The eighteenth century philosopher Voltaire wrote about experiencing “the best of both possible worlds”. He may have had Don Cherry in mind when he penned those words as he is the only person ever to hold successful dual careers both as a singer and a golfer. In fact, many of Don’s fans think he is two different men. Some know him as Don Cherry the golfer; others know him as Don Cherry the singer. But most know him as the singing golfer.
Donald Ross Cherry was born January 11, 1924 in Wichita Falls, Texas and was the youngest of three children. Don graduated from Wichita Falls High School. After graduation, he entered and won the city’s Junior Golf Championship. A month after the U.S. entered World War II; Don was drafted into the Army-Air Corps. When his four year service to the country was completed, he went back to competing in amateur golf tournaments. To everyone’s amazement, he turned out to be a prodigy in the sport because he ended up winning 24 titles and earned 90 amateur trophies in a period of less than 9 years. He soon came to realize that he could simultaneously handle both a golf career and singing career. His clean lifestyle allowed him the energy to compete in golf tournaments during the day and perform during the night. His mellow baritone voice touched people, and he was quick to find work singing at local clubs.
In 1950, the record companies started taking notice of the young man with the velvet voice. Decca Records was the first to snatch him up with a contract. On May 5, 1950, he recorded his first record with Decca, “Mona Lisa” with Victor Young and his Orchestra. Don’s name wasn’t on the label and people started making inquiries into which the voice belonged to. A short time later Decca teamed Don up with Artie Shaw to record “Just Say I Love Her” and “Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me”. This time his name appeared on the label. His third recording, “Thinking Of You”, shot to the number 3 position on the Hit Parade, instantly selling 700,000 copies and giving him his first hit single.
Soon Don’s career skyrocketed. Throughout the decade he had many hit records including “Wild Cherry”, “I’m Still A King To You”, and “Ghost Town”. But by far the most memorable was the million seller hit “Band of Gold”. It was not uncommon to find at least one of Don’s songs on the table top jukeboxes in the local diner or corner soda shop.
In 1952 Irving Berlin heard Don’s recording of “Maybe It’s Because” and invited Don to his office. He proceeded to tell Don that it was one of the best recordings he heard of his songs, and that it had prompted him to write a country song just for Don. Unfortunately it wasn’t one of Mr. Berlin’s best songs, but the mere fact that he had composed it strictly for Don overshadowed its flaws.
In 1953 Don won the Canadian Amateur which allowed him to compete in the 1953 Walker Cup. He won for the U.S. He finished 1953 as a semi-finalist in the Southern Amateur and was honored
as a member of the U.S. team in the America’s Golf Cup. His music career was taking off as well. He recorded the hit “Vanity” for Decca Records which shot straight up to the top of the charts.
In 1955 when Don played again for the Walker cup, Lord Brabazon, Captain of the Royal and Ancient Association, announced to the audience that Bing Crosby and Bob Hope tried to make it to the British Amateur Golf Tournament but couldn’t qualify. We finally found a golfer who could play golf and also sing. Mr. Cherry, would you please honor us with a song? So, on the steps of St. Andrews Don sang “I Believe” and was rewarded with an ovation which he will never forget.
In 1956 Proctor and Gamble approached Don to create a jingle for their new product “Mr. Clean”. (An accurate description of Don himself because he can honestly say he never drank or smoked his entire life). He did it and it proved to be one of the most successful commercial jingles ever.
The 1960′s brought about some major changes for Don. In 1960 at the US Open at Cherry Hills in Denver Colorado, Don finished just four strokes behind the winner Arnold Palmer and two shots behind Jack Nicklaus who finished in second place. Jack and Don shot the two lowest scores ever shot in the US Open by amateurs. He was again chosen to play in the Walker Cup and not unlike their first two appearances, the United States once again finished undefeated. In all, during his amateur career Don competed in the Masters 9 times, the Walker Cup 3 times, the America’s Cup twice and 8 US Opens. In 1962 he decided it was time to turn professional. During this time Don continued to perform to standing room only crowds in Laughlin, Reno, and Las Vegas
showrooms. He also took his show on the road throughout the United States (as well as other countries) and appeared on every major television show.
During one of his visits to Las Vegas, Don met the person who would have the most influence in both his professional and personal lives – Dean Martin. The two hit if off almost immediately and became inseparable for many years to come. They would regularly meet out on the course in the morning to trade jokes and just talk about anything and everything. Dean started his own television variety show about the same time Don signed on with Monument.
The level of respect and admiration between these two men for each other ran so deep there wasn’t anything one would not do for the other. Don relocated permanently to Las Vegas in 1967, where his name was a fixture on many marquees including The Sands, The Tropicana, The Dunes, The Hilton, The Golden Nugget, The Aladdin, and was a mainstay at The Desert Inn.
If you switch on your television and watch Charlton Heston’s movie “Will Penny”, you will hear Don singing the entire theme song “Lonely Rider” at the end of the movie. Charlton Heston once told Don that he thought Will Penny was one of the three best movies he had ever made.
In the book “Texas Golf Legends”, an entire chapter is devoted to Don’s contribution to the game. On November 13, 1995 he was inducted into the Texas Golf Hall Of Fame (along with Former President George H. W. Bush). Ben Hogan was once asked at a seminar who was the best iron player that he ever saw. His answer: Don Cherry. Don continues to carry his lifetime membership card as a PGA member. To date, Don has had 30 holes in one!
Don has always been the epitome of good health and one of his pastimes (besides golf) is jogging. While out jogging one morning he met the love of his life Francine. They were married on Oct. 2, l993. She also had an illustrious career that included performing in 28 Broadway shows. She is a talented singer and has been described by her proud husband as the best dancer in the world.
Don’s life hasn’t always been a bowl of cherries however. On September 11, 2001 Don and Francine, along with the rest of the world, were watching in horror at the scene unfolding in New York. Unbeknownst to them, the first plane that hit the towers struck at the precise location of his son Stephen’s office. His other son Sean called from Florida to break the terrifying news. Francine and Don clung to each other praying that Stephen wasn’t there. It wasn’t to be. He left behind four sons.
Today, Don keeps busy performing, playing in golf tournaments and working with charitable organizations such as the American Lung Association, work which he dedicated to his son Stephen, The Children’s Adoptive Charities and Lady Bird Johnson’s wildflower center in Austin, Texas. In fact, the Wildflower Center presented Don with a licensing appreciation award for his work on the CD “The Eyes Of Texas – A Tribute To Lady Bird Johnson” (recorded with Willie Nelson which benefits the well-known North American environmental organization dedicated to native plants). He also helped raise money to erect a memorial to the victims of 9/11.
Don now has started recording independently. Most recently, he performed at the Stafford Centre in Houston Texas with Ray Price and was a featured guest star on the popular TV PBS special called “Magic Moments: The 50′s Era”, shown continually across in the US. Don’s voice remains as good today as it always was. Like fine wine it has become even better over time.