Ten silhouettes stood upon the stage, black outlines of men and microphones against a lit blue background. As the lights blazed across the stage, the fans cheered as past and present members of The Association, the 1960's pop/rock group famous for their intricate pop melodies and passion-inspiring love songs, played their classic hits. At the front of the stage were The Association's original members, including Jules Alexander, Jim Yester, Terry Kirkman and Ted Bluechel. Two other members from the hitmaking years, Russ Giguere and Larry Ramos, sang and played their instruments, performing alongside and as members of The Association's current lineup – Del Ramos (Larry's brother), Bruce Pictor, Bob Werner and Jordan Cole. And on that magic night in September 2003, at the local baseball stadium hosting the two-night Vocal Group Hall of Fame induction concert, the Association captured the crowd, their too-brief set culminating with a 10-part harmony on the coda of their classic hit "Cherish."
Their journey from the Los Angeles hootenannies, to the top of the charts, a non-stop journey of tours and TV appearances and recording studios, produced timeless melodies and hits that still get airplay today on oldies radio stations. And to a man, The Association members are still honored that their songs still resonate with today's listeners, and have been covered and recorded and played by musicians for years. In a 1999 list of the 100 most played BMI-licensed songs of the 20th century, three Association hits made the list – "Windy" (#61, 4 million performances, more than "Margaritaville" or "Daydream Believer"), "Cherish" (#22, 5 million performances, more than "Proud Mary" or "I Heard It Through the Grapevine"), and "Never My Love" (#2, 7 million performances, more than "Yesterday" or "Stand By Me").
The formation of the Association began in 1962, when songwriters Jules Alexander and Terry Kirkman met on a Hawaii beach. They practiced together, wrote a few songs, then went their separate ways. By coincidence, Alexander and Kirkman met up again in California, and both took a shot at the growing Los Angeles folk club scene. The place they wanted to it big was the Troubadour Club, where the Monday night "Hootenanies" could draw anyone who brought an instrument or wrote a song up on the stage.
"It's what we call an open mike now," said Jules Alexander. "Since the folk scene was so happening at the moment, it was basically folk musicians and some poetry readings. It was a funny combination of beatnik and folk music, and they were wildly successful. Everybody waited for Monday night at the Troubadour. That place has been in business since God came to the earth, or something."
At the time, the Troubadour stage looked like a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame alumni roster, with Cass Elliot, Jim (later Roger) McGuinn and David Crosby among the artists looking for their big break. Eventually Alexander and Kirkman became part of "The Men," a huge performance group of 11 to 13 regular Troubadour "hoot night" performers. "We were the first group in the United States to really be called folk rock," said Terry Kirkman. "I have the first poster hanging on my door right now in front of me. We were the first folk group to use drums and electric guitar and electric bass, while everybody else played acoustic. At one point, Bob Dylan was at the Troubadour, and actually asked Doug Weston (owner of the Troubadour) if The Men would stay after a show one night. He came down and sort of jammed with us, to put it in lay terms, and asked how we were pulling the sound of electrified twelve-string and six-string guitars and a bass, and what kind of drum bass were we using for folk music."
Unfortunately, with a baker's dozen of musicians, one can also develop a baker's dozen of egos and agendas. Eventually Kirkman and Alexander, as well as The Men's new manager, Dean Fredericks, had a meeting to decide which direction The Men would follow. At the end of the meeting, the group was halved, with drummer Ted Bluechel, bassist Brian Cole and guitarist Russ Giguere remaining with Kirkman and Alexander.
"Barry McGuire quit the New Christy Minstrels," said Russ Giguere, "so the leader singer of The Men at that time was hired to replace Barry McGuire. The Men needed a lead singer, so I joined the band. The band only lasted a couple months. There was this long meeting. I'd only been in the group a couple months, so I really was the only one who had nothing to say at all. I just sat and listened, so I remember it very exactly. It just went on and on and on and on. Eventually Jules Alexander just got up and said, ‘you know, I'm just tired of this bullshit. I want to make music.' I said, ‘I don't even know what you guys are talking about, I gotta go with Jules.' So, I got up and walked out, Ted Bluechel got up and walked out, Brian Cole walked out, Terry stood up and said to the remaining guys, ‘You know, you just lost your band.' And we met out on the street, went over to Terry's house, had a little wine, and started rehearsing the next day."
