Don Cherry has often been called “the best singer ever to play golf and the best golfer ever to sing.” It was true 50 years ago and still is to this day.
“I’ll be 88 soon (Jan. 11) and there are so many stories I wouldn’t know where to start,” Cherry said from his Las Vegas Country Club home disguised as a museum filled with memorabilia that runs the gamut of a Who’s Who in celebrity.
“Being a golfer I was able to meet so many famous people and the same way as a singer,” Cherry said. “One profession led to another. I found that golfers always wanted to sing and singers always wanted to play golf.”
To those not familiar with Cherry, he is the only person to have a song sell a million copies (1955 hit Band of Gold) and finish in the top 10 of a major sporting event – in this case the 1960 United States Open where he tied for ninth with Ben Hogan.
Cherry has performed in front of presidents, played golf against the likes of Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Sam Snead, been the long-running voice for the Mr. Clean commercials and was best friend of Dean Martin for 11 years.
In the autobiography Cherry’s Jubilee (co-written by Neil Daniels in 2006) there are 28 pages devoted strictly to celebrity tributes from such diverse luminaries as Joe Pesci and Buddy Hackett to President George H. W. Bush, Don Rickles, the late LA Times Hall of Fame columnist Jim Murray and former Texas football coach Darrell Royal.
Sports and entertainment. Entertainment and sports. To have lived both lives and performed at the top in each profession is one amazing accomplishment. On par, if you will, with living in Las Vegas since 1967 and not smoking, drinking or gambling.
Well, almost for gambling.
“One night I went across the street from the Sands after a performance and lost $450 at blackjack,” Cherry said. “This was back in 1952 when I was working with Peggy Lee. There were only about four places on the Strip back then. That was the end of my gambling. Craps I didn’t like because you couldn’t control the dice.”
Cherry was made for pro-am events such as the Crosby, where his game and voice were so good nobody really knew what to call him.
“The Crosby was the greatest tournament there ever was,” Cherry said. “I played it for 23 years and became so close to Bing. I met every golfer who wanted to be a singer and every singer who wanted to be a golfer.”
Cherry and Nicklaus were amateurs at the Open in 1960 and each had a chance to catch eventual winner Arnold Palmer on the back nine. In fact, Cherry would have won had he shot 2-under par.
“I didn’t turn pro right away because in those days they didn’t give out a lot of money,” he said. “I was working nightclubs at night and the only way I would play golf was to be invited to play tournaments. I was having such a good time playing as an amateur and singing I just decided to keep doing it that way.”
Cherry would play with Martin every single day at the Las Vegas Country Club and the two were inseparable. So much that Martin’s attraction to country music came through Cherry.
“If I had to pick out a best friend, it would be Dean,” Cherry said. “When he would buy himself a tuxedo, he’d buy one for me. I love Italians, they really think a lot different.”
Gene Kilroy, a Las Vegas icon and close friend of Cherry, spoke of his kindness during a difficult time.
“My mother met Pope John, Sinatra, Elvis, Ali, Tom Jones. She couldn’t believe I knew Don Cherry,” Kilroy said. “When I introduced them in Vegas, he was so cordial and nice. Her favorite songs were ‘Band of Gold’ and ‘Wind Beneath My Wings.’
“Don said ‘Wind Beneath My Wings’ was not in his repertoire, but he would learn it and sing it to her. Two years later when my mom passed away, Don came to the funeral and sang that song. He’s a great guy and will always have a special place in my heart.”
“I never thought I would live to see the way the entertainment industry is today,” Cherry said. “The music today is the worst I’ve ever heard. When you were around Bing Crosby and Dean Martin it was just so different. It’s like golf. If we had played with the same equipment as they do today, it would have been a whole different game.”
Cherry lost a son aboard one of the flights on 9/11 that crashed into the World Trade Center. It was a subject best not to approach, especially when he was enjoying a day of reminiscing.
“I’ll tell you a Nicklaus story,” Cherry continued. “I was working a nightclub in Columbus, Ohio. This fella came up to me and said he loved hearing me sing. I was invited to play golf the next day. This kid shows up in our group. He’s 15. Greatest thing I ever saw. He shot 72. It was Jack Nicklaus. He became one of the five best friends I’ve ever had.”
Francine, Cherry’s wife since 1993, has preserved and marketed all the Cherry memorabilia from golf and singing.
“She has done so much for me and keeping my career alive,” he said. “I honestly couldn’t tell you if I would rather have been known as a singer or golfer, but nothing would have meant more than winning the Open that year.”
Cherry’s voice to this day is silky smooth, but on the golf course he had problems controlling his temper.
“Sam Snead was a very dear friend,” Cherry said. “I should have won Milwaukee. I shot the lowest score an amateur had ever shot for a tournament, but then came a three-putt on 17 and (Cary) Middlecoff won. I was kicking dirt and everything. Sam came up to me and said there was no point getting angry over a mahogany bowl.”
It’s fitting Cherry would reside on a golf course.
“Well, I wouldn’t know where else to go. Back in Wichita Falls (Texas) I remember the house my mom lived in where she paid $2.90 cents a month. That’s how long ago it’s been.”