40 years ago this week, an L.A.-based rock band released their one and only album. It didn’t chart, it didn’t have a hit single, and in four decades, it hasn’t sold enough copies worldwide to even earn a Gold certification in America. And yet, while promoting that record, the band appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, the beloved late-night music series Midnight Special, and The Merv Griffin Show. The clout that allowed the band to make those appearances came from the fact that their lead singer was one of the most popular entertainers in the history of the world, a single-name icon that has sold over 100 million records in her other endeavors. And that’s part of the mystery of the group called Black Rose.
Les Dudek asked for a guitar for Christmas when he was ten. He fell in love with the music of the time idolizing The Beatles and Hendrix and Cream. Gigging in his teens, he soon found himself playing on the Allman Brothers Band’s Brothers & Sisters record, appearing on the classic track “Ramblin’ Man.” He’s had a long and distinguished career since, playing with Boz Scaggs, The Steve Miller Band, Stevie Nicks, and more. He’s acted and done music for films and half-a-dozen television networks in addition to releasing solo albums. But back in 1979, he started dating Cherilyn Sarkisian. You know her as Cher.
Cher exploded into mainstream popularity in 1965. As Sonny & Cher with her then-husband, Sonny Bono, the duo had a #1 hit with “I Got You Babe.” Within two years, they had sold 40 million records. Almost simultaneously, she began to release solo records, starting with “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” in 1966. Success piled on top of success with a string of major hit songs that included three #1 solo albums and the massively popular The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour on television, which ran three years. Although Cher and Bono divorced in 1975, they did another series, The Sonny & Cher Show, in 1976 and 1977. She followed that with disco hits like “Take Me Home,” demonstrating her musical flexibility.
In 1979, Cher took on a residency to do concerts in Las Vegas for three years. The lucrative gig paid the star $300,000 a week. At the same time, she and Dudek put together a group called Black Rose. Cher was a seriously established pop singer, but the Black Rose work was a turn toward a more rock-oriented sound. Among the other members of the band were Warren Ham, a multi-instrumentalist and vocalist whose long career has included stints with Kansas, Toto (insert “not in Kansas anymore” joke), Olivia Newton-John, and Donna Summer. The band would take the name Black Rose, which would also be the name of the album.
Black Rose was produced by James Newton Howard, the celebrated composer that has scored more than 100 movies, including The Sixth Sense, Batman Begins, and Pretty Woman. He also co-wrote one song on the record, lead track “Never Should’ve Started,” with David Paich of Toto, Valerie Carter, and legendary songsmith David Foster. Elton John’s lyricist Bernie Taupin co-wrote “Julie.” Carole Bayer Sager co-wrote “Take It from the Boys,” and Allee Willis, best-known for co-writing “September” for Earth, Wind & Fire, co-wrote “Young and Pretty.” This was a serious effort backed by very serious talent.
However, the band took one curious turn. The album wasn’t promoted as a “Cher” record at all. In fact, aside from hearing her voice on the tracks, the only association you’d find with Cher on the cover of the album is the group photo on the back of the record sleeve. Cher wanted it to be a real group, working on the merits of the team rather than simply making her the face of it. The group built up their live show playing gigs in L.A., all of which were arranged around Cher’s Vegas schedule. Black Rose then did a six-date tour in August of 1980, circling the August 20 album release date with shows booked entirely in the northeast. It was around this time that the band made their series of TV appearances. They played “Never Should’ve Started” and “Julie” on The Tonight Show, and also played those two numbers along with “You Know It” and “Ain’t Got No Money.” They again played “Never” on Merv Griffin.
Unfortunately, the album went nowhere. There could be a lot of factors for this. 1980 was a period where radio was in flux; disco stations were dying or switching formats even as the genre turned out #1 hits, and ballads like Kenny Rogers’ “Lady” and Barbra Steisand’s “Woman in Love” got a huge amount of airtime (those two tunes combined to take the top of the charts for nine weeks that fall and winter). A lot of programmers for rock stations didn’t add the songs, as they weren’t taking “Cher does rock” seriously. The critics were also particularly savage to Cher in reviews of the record; as she told Rolling Stone, “The critics panned us, and they didn’t attack the record. They attacked me. It was like, ‘How dare Cher sing rock & roll?’”
Black Rose had planned to do a second album, but it was cancelled. By 1982, Cher and Dudek had broken up. After wrapping up the Vegas residency, she went to Broadway to appear in Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. Director Robert Altman cast her in the film version, and Mike Nichols, who loved her in the play, cast her for Silkwood alongside Meryl Streep. Cher was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for Silkwood; she responded by putting together her own production company and taking the lead in Mask, which earned her a Best Actress nomination. In 1987, she starred in two of the Top Ten films at the box office that year: The Witches of Eastwick and Moonstruck. Cher took home the Academy Award for Best Actress for the Moonstruck role.
With a strong and credible acting career established, Cher took a turn back to music, defiantly keeping a rock-oriented sound as she put together new material for Geffen Records. The self-titled 1987 album was produced by Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora, Michael Bolton, and Desmond Child (the Hall of Fame songwriter behind classic rockers like “I Hate Myself for Loving You,” “You Give Love a Bad Name,” and “Livin’ on a Prayer.”) The song “I Found Someone” hit the Top Ten; just two years later, her Heart of Stone album sold three million copies and sent “If I Could Turn Back Time” to #3.
In the years since, Cher has continued to do what Cher does: sing, act, and get awards (like the Billboard Icon Award and the Kennedy Center Honors). She had her biggest hit ever, “Believe,” in 1998/1999. A raucous presence on Twitter, she most recently offered to volunteer at the Post Office to help amid its current troubles. The Black Rose album was eventually reissued in Germany as a Cher album, but had little impact. Her many decades of overwhelming and ongoing success make the Black Rose anomaly even more of a mystery. Maybe it was a case of the idea being ahead of its time. Maybe it’s a comment on the lure of celebrity, and that people are more comfortable with the familiar as opposed to the unknown. And maybe it wasn’t as good as previous and subsequent material. Whatever the case, it’s an interesting side-note in one of the biggest careers in entertainment. When it comes to Black Rose, if she could turn back time . . . Cher probably wouldn’t change a thing.