The Association

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The Association were one of the more underrated groups to come out of the mid- to late ’60s. Their smooth harmonies and pop-oriented sound (which occasionally moved into psychedelia and, much more rarely, into a harder, almost garage-punk vein) made them regular occupants of the highest reaches of the pop charts for two years — their biggest hits, including “Along Comes Mary,” “Cherish,” “Windy,” and “Never My Love,” became instant staples of AM play lists.
The group’s roots go back to a meeting in 1964 between Terry Kirkman, a Kansas-born, California-raised music major, proficient on upwards of two instruments, and Jules Alexander, a Tennessee-born high school dropout with an interest in R&B and a budding guitar virtuoso. Alexander was in the U.S. Navy at the time, serving out his hitch, and they agreed to get together professionally once he was out. That happened at the beginning of 1965, and they at once pursued a shared goal: to put together a large-scale ensemble that would be more ambitious than such existing big-band folk outfits as the New Christy Minstrels and the Serendipity Singers. The result was the Men, a 13-member band that played folk, rock, and jazz, and earned a spot as the house band at the L.A. Troubadour. The group’s promising future was cut short, however, when their lineup split in two after just a few weeks with seven members exiting. The remaining six formed the Association, the name coming at the suggestion of Kirkman’s wife Judy.
Ted Bluechel, Jr. was their drummer, Brian Cole played bass, Russ Giguere was on percussion, and Jim Yester, brother of Easy Riders/Modern Folk Quartet alumnus Jerry Yester, played rhythm guitar behind Alexander. Each member was also a singer — indeed, their vocal abilities were far more important than their skills on any specific instruments — and several were multi-instrumentalists, able to free others up to play more exotic instruments on-stage. The group rehearsed for six months before they began performing, developing an extremely polished, sophisticated, and complex sound.
The Association shopped itself around Los Angeles and scored a single release on the Jubilee label — their debut, “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You,” wasn’t a success, nor was their subsequent 1965 recording of Bob Dylan’s “One Too Many Mornings” on Valiant Records, which was an early folk-rock effort that got decent local radio play in Los Angeles. The group came completely into its own, however, with the recording of the singles “Along Comes Mary” and “Cherish.”
The recording of those songs set a new standard in the treatment of rock music in America. The vocals were recorded at Columbia studios, while the instruments — played by Terry Kirkman, Jules Alexander, and a group of studio musicians — were cut in an improvised four-track studio owned by Gary Paxton. Those two songs, and the entire album that followed, revealed a level of craftsmanship that was unknown in rock recordings up to that time. Producer Curt Boettcher showed incredible skill in putting together the stereo sound on that album, which was among the finest sounding rock records of the period.
Considering their lightweight image in the later ’60s, the Association made a controversial entry into the music market with “Along Comes Mary” — apart from its virtues as a record, with great hooks and a catchy chorus, it was propelled to the number seven spot nationally with help from rumors that the song was about marijuana. “Cherish,” a Kirkman original (which was intended for a proposed single by Mike Whelan of the New Christy Minstrels), was their next success, riding to number one on the charts. The group’s debut album, And Then...Along Comes the Association, reached number five late in 1966.
It was just at this point that the exhaustion that came with success and the avarice of their record label, along with a couple of artistic and commercial misjudgments, combined to interrupt the group’s progress. Their next single, “Pandora’s Golden Heebie Jeebies,” was not an ideal choice as a follow-up to one of the prettiest and most accessible rock records of the decade, reaching only number 35, and “No Fair at All,” the next single, also fared poorly. Equally important, the group was forced to rush out a second album, Renaissance (produced by Jim Yester’s brother Jerry Yester), while they were honoring the burgeoning tour commitments attendant to a pair of huge national hits. It was also during this time that Valiant Records, including the Association’s contract, was absorbed by Warner Bros.
A major personnel problem also arose as Jules Alexander, one of the core players in the group, decided to leave. He headed off to India, where he spent most of the next year. In the meantime, the Association recruited multi-instrumentalist Larry Ramos of the New Christy Minstrels to replace Alexander. The group’s lineup change coincided with their getting access to a song by Ruthann Friedman called “Windy.” Another number one single, it was tougher to realize as a finished work, cut over a period of 14 hours with Friedman and Yester’s wife, arranger Cliff Burroughs, and his wife, along with numerous others, all singing with them.
