“Cherish is the Word” Spotlight on The Association’s Jim Yester
Vocalist/guitarist/songwriter Jim Yester is best known for his work with The Association, the sunshine pop vocal group which produced such great ’60s hits as “Cherish,” “Windy,” “Never My Love,” and “Along Comes Mary.” The first band in history to open a rock festival at 1967’s Monterey Pop Festival, Yester and The Association went on to sell over 80 million recordings, earning six gold records and three platinum disks along the way.
Spotlight Central recently caught up with Yester and talked to him about his musical childhood, his rise to fame with The Association, and what he’s been up to these days.
Spotlight Central: You were born in Birmingham, Alabama and moved to Burbank, California when you were three years old. We understand your dad was a professional musician. What can you tell us about him?
Jim Yester: Before we moved to California, my dad and his sister had a music school where they taught accordion and piano. My dad also had a radio show — I don’t really recall a whole lot about it — and he was also only 20 hours away from getting his commercial pilot’s license. He gave all of that up and moved to L.A., however, because he wanted to get involved with the movie business, which he did. You remember that old John Wayne movie, Fort Apache? My dad was in that. He was one of the members of the band in the scene where they had a dance at the Fort.
Spotlight Central: Was your mom musical as well?
Jim Yester: No, but later on when my dad had a bar and restaurant up in Joshua Tree, California — a piano bar with a piano and organ — my mom would sing with him occasionally at night.
Spotlight Central: You’ve said that, as a kid, you started in music playing the harmonica and then, later, boogie-woogie piano. What influenced you to play those instruments?
Jim Yester: Well, the harmonica was something, I guess, one of my aunts or my grandmother gave me when I was six or seven. And walking to school, I just fooled around with it until I learned how to play it — just straight harp, not blues harp.
And with boogie-woogie piano, I was in a falconry club when I was a teenager, from the time I was about 13 until the time I went in the Army at age 22. One of the guys in the falconry club was from the South Side of Chicago, and he was a heavy duty boogie-woogie piano player.
We used to have our falconry club meetings in a garage at this musician’s house, and behind the garage was a music room — incidentally, this musician, whose name was Robert Klimes, did arranging for a lot of rock bands back in the ’50s and early ’60s, and he even did the vocal arrangement for “Birthday Morning” on our Birthday album.
But, anyway, the guy who was from the South Side of Chicago would go back to Robert Klimes’ music room after the falconry club meetings and sit there and play piano — stuff like Maude Lux Louis’s “Honky Tonk Train Blues,” and music by Albert Ammons, Freddie Slack, and all those guys — and I would sit there and watch him. Then when he would get up to get a beer or have a cigarette or something, I’d sit down at the piano and try to figure out what he was doing. Eventually, I learned how to do it — not to the level of what he was doing — but I still got pretty good at playing stuff like “Down the Road a Piece” and those kinds of things.
Spotlight Central: We’re told the first concert you ever attended was seeing Fats Domino in Burbank, CA…
Jim Yester: Yeah, that was at the Olive Rec Center in Burbank.
Spotlight Central: What other recording artists did you enjoy listening to while you were growing up?
Jim Yester: Oh, gosh, everything. Because my dad was a pro musician, and my mom and dad had a pretty cool record collection, I listened to a lot of big band stuff. And then my dad made me a pillow speaker — you know, a little flat speaker to go under my pillow at night — and I used to listen to a radio show called Lucky Lager Dance Time where they played all the hits of the day, and then they ended every night’s show with “Dream,” you know [sings] “Dream/When you’re feelin’ blue” — a good song. And then, later on, when I was with the Modern Folk Quartet, I got to sing that with them, because they did almost the same arrangement I listened to as a kid.
Spotlight Central: You mention the Modern Folk Quartet. As an up-and-coming musician, you were a member of your family band, The Yester Brothers, and, later, a member of the Modern Folk Quartet. What instruments did you play in these groups and what kinds of songs did you play?
