The Story and Meaning Behind “Cherish” by Kool & the Gang and Why the R&B Legends Changed Their Game

Most bands 20 years into their career are relying on nostalgia, if they’re even still together at that point. The R&B legends Kool & the Gang were over two decades into their career when they released the biggest album of their career, one which included the lovely ballad “Cherish.”

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That kind of longevity is one of the reasons why this band has been nominated this year for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Let’s find out how “Cherish” came to be, and what the song means.

Changing Their Game

Formed back in the ’60s by the brothers Ronald and Robert “Kool” Bell, Kool & the Gang included a large collective of players and singers that hit an early peak in the first half of the ’70s with funk-inspired winners like “Jungle Boogie.” But they struggled to get a foothold in the disco era, which forced Ronald Bell, one of the band’s chief songwriters, to seek out a course correction as the decade came to a close.

He explained his thought process to this author for the book Playing Back the ’80s: A Decade of Unstoppable Hits: “From the ’70s, we wanted to make pop music. So we left our funk/jazz roots and went into this whole pop thing. I wanted to make a big record. I remember this country and western record that was out long ago that went ‘All I need is one hit record.’ I always wanted to make a record like ‘The Twist.’ So I focused on taking the jazz chords out of the music and turning it into pop music. We came up with ‘Celebration.’ From there on, we were on a roll, searching for the next hit.”

“Celebration,” a juggernaut of a single, helped to rebrand Kool & the Gang as purveyors of good-time R&B. On top of that, lead singer James “J.T.” Taylor, who came aboard in 1979, proved especially able with ballads and mid-tempo numbers. That broadened the band’s musical horizons and made them even more potent as crossover threats.

A Walk on the Beach

Kool & the Gang hit its creative and commercial apex in 1984 with the Emergency album, which went double-Platinum and spawned four hit singles. Three of those hits featured striking uptempo rhythms that made them great in the clubs as well as blasting out of radio speakers. But the biggest hit of the bunch was a sweet ballad that emerged from an atmospheric, synth-heavy piece of music written by Ronald Bell.

Bell handed it off to Taylor for words, and the rest was soulful history. “When James heard it, he liked it, so he started writing lyrics to it,” Bell recalled. “We were in the Bahamas at the time and we were on the beach, with the scenery. He was there with his wife-to-be at the time and I guess that’s what came out.”

What is “Cherish” About?

There must be something about that title. The Association utilized it for a No. 1 hit in 1966, and Madonna released her own “Cherish” in 1989, and that song went to No. 2. That’s where Kool & the Gang landed as well with their song about holding on to the sweet things in life, since there’s no guarantee they’ll be there tomorrow.

For what’s essentially a love song, “Cherish” flirts with some tough scenarios. Taylor mentions on several occasions the possibility of his lover passing away in the night and what it might do to him. He also questions the logistics of an afterlife reunion: The next life that we live in remains to be seen / Will you be by my side?

Luckily, the chorus overrides all the negativity with warm harmonies from the band: Cherish the love we have / We should cherish the life we live. The soulful ballad was just another example of Kool & the Gang’s ability to come up with hits of all types. In this case, they delivered a sultry slow jam that makes you do grab a little bit tighter to your significant other, just like the lyrics insist you should.

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Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

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