was a Dallas high school dropout who became a Lubbock, Texas, disc jockey at age 17 and befriended local music star Buddy Holly. Two years later, Garrett became a staff producer at Liberty Records in Los Angeles.
Garrett wasn’t a musician, but he did have the uncanny knack of finding — and later producing — hit songs. During the ’60s, he created million-sellers for the likes of Bobby Vee (a Buddy Holly soundalike) and Gary Lewis & the Playboys.
Garrett lived in the Hollywood Hills, next door to Salvatore and Cherilyn Bono — better known in the entertainment world as Sonny and Cher. (As with Garrett, both were also high school dropouts themselves.)
In 1965, the husband-and-wife duo had rocketed to international fame when their Atco single “I Got You Babe” became one of the biggest pop successes of the decade. But two years later, neither the pair together nor Cher on her own found themselves putting out any hits.
Then, in 1971, Cher signed with Kapp Records, hopeful of finding a successful song that would return her to prominence.
Garrett asked songwriter pal Bob Stone to come up with something noteworthy that would bring Cher a hit and an audience beyond teenyboppers.
Stone responded with an adult-level story-song called “Gypsies and White Trash.” Garrett sensed that Stone’s creation had hit potential but obviously needed some tweaking in order to avoid controversy.
The result was one of the finest pop tunes of Cher’s career — and one she never really liked.
The melodramatic “Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves” unfolds at near-breakneck speed — it lasts just two and a half minutes — but unfurls a poignant tale of poverty and misfortune.
I was born in the wagon of a travelin’ show
My mama used to dance for the money they’d throw
Cher, as the 16-year-old narrator, tells of meeting a 21-year-old drifter in Mobile, Alabama. Her family befriends him, feeds him, and gives him a ride to Memphis. He travels on from there, deserting the girl:
Three months later, I’m a gal in trouble
And I haven’t seen him for a while
The narrator’s daughter is, as she herself was, born in a wagon. Now the teenager is the one who must dance for money when men of the visited towns come to do their ogling. Hypocritically, those who frequent the traveling show later reject the gypsy families as lowlife carnies and grifters.
Cher all but spits out the words in a sort of punkish anger that renders Stone’s lyrics both haunting and depressing.
“Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves” held the No. 1 position on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart for two weeks. Cher never liked her comeback hit and dismissed it as “a song I recorded in, like, an hour.” In concert, she would pare the tune to 90 seconds by eliminating a verse and a chorus.
We’ll never know the reason for Cher’s antipathy toward the song, but it does seem an odd way to treat Stone’s creation, which had granted her a rare return to music-world stardom.
Randal C. Hill is a rock ’n’ roll historian who lives at the Oregon coast. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.