Jim Yester: Well, in the Yester Brothers, my brother played guitar and banjo and I played guitar, and the two of us sang. It was kind of like a two-person Kingston Trio or a Bud & Travis kind of thing, although we did start writing our own songs. We both played classical guitars; we had matching Goya G-15s.
I wasn’t in the Modern Folk Quartet, however, until ’78 when I sang with them to fill in for Henry Diltz who was gone for a little while. The group had some gigs at a club called the Pasadena Ice House and Henry had a wedding situation back East, and so I filled in for Henry. I had to learn all his parts. [Laughs] That was a trip! At the time, I was working in a cryogenics lab so I had to sit there doing my work with an earphone from a tape recorder in one ear learning Henry’s parts while I worked!
And then in ’88 and ’90 in Hawaii — I moved to Hawaii, I think, in ’86 — my brother and I hooked up and we got to doing a trio thing with Charlie Mingus’s stepson, Rainbow Page. After that, we wound up putting the Modern Folk Quartet back together because three of the members already lived on the big island, and then when I came over — since I had taken Henry’s place before — we started working as the MFQ in Hilo.
Spotlight Central: You said that when you were 22, you joined the Army where, we understand, you served in Germany with a jazz guitarist from Greenwich Village and a comedian who had previously recorded a folk album. The three of you put together a folk/comedy trio and were eventually pulled from your outfit and sent around Germany and France to entertain the troops. How enjoyable was that experience?
Jim Yester: Oh, that was fantastic because, basically, we were answering to and reporting to civilians! You know, we didn’t have to wear our uniforms, and I had an Army license, so we could go to the motor pool and check out a car and go wherever we were going. And then we did a couple of extended tours and borrowed a friend’s car and drove all over Germany and France while we were doing that.
For those gigs, I was playing guitar and banjo, because my brother sent me a five-string banjo while he was touring with the Modern Folk Quartet. And it was great fun. We took folk songs and wrote parodies about the Army — like “Puff the Magic Dragon” became “Yuck, the Honey Wagon,” and “Hush Little Baby, Don’t You Cry” became “Hush Little Lifer, Don’t You Cry.”
We had a really great polished show, so when we sent a tape of us off to the entertainment director in Nuremberg, he freaked and got us pulled out of our outfit and sent us all over Germany and France to entertain the troops. We also participated in the All-Army Entertainment Contest and made it all the way to the All-Europe level, where we came in second place. The winners went to the States for a week to do a show, but we went on a 30-day road show all over Germany, so I think we got the better end of the deal!
Spotlight Central: Sounds like it! And when you returned home from the Army, you auditioned at The Ice House where you were put in touch with some musicians who were getting a band together. These musicians included Jules Alexander and Terry Kirkman, who had been a part of a 13-member folk-rock group at The Troubadour called The Men, but left to start a new group called The Aristocrats.
Jim Yester: Basically, yes, that’s how it happened. One afternoon during a meeting for The Men, there was a big blow-up and six of the guys — the core members of the group — left to go to Terry Kirkman’s house and start a more contemporary group, instead of the folk-rock stuff they were doing. They were gonna call themselves The Aristocrats — because there was a terrible old show-biz joke called “The Aristocrats” — and Terry’s girlfriend Judy was looking up the word “aristocrats” in the dictionary and she came across the word “association,” which is “a group of individuals united toward a common goal.” Once they saw that, they said, “Oh, well, ok — that’s what it’s gotta be.”
Spotlight Central: We’re told you and the members of The Association rehearsed for six months before even playing your first gig.
Jim Yester: Eight hours, six days a week, working on arranging, songs, and choreography — you know, in case somebody broke a string what would happen, or if a guy was doing a solo, he would step back and hand his guitar to somebody else. I mean, everything was all worked out beforehand, so when we actually started working, we thought we were pretty slick.
Spotlight Central: You played coffee houses, colleges, parties, and clubs like The Ice House and The Troubadour, but what kind of musical material were you doing as a part of your act?