A sixth member, vocalist and Troubadour regular Jim Yester (whose brother Jerry was in the Modern Folk Quartet), joined the group two weeks later. "Now they hadn't really been into rehearsals or like done anything yet," said Yester. "Their manager, Dean Fredericks, had just secured them a house for them to live in. And the sixth guy they had in the group, Bob Page, was a banjo player. He was strictly a folk guy. He was not crazy about the contemporary direction. I was doing a audition at the Ice House in Pasadena, and the owner of the Ice House left me a note, saying, I can't use you right now, but some friends of mine are starting a group and they want you to call them.' So, I called them and the next day went over to see them, and they sang for me, and I sang for them, and Jules Alexander pulled me aside and said, ‘Come back in about three days and you can move in with us.' By then the other guy was gone."
Also gone was the name "The Men." After perusing the dictionary, Kirkman's wife Judith found a name that would suit the six-member band perfectly – The Association. Dean Fredericks helped set up a singles deal with Jubilee Records, where The Association released a cover of Joan Baez' "Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You." The song didn't sell, but The Association did better with their next label, Valiant Records.
Valiant, owned by producer Barry DeVorzon, had already achieved some success with hits like the Cascades' "Rhythm of the Rain" and his own group, Barry and the Tamerlanes, with "I Wonder What She's Doing Tonight." Signing with Valiant, The Association released their next 45, a cover of Bob Dylan's "One Too Many Mornings," and received some scattered response. It also drew the attention of an enthusiastic young record producer, Curt Boettcher, who had seen The Association perform hundreds of Los Angeles club dates.
It was Boettcher who brought "Along Comes Mary" to Jules Alexander's attention. The song, written by a previously undiscovered songwriter, Tandyn Almer, immediately became part of The Association's set list, and when it came time to enter the recording studio, there was no doubt that "Along Comes Mary" would be one of the tracks to commit to tape.
"We recorded at Gary Paxton's studio," said Jules Alexander, "which was actually in his house. The recording room was a bus that he had outside, and he would be inside in a room. On a four track machine. No ProTools, no Cakewalk, none of that. It was a straight razor and a two inch, four track tape."
Even though The Association were one of the most polished live bands in Los Angeles, in order to get a recording contract they had to agree to using studio musicians for the lion's share of their work. That was standard procedure in the 1960's and 1970's, where Hal Blaine, Leon Russell and Larry Knechtel were your backup musicians, no matter if you were the Byrds or the Partridge Family. The music tracks for "Along Comes Mary" were recorded at Paxton's homemade studio, while the Association's vocals were added at the Columbia studios across town.
"The studio itself was his garage." said Jim Yester. "Gary later moved to a two story house, and the booth was up in the bathroom upstairs and the living room downstairs was the recording area. He had all these tables going up the stairway. It was a trip! Gary Paxton's studio was very cool and he had a set of musicians that very similar to both house guys. Those were Gary's troops, like Bones Howe had the Wrecking Crew as his house band."
"Terry was on the recorder, Jules played the guitar, and everything else was studio guys," said Russ Giguere. "The idea was to just get good sounds on the tape, so that it sounded like the band. These studio musicians knew how to do it."
On a day just like any other day in sunny Southern California, the Association climbed into Ted Bluechel's 1959 Chevrolet Impala and hit the road for a music store in Santa Monica. At the time, the car radio was tuned to KFWB. Suddenly, from the KFWB-tuned car radio, came the sound of guitars and notes and melodies of "Along Comes Mary." At that point, the radio was drowned out by the shouts and cheers and exaltations of six hardworking musicians, celebrating the moment when they first heard their song on a commercial radio station.
