Each month in “The Story Behind,” I’ll look at the history of a well-known Top 40 hit based on interviews I’ve conducted with individuals who performed some of the most familiar pop hits of the 1960s and ’70s. This month, I’ll look at the Friends of Distinction’s “Grazing in the Grass.”
Friends of Distinction frontman Harry Elston began his singing career with Ray Charles’ backup band, the Hi-Fis. Eventually, the group changed their name to the Vocals and recorded for Charles’ Tangerine label. When none of their singles charted, the group went their separate ways.
Elston told me that “two members of the Vocals — Lamont McLemore and Marilyn McCoo — went on to form the 5th Dimension, while Floyd Butler and I went on to form the Friends of Distinction.” Actually, the group started out as the Distinctive Friends, but after adding Barbara Love and Jessica Cleaves to complete the group, Love suggested they change the group’s name to the Friends of Distinction, and it stuck.
The group next went about getting themselves a manager, and as luck would have it, Elston said, “I had a roommate named Booker Griffin, and he knew [future football Hall of Famer] Jim Brown from back in Cleveland. When Jim came out to California for a Pro Bowl, we met and became friends.
“After football, when Jim embarked upon a showbiz career, I told him about our group and asked him to manage us, and he agreed. From there we did a showcase, and a lot of record companies came around and then the next day I had to go around to the different companies and pick one — you were selecting them, not the other way around.
“I didn’t realize the enormous power I had right then, and I think about it now and laugh. I ended up choosing RCA because of a producer named John Florez and his friend Ray Cork Jr., and so we signed, selected some songs, and that’s how we got started.”
It was at about this time that Elston drew on his experiences over the years traveling from gig to gig, watching cows grazing as the tour bus sped by. “We’d be on the road, touring, and that meant riding the bus for hours at a time,” Elston told me. “We’d drive past pastures, cotton fields, cornfields. I’d always see these cows, just grazing, so peaceful, and I’d think to myself, ‘You know, they have it made. They just graze and shit!’”
Ultimately, Elston’s observation about those moments of serenity led to the Friends of Distinction’s first hit record. Hugh Masekela had recorded a #1 instrumental called “Grazing in the Grass” in 1968, and though the music was right for Elston’s purposes, a vocal group needed lyrics, so Elston wrote those himself.
“Well, I first called it ‘Flaking in the Grass’ because I didn’t know I could use the same title as the instrumental since I was changing the song and adding lyrics,” he said. “But everybody was like, ‘Get out of here!’ so I came back with the same music and title and they loved it.
“We recorded it at RCA for our first album, and from then things happened very quickly. We weren’t teenagers, but we were pretty young, and not knowing how things worked, we just rode the wave. We didn’t know until later how big the song was.” With Elston singing lead, the song spent 16 weeks on the pop charts, peaking at #3, and 17 weeks on the R&B charts and peaked at #5. It sold more than a million copies, and the group was on its way. The result was a million-selling RIAA-certified gold record.
The group followed up that same year with “Going in Circles,” which went to #15 on the pop charts and also sold a million records. At about that time, Barbara Love got pregnant and had to take maternity leave, but the group was too hot and too popular to go on extended hiatus and needed to record and tour in order to stay in the public eye.
Elston said “We auditioned Charlene Gibson and brought her in. We had a song we wanted to do called ‘Love or Let Me Be Lonely,’ that had been written by Skip Scarborough, Jerry Peters, and Anita Poree.” Though none of the songwriters were well established at that point, Scarborough would later write hits for Earth, Wind and Fire and Bill Withers and even win a Grammy for Anita Baker’s “Giving You the Best That I Got.”
Peters would work with Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye and Diana Ross and win a Grammy for co-writing “It’s What I Do,” and Poree would co-write songs such as “Boogie Down” and “Keep on Truckin” for Eddie Kendricks.
Though those accolades would come later, the songwriters were obviously top-drawer. Any doubts they may have had about Gibson’s abilities were quickly dispelled, as she took lead on the song, “and she flat out tore it up,” Elston said. Knowing that Love’s absence could have spelled disaster for the group, Gibson’s success meant they didn’t miss a beat.
“Charlene was a godsend,” he said. “She did lead on several songs, and she was great on them all.” “Love or Let Me Be Lonely” was their second Top-10 pop hit in less than a year, going to #6 on the pop charts and #13 on the R&B charts.
But as has been the case with a number of recording acts, after just a few chart hits, things started changing within the group. “By then we had not revolving chairs, but revolving girls,” Elston said. “Barbara came back, and then Jessica split and went with Earth, Wind and Fire and later Parliament Funkadelic. Charlene stayed on then she split after a couple of years too.”
Additionally, “being on the road was tiring, and when record sales started slipping, we felt like it was time to hang it up.” Elston noted that RCA may not have really understood how to market the group either. “When you are putting out maybe three or four records a year, it has to be planned. RCA didn’t have many black artists, and they didn’t seem to know what to do with them.
“You had the R&B department fighting with the pop department, because there was crossover. So we kind of got caught in the middle of that stuff, and it was political. We were lucky Jim Brown was on the scene, and so it wasn’t as bad as it could have been, but it caused confusion.”
Ultimately, the group called it quits in 1975. Since then, their songs have been covered by a number of artists, resulting in chart hits for the Gap Band, Luther Vandross, and Paul Davis. All in all, Elston is just “grateful for the success we had. We weren’t out there that much and for all that long before we broke up, so for our music to last this long is really a gift from God” — a sentiment no doubt shared by music lovers everywhere.