Jim Yester: It was all our own material. I think the only cover song we had was our own arrangement of “Poison Ivy” — and there was one Billy Edd Wheeler song we recorded on our first album called “Blistered” — but everything else was our own material. You know, we had offers to play clubs and do Top 40 but we turned them down because we said, “What we’re gonna do instead of doing Top 40 is we’re gonna do our own stuff, and we know we’re gonna have to starve for awhile, but that’s what we want to do,” and in the long run, it paid off.
Spotlight Central: It sure did! And speaking about your own material, your bandmate, Jules Alexander, did a demo session with Tandyn Almer and brought back an acetate of the demo to The Association saying, “Listen to this.” The next day, the band started working on the song and did it on stage for seven or eight months before recording it. That song, “Along Comes Mary,” became your first Top 10 hit, and you were the lead singer on the recording! What were your initial thoughts about it — especially with regards to the unusual melodic rhythm of the verse?
Jim Yester: Well, the guy who was kind of Tandyn’s partner — he worked in conjunction with Davon Music, and Tandyn was signed to Davon — was Curt Boettcher. He was the producer for that session and he had this real high tenor voice and he sang the melody on the demo. When we started working on the song, I had the highest voice in the group, so Jules said, “Why don’t you sing lead because you’re pretty close to where Curt sings?” so that’s the way we did it.
Spotlight Central: Did you find it difficult to sing?
Jim Yester: No, it was cool. The only hard part, the first couple of days, was remembering the order of the words, because there are a lot of words in that song!
Spotlight Central: That’s what we were thinking!
Jim Yester: You know, “Along Comes Mary” is actually an incredible tone poem. In fact, when I was doing a solo act, I used to do that as a reading and then follow that up by doing the song. The first time I did it, however, I just did it as a reading at The Ice House. My cousin happened to be there that night, and after I finished the reading, the lights went down and there was dead silence. Afterwards, my cousin said to me, “You know what? I think they were waiting for you to sing it,” so I started doing that and it worked out a lot better.
Spotlight Central: Do you remember the first time you heard “Along Comes Mary” on the radio?
Jim Yester: I do, exactly. We were going over the 405 Freeway heading to Santa Monica to go to this music store — I think it was called Ace Music, over in Santa Monica — and we heard it come on the radio. There were four of us in our drummer, Ted Bluechel’s, ’59 Chevy Impala, and we were all hanging out of the windows and screaming and yelling [laughs] — you know, it was great!
Spotlight Central: A moment ago, you mentioned Curt Boettcher, who produced “Along Comes Mary,” and who also produced your first album, And Then… Along Comes the Association. Is it true that the instrumental tracks for that debut album were recorded in somebody’s garage?
Jim Yester: Yeah. You know, the deal back then with a lot of record companies was, “OK, we’re gonna go in and record, but we’re gonna use studio musicians.” Now some of us played — like Jules played on a lot of those sessions, and a lot of us were involved with the sweetening — but the deal was on our first album, a lot of the stuff was recorded by a guy named Gary Paxton. Think about the pre-runner of The Wrecking Crew, the well-known group of West Coast recording session musicians. It turns out a lot of the guys who worked with Paxton became a part of The Wrecking Crew. So that was the deal back then. Everybody did it because studio time was very expensive.
For our second album, we did the whole thing ourselves. In hindsight, we would probably have been better off using guys like The Wrecking Crew or Gary’s troupe, but, you know, it’s a learning experience. We were all green kids from all over California — although, originally, we came from six different states.
Spotlight Central: Let’s talk about your first #1 hit, “Cherish.” It was written by your bandmate, Terry Kirkman, but didn’t Jules Alexander develop the arrangements?
Jim Yester: Yes, Jules did both the vocal arrangement and the instrumental arrangement. Terry had the lyrics and the melody, so he sang the melody and Jules put chords to it. And then Jules, basically, would line up parts and we’d all fit our voices in. Sometimes, we would change parts — and I think we actually went through three different vocal arrangements before we finally recorded it.
But “Cherish” was not supposed to be our next single. We were gonna release “Enter the Young,” and we even re-recorded it to get it ready for release. But a DJ in Ohio — I think his name was Dave Reinhart — pulled “Cherish” off the album and started playing it, and it went right to #1 in his area, so the record company said, “Let’s re-think this. We think we should release ‘Cherish,’” and that’s what happened.