"We all went bananas," said Jim Yester. "We were driving over a hill, and we heard Along Comes Mary on the radio for the first time, and we all were hanging out the window screaming. It was wonderful."
"Along Comes Mary" became The Associations' first Top 10 national pop hit, bringing the group a wealth of fame and increased booking – as well as controversy. Depending on how one interprets the lyrics of "Along Comes Mary," the song was either a Hosannah in the highest for the Virgin Mary – or a veiled ode to the joys of marijuana.
As popular a hit as "Along Comes Mary" was, the follow-up, "Cherish," was a monster hit. Written by Terry Kirkman, "Cherish" didn't fit the normal 1960's pop song formula of verse-refrain-verse-refrain-instrumental-refrain-fadeout – "Cherish" turned the formula inside out, bracketing an ornately-carved lyric with a beginning and ending refrain. "Cherish" eventually hit the top of the pop charts, and The Association were now mainstays on the concert scene – as well as frequent guests on every major television variety show.
"We did Shindig and Hullabaloo," said Jim Yester, "we did the Johnny Carson show, we appeared on Ed Sullivan. We became THE Band for the Smothers Brothers show, were on that show three times. A lot of times we were the fill in band for American Bandstand once they moved their show to LA – Dick Clark would call our management and say, ‘Someone cancelled on me, are the guys in town?' And since we all lived in Hollywood, we'd be there in a heartbeat."
The Association also played concert venues that would never have considered hosting a rock show. Besides the usual tour stops of clubs and concert halls, The Association also played outdoor venues, amphitheaters, and performing arts centers like Tanglewood in Western Massachusetts, or Ravinia Park in Chicago. "We were the first self-contained band that's ever played the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles," said Terry Kirkman. "We were the first self-contained rock act to play at Ravinia Park in Chicago, and held the attendance record there for 14 years. And if you were to go back and say, who was the battering ram that got rock and roll bands into those venues, that battering ram that was the Association. We're going into houses where Tony Bennett or Frank Sinatra played."
Even from the Association's earliest days, there was a premium placed on sound quality, both on the record and on stage. "When we first toured," said Russ Giguere, "we had to carry our own sound system, which we traveled with for probably two years. We did that before we even had a record. We'd hit a place and the sound system there was like an assembly for a junior college, they'd have three mismatching mikes and horrible speakers. Our sound is what we're selling, you know? That was the essence of our being. So we got our own sound system very quickly. When we were first starting out, we were first touring after our first single. We were playing I think in Santa Barbara with the Beach Boys. And the sound system in the hall just sucked blue and green gas. And the Beach Boys came up to us and asked if they could use our sound system. Our manager at the time didn't want us to do it, but we let them use it. I mean, this was the Beach Boys, and they were around six or seven years longer than we were at the time, and they didn't have their own sound system."
If there were regrets among Association members, it involved a relentless schedule of touring and performing and recording and touring and performing, in an almost infinite mélange of hotel rooms, airport tarmacs and performing arts centers. Any time spent at home was more precious than gold, but even then the pressures of returning to the road drew to be a powerful aphrodisiac – and addiction.
"We were in some of the trivia books as the hardest working band in the 1960's," said Terry Kirkman. "That's not a compliment. We would come in off the road and record a twelve song album in 40 days. It was just really, really honest to God, insanity."
"I always knew my dad played in a band," said Jordan Cole, the son of Association bassist Brian Cole. "I think we were living in Burbank at the time, when our neighbor pulled by in a car, and pointed to the radio and said ‘That's your dad on the radio.' The first thing I said is, ‘No it's not.' When I was a little bit older, after my parents broke up and my mother and I moved to Portland, I remember visiting Ted Bluechel, and looking at his drum set. I wanted to play on his drum set, but I didn't touch it out of fear that it was his stuff, it was professional. One time my mother took me to the Capitol Records building, to a recording studio where The Association were wrapping up a track. I remember seeing these huge dials on the mixing boards – and I remember just thinking that this is the coolest thing that I ever saw in my life. But I also remember before he moved out, that there were tensions and arguments and I didn't know why at the time. My mother explained to me later it was because of the fame and the popularity, and the girls got to him, and he started taking the girls out. In a couple of cases, he was actually doing young girls in the car in front of the house. My mom was no dummy."
