Forever No. 1: The Association’s ‘Cherish’

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Forever No. 1 is a Billboard series that pays special tribute to the recently deceased artists who achieved the highest honor our charts have to offer — a Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 single — by taking an extended look back at the chart-topping songs that made them part of this exclusive club. Here, we honor the late Terry Kirkman by looking at the No. 1 hit he penned for ‘60s pop group The Association: the sweetly melodramatic ballad “Cherish.” 

The Association’s “Cherish” was one of the prettiest pop songs of the 1960s, a choral pop classic that has long been a wedding reception staple. It made you swoon from the opening notes. But the song isn’t as simple as it first appears. Listen closely and you’ll learn that it’s a tale of an unrequited romantic obsession in which the protagonist finally blurts out “you are driving me out of my mind.”

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“Cherish” is, in some ways, the 1960s equivalent of The Police’s “Every Breath You Take,” where some people hear a song of undying devotion and others hear a song about an unhealthy, stalker-like obsession. Songs can be more complex than they seem on the surface.

The Association was formed in Los Angeles in 1965, evolving out of a 13-piece folk/rock group, The Men, that was briefly the house band at the famed Troubadour club. The Association quickly veered toward polished, mainstream pop – its music is often called “sunshine pop.”

“Cherish” was written by the group’s Terry Kirkman, who died on Saturday (Sept. 23) at age 83. Kirkman also sang lead on the smash, which was the group’s follow-up to its breakthrough hit, “Along Comes Mary,” which reached the top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 in July 1966. Russ Giguere sang harmony vocals on “Cherish.” Session musicians were called in to play on the instrumental track. They included Mike Deasy on guitar, Jerry Scheff on bass and Jim Troxel on drums. Curt Boettcher produced the single, which was released on Valiant Records.

The song demonstrated Kirkman’s love of intricate wordplay. Consider the opening lines of the first two verses: “Cherish is the word that I use to describe” and “Perish is the word that more than applies.”

Both the first and second verses have lines that are repeated three times with slight variations. In the first verse: “You don’t know how many times I’ve wished that I had told you/ You don’t know how many times I’ve wished that I could hold you/ You don’t know how many times I’ve wished that I could mold you…” In the second: “That I am not gonna be the one to share your dreams/That I am not gonna be the one to share your schemes/That I am not gonna be the one to share what seems…”

“Cherish” has two bridge sections, the second leading to a modulation in which the key rises a step. The lyrics in the bridge sections are melodramatic, as the protagonist comes to realize that his love is unlikely to be ever be returned. Many pop songs in this era had a similar life-or-death quality. Among them: The Righteous Brothers’ “(You’re My) Soul and Inspiration,” Vikki Carr’s “It Must Be Him” and Little Anthony & the Imperials’ “Goin’ Out of My Head” and “Hurt So Bad.”

The song ends with the phrase “cherish is the word,” over a sustained vibrato electric guitar chord. The album version ran 3:27, but the single was trimmed for time because program directors of the era were skittish about playing a song that went much past the three-minute mark. (One of the repetitions of “And I do cherish you” near the end was removed.) The label copy on the single listed its running time as 3:00, but that was just an attempt to fool the PDs: The single actually ran 3:12.

Writing about the song in his Number Ones column in Stereogum in 2018, Tom Breihan knocked the song, hard, calling it “the moment that [The Association] dissolved into absolute fluff.

“There are things about “Cherish” that should be good — things that look nice on paper,” Breihan observed. “The Association were singing in lush, Beach Boys-esque harmonies, and they were doing it over intricately layered guitars and banjos and horns. But ‘Cherish’ is a bloodless affair, a sickly-sweet melody backing up a somewhat creepy lyric about fixating too hard on a girl. The narrator of ‘Cherish’ … [is] talking about her from afar, and he knows that he’ll never get a shot from her. So there’s some bitterness in the way he talks about her: ‘I want you / Just like a thousand other guys / Who’d say they loved you / [With] all the rest of their lies.’ Easy there, bud.”