Insight Out, their third album, was a tough one to record as well. It fell apart after it was half done when the group became unhappy with the sound and shape producer Jerry Yester was giving it. They turned to Bones Howe, an engineer and producer (most noted for his work with the Fifth Dimension,), who finished the album with them. Its two hits, “Windy” and “Never My Love,” were among their most popular and enduring songs and helped drive sales of the 12″ platter. The final track, “Requiem for the Masses,” which featured a Gregorian chant in the opening, was a strange song mixing psychedelia and social commentary — its lyrics were a searing social indictment, originally dealing with the death of boxer Davy Moore (Bob Dylan had written a song, very little known at the time, on the same subject four years earlier).
Immediately prior to the release of Insight Out, the group played the most visible live gig in their history, opening the Monterey International Pop Festival. It was an ideal showcase, and as the tapes of the festival reveal, the group was tight and that night, their vocals spot-on and their playing a match for any folk-rock band of the era — Ted Bluechel’s drumming, in particular, and Larry Ramos’ and Jim Yester’s guitars are perfect, and even Kirkland’s flute came out well on stage.
Had any part of their Monterey set been released, it might’ve helped correct the image that the Association were rapidly acquiring of being a soft, pop/rock group. Instead, their performance took some 20 years to see the light of day and longer than that for a pair of songs to show up on CD. The group’s next album, Birthday, was a departure from its three predecessors, their attempt at creating a heavier sound. It was around this same time that they cut the single “Six Man Band,” a very nasty critique of the music business written by Kirkman. The measures that the group took to change its image came too late — Birthday fell largely on deaf ears when it was issued in 1968, and the singles “Six Man Band” and “Enter the Young,” the latter a re-recording of a song that highlighted their debut album, charted only moderately well.
Warner Bros.′ release of a greatest-hits album in 1969 boosted the group’s album sales and consolidated the audience that they had, but did nothing to stop the rot that had set in. By 1969, the sensibilities of the rock audience had hardened, even as that audience splintered. Suddenly, groups that specialized in more popular, lighter fare, usually aimed at audiences outside the 17-25 age group, and especially those with a big AM radio following, such as Paul Revere & the Raiders, the Grass Roots, and the Association, were considered terminally out of fashion and uncool by the new rock intelligentsia.
One positive development was the return of Jules Alexander to the lineup in 1969, which turned the group into a septet and gave them the services of three talented guitarists. The group’s Goodbye Columbus soundtrack album, which included incidental music from the film of the same name composed by Charles Fox, was the kiss of death for the group’s credibility, regardless of the musical merits of their work. It was one thing for movies like Easy Rider to make use of music by the likes of the Byrds — that was part of a new wave of filmmaking — but as a film, Goodbye Columbus was a piece of Hollywood product. Coming out the same year that Woodstock took place, it spoke volumes about where the Association was in relation to music and audiences.
By 1970, the group’s biggest hits, dating from 1966 through 1968, were safely ensconced as oldies. The very fact that the Fifth Dimension and David Cassidy were to soon enjoy fresh chart success with re-recordings of “Never My Love” and “Cherish,” respectively, didn’t help their image among rock tastemakers.
Warner Bros. released one more album, Stop Your Motor, which reached number 158 on the charts. At around that time, relations between the label and the group’s manager deteriorated, and both sides parted company in 1971. Clive Davis, the president of Columbia, signed the group to his label. The resulting LP, Waterbeds in Trinidad, issued in 1972, peaked at number 194. The group soldiered on, availing themselves of their lingering fame for their early hits and working into the following year.
The death on August 2, 1973, of bassist Brian Cole — a result of a worsening drug habit — portended the breakup of the original core membership. Kirkman stepped back from the music business, while Jules Alexander formed a group called Bijou that put one promising single out through A&M Records. Ted Bluechel kept the group going with Jim Yester and Larry Ramos, adding other players like Ric Ulskey.
They began leasing the group name out, thus allowing oldies tour packagers to send out a version of “the Association” without any of the original members to play shows. That ultimately came to haunt them as those rights proved somewhat hard to withdraw for a time, and bogus versions of “the Association” turned up on and off into the ’80s. The legitimate, original group members, including Kirkman, Alexander, and Bluechel, resumed working together in various combinations on the oldies circuit in the ’80s. In 1981 and 1982, they briefly hooked up again with their first producer, Curt Boettcher, to record a pair of singles for Elektra. Their subsequent performances centered largely on re-creating their classic recordings on-stage and in the studio. ~ Bruce Eder