In 1967, The Association underwent their first major personnel change, as Jules Alexander left the group. "I didn't like the road anymore," said Alexander. "Just said, nope, didn't want to do it. I went to India – a year before the Beatles did, although I never got to meet the Maharishi. The whole period of time in the late 1960's was a major change in human consciousness. What the result is, well who knows? It was not only more major than at any other time, but people were certainly more aware of the change in the world at that point."
Before Alexander left The Association, he and the rest of the group found a qualified replacement in Larry Ramos, a veteran of the New Christy Minstrels lineup. The original plan was for Ramos to record with the group, rehearse with the group, and then tour as soon as he felt comfortable and proficient performing the group's past and present hits.
A lit firecracker changed all that.
"Before Jules left, I was invited to watch The Association, and at that time my brother Del Ramos was in a group called the New Society, who were opening for The Association. Right after one show in Illinois, Brian Cole had one of those big firecrackers, and he threw it out of a window, and the wind kept it on his hand when he threw it - and it blew up, broke a couple of bones in his hand. This is like the second or third date on a two-week tour. The guys came to me and said, ‘Hey Larry, you have to come on stage tonight cause Brian can't play.' They moved everybody around in the lineup – Brian could still sing, so Jules played bass and they wanted me to play guitar. I said I didn't know all the songs, and they handed me three or four albums and a small turntable. And they said, ‘It's 4:00 now, the show starts at 8:00. You've got about 3 hours to learn the stuff.' So, I went to my hotel room and cranked up the turntable and listened, and I went on stage with them. And after that, I never got off the stage. It was one of those things where I had to learn the music right then and there. Because they were literally short-handed."
Ramos was also present on the recording of The Association's next big hit, "Windy." Written by folk singer Ruthann Friedman about a boyfriend she wished she had, "Windy" started out with Ramos and Russ Giguere sharing lead vocals. The Association's new producer, Bones Howe, converted the song from a waltz meter into 4/4 time, and over the span of a 14-hour recording session, the song evolved into a Baroque pop music staple, with separate movements, shifting tempos and a chorus of male and female vocalists – including the rest of The Association members, several of their wives, and Ruthann Friedman herself. "Windy" vaulted up to #1 on the pop charts, and eventually was nominated for a Grammy award for Best Contemporary Group Performance.
At the Vocal Group Hall of Fame induction ceremonies in 2003, the Association members were introduced by Tony Butala, the long-time lead vocalist of the Lettermen. During the introduction, Butala noted that the Lettermen had the opportunity to record a song pitched to them by Don and Dick Addrisi, only to turn down the offer. The Addrisis then offered the recording to the Association, who took "Never My Love" to the Top 10.
The Association almost passed on that recording as well. "We had these sessions where we'd all sit down with the record producer, manager, and listen to material," said Ted Bluechel. "When Dick and Don Addrisi played ‘Never My Love' for us, I was just knocked over by it, thinking that is a stone cold hit. But, the guys let it sneak on by. That's why we had each other to lean on, and I said ‘Let's go back to that song Never My Love, that's the tune.' After hearing it a second or third time, everybody else got behind the wagon on it, knew it was a good song."
"It was a close-knit community of songwriters and performers that we were a part of," said Kirkman. "It would be sort of like if you looked at the songwriting credits for the Eagles. All of a sudden there's Jackson Browne and Joni Mitchell and Warren Zevon and this person and that person, all together and having fun. It was just a community of folk singers. What a lot of people don't understand about the 1960's is that everyone was already a seasoned entertainer before they ever entered a studio. I already played five genres in music for a living by the time I was in the Association."