Breihan makes some good points. The protagonist is fixating too hard on this girl. And his feelings are complicated, with some bitterness seeping in. But people have been known to fixate and obsess and have unhealthy, unrequited feelings for the wrong people at the wrong time. While the song may on the surface appear to be a simple love song, it turns out it’s more than that. It’s about a surprisingly messy, complicated, f—ked up situation. That just might be to its credit.

Hot 100
Hot 100

“Cherish” was the second-highest new entry the Billboard Hot 100 in the week dated Aug. 27, 1966. It opened at No. 66, one rung behind The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby.” It sprinted to No. 1 in its fifth week on the Hot 100 (in the issue dated Sept. 24), dislodging The Supremes’ “You Can’t Hurry Love.” It held the top spot for three weeks, before it was dislodged by another all-time Motown classic, Four Tops’ “Reach Out I’ll Be There.” (Four Tops covered “Cherish” on their hit 1967 album Four Tops Reach Out.)

“Cherish” appeared on two albums by The Association that made the top five on the Billboard 200 – And Then…Along Comes The Association (No. 5 in November 1966) and Greatest Hits (No. 4 in February 1969).

In early 1967, the track received three Grammy nominations – best performance by a vocal group, best contemporary (R&R) recording and best contemporary (R&R) group performance – vocal or instrumental. (R&R stood for rock and roll, which “Cherish” most decidedly wasn’t, though it had a contemporary pop sound, which was close enough for the Recording Academy at that time.) It didn’t win any of the awards, which went to (respectively), the Anita Kerr Singers’ “A Man and a Woman,” New Vaudeville Band’s “Winchester Cathedral” and The Mamas & the Papas’ “Monday, Monday.” The latter two titles were also No. 1 hits on the Hot 100.

The Association returned to the No. 1 spot in July 1967 with the breezy “Windy” (which was written by Ruthann Friedman, who was just 22 when her one and only hit was released). “Windy” truly was “sunshine pop.” The group just missed landing a third No. 1 in October 1967 when “Never My Love” peaked at No. 2 for two weeks. (Now, that one would be perfect for wedding receptions.)

Kirkman went on to write three more Hot 100 hits for The Association – “Everything That Touches You” (which became the group’s fifth and final top 10 hit in 1968), “Requiem for the Masses” and “Six Man Band.” Kirkman departed the group in 1972 and returned when the band reunited in 1979, before leaving again in 1984.

David Cassidy covered “Cherish” in 1971 as his first solo single apart from The Partridge Family. His version, produced by Wes Farrell, reached No. 9 on the Hot 100.  Other artists to have covered the song include Dizzy Gillespie, The Lettermen, Nina Simone, Ed Ames, Petula Clark, Carla Thomas and Kenny Rogers & The First Edition.

The song has been revived in recent decades on the soundtrack to Fried Green Tomatoes (where it was performed in new jack swing style by Jodeci); Glee (where it was paired with a Madonna song with the same title); Barry Manilow’s The Greatest Songs of the Sixties (where it was performed in a medley with “Windy”); Rita Wilson’s AM/FM, a collection of some of her favorite songs, mostly from the 1960s and ’70s; and Pat Metheny’s What’s It All About, the 2011 Grammy winner for best new age album.

The Association’s smash has been featured on the TV shows The Wonder Years, The Nanny, The Simpsons, Crossing Jordan and Six Feet Under and in the films The Sweetest Thing and He’s Just Not That Into You. It also titled the 2002 dark comedy Cherish, starring Robin Tunney as a young pop obsessive with a stalker.

The potency of “Cherish” as a title had already been confirmed in the 1980s, when two different songs with the that title reached No. 2 on the Hot 100 – one by Kool & the Gang and the other by Madonna. Madonna even gave a little nod to The Association’s prior hit with the line, “Cherish is the word I use to remind me of your love.”

“Cherish” may not be the best song to play at a wedding reception – though many have tried – but it remains a pretty and impactful record, with gorgeous harmonies and a cleverly constructed lyric about a situation that, alas, just about everyone goes through at some point in their life.

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