Spotlight Central: What were your thoughts on the unusual form of that song — the fact that it has two bridges — the “I’m beginning to think that man has never found” bridge, which is then followed by the “I can say I need you and then I’d realize” bridge?
Jim Yester: A lot of what we were doing at that time was unusual, so that was just the way it was. In other words, since it was our own song, it didn’t seem unusual for us.
Spotlight Central: One of our favorite Association songs is “Windy,” which was a #1 hit for the band in 1967. Where did you find that song?
Jim Yester: “Windy” was written by a gal friend of ours, Ruthann Friedman, who was a singer/songwriter who slept in our living room on the couch for a couple of weeks while she was looking for her own place. The normal stuff she wrote was really avant-garde; we already did one of her other songs which was really long and very involved, but we never ended up recording it. Ruthann went up to San Francisco one weekend and when she came back, she said, “I wrote this little contemporary thing up in San Francisco, and you guys might be interested in it.” She sat down and played it for us, and it was about a guy named Windy, but she said, “You can just change the lyrics to make it about a girl.”
So we played it for our producer, Bones Howe — because we were just getting ready to go in and record with Bones — and he said, “I’ve got an idea for this. Let’s see what happens here.” And he came up with a pretty damn good idea — he and Ray Pohlman, who was one of the members of The Wrecking Crew, and who later ended up co-producing an album with us.
Spotlight Central: A pair of brothers, Dick and Don Addrisi, wrote “Never My Love,” which went to #2 in 1967 for you. Do you recall the very first time you heard that song?
Jim Yester: Absolutely. Dick and Don were staff writers for Valiant Records and they would come over to the house where four of us lived and where we all rehearsed. They’d knock on the door. We’d open the door, and there they’d be, sitting on the porch facing the door, and they would “row” into the house using a guitar as an oar. Then Don would sit down on a guitar amplifier, plug in his instrument, and play the guitar while they’d sing whatever song they had just written. We had done one of their songs, “Go Blame the Rain,” on our first album, and then they wrote “Never My Love” for us, so the first time we heard it was with Don sitting on that amplifier with the two of them performing it for us.
Spotlight Central: “Never My Love” went on to be certified by the music licensing agency BMI as the second-most-played song in America during the 20th century, didn’t it?
Jim Yester: Yes, the second-most-played song in BMI’s catalog for the 20th century.
Spotlight Central: That’s something you’ve got to be very proud of!
Jim Yester: Absolutely. And, yeah, there were a lot of cover records of that, which obviously helped. For example, The 5th Dimension had a hit with it, and Blue Swede had a hit with it, as well.
Spotlight Central: Once The Association became an established group, you were presented with so many potential songs to record, you sometimes had as many as 200 songs per day to listen to! That said, we’re told the band turned down such potential hits as “Joy to the World,” a #1 smash for Three Dog Night; “The Air That I Breathe,” a Top 10 hit for The Hollies; and a Jimmy Webb song which was written especially for The Association. Tell us more about that particular song.
Jim Yester: Bones Howe commissioned Jimmy Webb to write something for us, and Jimmy came over at around the tenth or eleventh hour of a long vocal session. At the time, we were pulling our hair out and batting our heads against the wall, so Bones said, “Ok, let’s take a break. Jimmy’s got something to play for you.” Jimmy played for us a 24-minute cantata with five movements. Each movement was a song, and one of the movements was “MacArthur Park.” The deal, however, was “Take the whole 24 minutes or nothing.”
We were halfway through the album — we had six songs in the can already — so it was like, “OK, whose songs are we going to have to take off the album?” because the cantata would take up an entire side of the album. So after a two-hour meeting, we wound up not using it. And I think that was probably the end of our relationship with Bones Howe because, I assume, he would have had the publishing for it.
Spotlight Central: You received a Golden Globe nomination for the theme song you wrote for the film, Goodbye Columbus, and you also wrote the single, “No Fair at All.” What was your inspiration for writing those songs?