It's now 1968, and The Association are working on a new album, eventually titled Birthday. Unlike the group's earlier projects, Birthday was a battle to create and finish. And right in the middle of the recording sessions, The Association receive a visit from songwriter Jimmy Webb, pitching a song for the new album. "We'd been in the studio about 15 hours straight," said Jim Yester, "and we're working on something that we're just having a hell of a time with. Bones Howe says, ‘Let's take a break, I want you to hear something Jimmy's written.' So, Jimmy sits down at the piano and plays this 24 minute cantata – five or six different intermixed songs, of which one of them was ‘MacArthur Park.'"
The Association members loved the "MacArthur Park" section of the cantata, but Webb would only give the song to The Association if they recorded the entire cantata. "I was one of the biggest opponents to the cantata," said Larry Ramos, "because I didn't want to give a whole side of a LP to Jimmy Webb, which is what it would have been. One side of the album would have been MacArthur Park and the other side would be five or six of our songs that would make up the rest of the album. It was a good piece of music, but it sure the hell needs a lot of editing."
"We're halfway through the album," said Yester, "and whose songs are we going to pull to put this in? We had a 2 hour knockdown, drag out meeting about the song, and Bones Howe was not a happy camper because we wound up turning it down because Jimmy wouldn't give us McArthur Park by itself. From there on, the honeymoon was over."
Eventually, Webb edited his "MacArthur Park" cantata to a 7-minute movement, which became a Top 5 hit for Richard Harris, as well as a #1 dance hit for Donna Summer. Meanwhile, The Association released Birthday, which did not have the same selling power of previous Association releases, despite spawning another Top 10 hit, "Everything That Touches You." Fans of the Association's albums, however, took Birthday to their hearts. "There used to be a fan-based Association website," said Kirkman, "and on it, Birthday was voted by the Association fans as their most favorite of all the Association albums."
The Association continued on their relentless schedule of concert stages and recording studios, but by now the sounds of baroque pop were being slowly squeezed off AM radio stations, as listeners discovered harder rock sounds and FM radio. Jules Alexander returned to the lineup, and the Association performed the opening theme to the romantic comedy Goodbye Columbus, but by that point the hitmaking years were over.
It wasn't exactly The Association's fault - other pop and rock bands that featured intricate melodies and well-crafted pop songs were being pushed aside, as musical tastes drifted away from The Association, Paul Revere and the Raiders, The Grass Roots and The Cryan' Shames, in favor of a harder rock sound from the Doors, the Jefferson Airplane, and the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
Even during these days, The Association stayed on the road as much as possible, even to the point where a rare 24-hour break turned into an all-out nautical challenge to keep their own sanity. "We had a day or two off in Kentucky by a lake," recalled Ted Bluechel. "So we decided to have a contest on boat building, and you could spend up to a dollar on materials. So everybody was making their boat hulls out of Coca-Cola and 7-Up cans. We'd take pieces of wood for the mast, and self-steering rudders on them. Larry Ramos and his brother Del built two separate boats, one that looked like a junk pile and one that was secretly hidden away in the bathroom. Jules and Richard Thompson had a magnificent boat they made up, which unfortunately sunk halfway through the race. Just to take the pressure off for three to four days."
But one of the members of The Association, Brian Cole, had his own demons to fight. At the high point of The Association's run, he developed a drug addiction. On August 2, 1973, he died from an overdose.
"It was very sad," said Russ Giguere. "I saw Brian, I was already out of the group, but I saw Brian the day before he died."
"We all tried to save him," said Terry Kirkman. "People in the music business would go over to Brian's house and kick his door open, and then you would just pray to God that he wasn't hallucinating and that he wouldn't shoot you. All sorts of people in the music community tried to save Brian Cole."
"I had always longed to know my dad," said Jordan Cole, who would later develop his own musical skills and join the Association in 1998, "and I it was not anything other than just I finally got a hold of some of the original members and I really, really wanted them to just tell me more about my dad. He's a big hole in my life, somebody I thought was so cool and never got a chance to know. I would listen to the live record and look at the silent film footage we have of him."