Jim Yester: Well, for “Goodbye Columbus,” Paramount commissioned us to write material for the movie. We were on the road, and we went to their offices in New York. They played the movie for us without a soundtrack, which was very weird — like at the big wedding scene, where everybody’s dancing and the band’s playing, there’s no sound; they’re all just mimicking it!
So anyway, they said, “We want a song here at the front, we want a song for the love montage, and we want a song for the ending as he’s walking away.” And then they said, “You’ve got a week. We’ll meet with you in seven days to see what you’ve got. Then you’ll have, probably, another six days when we’ll need the recording.” So at the meeting to pick the songs, they chose my song.
Incidentally, Terry and Jules also wrote a song called “Goodbye Columbus,” which they later wound up changing to “Goodbye Forever,” and we eventually recorded that, too.
But, that afternoon, I walked from our hotel — which was at 6th Ave. and 54th Street — down to Greenwich Village, and on that walk, I composed “Goodbye Columbus” in my head. Then when we had the second meeting with them, I played it and they said, “Yeah, we want that for the theme song.” After that, I sat down with John Boylan, who produced all three songs they chose for the movie, and he had me play “Goodbye Columbus” over and over saying, “OK, give me a different chord here,” “Ok, add a chord right there.” So that’s how it happened, and it came out fantastic. I got to play on the session with quite a few members of The Wrecking Crew — I played a big 12-string acoustic, and they followed me — and it turned out to be a really cool recording with guys like Don Randi on the piano, Jimmy Gordon on drums, and Ray Pohlman on bass.
Spotlight Central: Like “Goodbye Columbus,” your song, “No Fair at All,” has a really neat chord progression — it’s not the typical I, IV, V chord progression you so often hear in pop music — it’s much more sophisticated.
Jim Yester: Yeah, it just kind of came to me. There was a song called “Return to Paradise,” an old song from the ’50s — you know [sings], “Come with me my love/Across the sea/Return to paradise,” and I just liked the feel of it. So I was playing the guitar one day — a big 12-string — and I started messing around with chord changes and it sounded kind of like that song, and I went “Oh, cool!” And then it wound up — with regards to the lyrics — kind of being about an almost-affair that never happened, you know, but almost did? So that’s where that came from.
Spotlight Central: The Association has been around for over a half-century and still performing live concerts but, lately, since the vast majority of shows have been postponed, what have you been up to?
Jim Yester: We’re actually doing a recording project; we’re putting songs together and working on arrangements for it. Jules and I are sending things back and forth. It’s mostly gonna be Jules and myself, but Terry Kirkman’s got a lot of input into it, too; we asked him to be involved with it. So all three of us are working on it, plus our guitarist Paul Holland is involved, so he’s working on stuff, too.
Most of the music industry today involves streaming — not CDs; not physical stuff. The record companies are moving more and more towards that and, in fact, some don’t even make CDs anymore; for example, we haven’t even been able to buy CDs to sell at our concerts! So we’re going to start out with the streaming thing — doing the online thing — and if a record company wants to get involved, then we’ll follow that. But that’s what we’re doing right now and we’re having great fun with it.
Spotlight Central: Speaking of concerts, we’ve seen you when you were part of the Happy Together Tour and we’ve also seen The Association doing full-length performances, and you always put on such a terrific show. Right now, however, there are lots of fans who miss seeing you. Is there anything you want to say to those of us who are looking forward to seeing and hearing you perform again live?
Jim Yester: Yeah, we were having so much fun with our concerts, and everything was riding so smoothly before the pandemic hit, but what can you do? You just have to ride it out, like everybody else does. Unfortunately, the music business will probably be the last to get people back to work, but that’s just the way it is.
But not only do we miss playing, we miss our fans; we have such great interaction with our fans. It’s really fun — not only during the show, but after the show where, many times, we’ll do a meet-and-greet or sign autographs for people — and we have a great time with them.
So, bottom line, hang in there folks, we’ll be back! We’re looking forward to it as much as you are!
To learn more about Jim Yester and The Association, please go to theassociationwebsite.com.