In 1998, when the Vocal Group Hall of Fame initially sent out requests for memorabilia and artifacts, several Association members donated programs, costumes and RIAA gold and platinum record awards, enough to fill two museum display cases. Five years later, the Vocal Hall announced that The Association would join the Class of 2003.
To mark the moment, the six surviving members from the group's hitmaking years - Kirkman, Yester, Giguere, Ramos, Bluechel and Alexander - would receive Harmony Awards, as would The Association's current lineup - Del Ramos, Jordan Cole, Bruce Pictor and Bob Werner. And in a star-studded induction concert at a nearby baseball stadium, The Association brought three decades of memories together - and brought down the house with cheers and applause.
"It was a wonderful roller coaster ride," said Jim Yester, who currently tours with several other 1960's icons in a group called Triple Gold, with Bruce Belland of The Diamonds, and David Somerville of the Four Preps. "I was so proud of everybody at the Vocal Group Hall of Fame, and even if we do nothing other than go back and do the induction concert every year, just that, would be wonderful. A lot of times even in a family there's people you don't talk to or you're pissed at, or whatever. But we seriously love each other, and we spent more time with each other than we did with our wives. When I have dreams about playing on a stage or sitting out in a vacant lot, it's with those guys."
"Everybody was really interesting," said Terry Kirkman, who currently runs AIR Support, a recovery organization for musicians and other professionals. "Jules made telescopes. He grinds the suckers. I was the socialist. I was the political commentator from the left. Brian was the Shakespearean. Jules was the science editor. It was fantastic hanging with guys like that on a daily basis. We had great times."
"When Tony Butala said we were inducted into the hall," said Larry Ramos, who with Russ Giguere currently tours with The Association, "I said Tony, it's about God damn time! But, it was really cool when all of us, the original members were there. I hadn't seen these guys, we hadn't sung together in 19 years, almost 20 years. How are these guys gonna sing? How are their chops? A lot of us hadn't played and what not. And all those guys could sing no matter what happened. They could all still sound good."
"I left the group to spend more time with my son," said Ted Bluechel, "he is autistic, and I needed to take care of him. When we got back together in 2003, it sounded just like it should sound. I don't know, maybe there's a little bit of rust on it, but it was a real kick doing it. It was a thrill to get everybody back on stage together and smiling and enjoying it. Doing it one more time, just like it was natural."
"It was as if no time had passed whatsoever," said Jules Alexander. "It was just amazing! I mean everybody was doing the moves, singing in pitch, the notes were right, except we had about four more voices and really, really good players. You just got washed right into the experience because it was just so cool. I put the mind on rest at that point."
"It was great to see everybody," said Russ Giguere. "If one of our guys touring today would be sick, we used to bring in one of the old guys, like Jules will fill in for us, he's done that so many times, so has Jim Yester. It was a great time to be with everybody, it was just a lot of fun. I just really liked it. It was all completely positive. We still get more air play, almost as much air play now as we did then. Which it just amazes me, 'cause there's so many of these golden oldies stations and classic rock and roll and we still get a tremendous amount of air play, tremendous amount. I'm surprised at it, pleased of course."
"I have dreamt about playing with The Association since my dad was gone," said Jordan Cole, "taking my dad's place. I was pretty sure I'd just be playing bass and singing his parts, not playing keyboards as I am now. But, I'd always dreamt that one day I'd do this and then I would always immediately scoff at myself, going no, that's not gonna happen. The Association have always been brilliant musicians. Before the show started and during rehearsal, I'm looking at the guys on stage, saying wow, this should be really cool. And when the guys started performing, I went right into performance mode - and I totally forgot that I'm up there with Terry Kirkman, who wrote 'Cherish.' And I was watching the thrill on his face, and I knew exactly where he was coming from."
AUTHOR'S NOTES –
This article was compiled from personal interviews with current and alumni members of The Association, including Terry Kirkman, Jules Alexander, Jim Yester, Ted Bluechel, Russ Giguere, Larry Ramos and Jordan Cole. Other source information include the liner notes to the Rhino 2-CD boxed set Just the Right Sound, as well as other published sources.
Visit The Association's official homepage.
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