Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Friends Of Distinction Grazin' 1969

The Friends Of Distinction were an interesting act, and this, their first LP release, is a great find in a used record shop. The late sixties-early seventies were an oft-overlooked, highly fertile time for soul music. Motown was struggling to remain relevant in a flower-power world (and doing a fine job, at least in retrospect), Philly soul sounds were being birthed, and soul-pop still could find room on the radio dial.

The four vocalists of the group were Floyd Butler, Harry Elston, Jessica Cleaves, and Barbara Love, so it is hard not to draw the Fifth Dimension comparisons, and this record holds up just fine compared to that fabled group.

The record opens with the classic Grazing In The Grass, which takes the Hugh Masekela trumpet song to new heights with a snappy lyric and a faster, Stone Soul Picnic feel. It's an amazing single, and garnered them their greatest chart success. 1970's Love Or Let Me Be Lonely was as close as they ever got again to that level on the charts. I've Never Found A Girl is a smooth soul tune with the pop-soul sound of the Fifth Dimension. I Really Hope You Do has a soul-jazz mellow vibe. Sweet Young Thing Like You has a Motown feel, like a Smokey Robinson or Temptations song, and a good one. Side one ends on Going In Circles, the second single, a top twenty performer, which brings a smooth Al Green-style understated vocal on the verses mixed with big Temptations harmonies on the chorus. The song builds slowly until it develops into a huge soul treat.

Side two holds up pretty darn well, too. The cover of Eli's Coming is a little too fast, but the big production number is a showcase for some fine female vocal gymnastics. Help Yourself sounds like the Fifth Dimension again, with too many tempo changes, but a tricky vocal arrangement that saves it. A cover of the Lennon-McCartney And I Love Him features a female lead that sounds like Marilyn McCoo and includes a Philly soul sound and a different approach to this oft-covered tune- and it works. Lonesome Mood is a Cole Porter tune that the group performs with a big band arrangement and a jazz vocal style reminiscent of Manhattan Transfer (on their good days). It's jazzy and special. Only Baby I Could Be So Good At Loving You (Broadway anyone?) and Peaceful (smooth pop hippy vibe) disappoint.

I haven't heard their other records, except for the 1973 Greatest Hits, and it is killer. The group hung on until 1975, but no singles or albums charted after 1971. I love the soul that was being made in the early seventies, and much of it sneaked by unnoticed the first time. The vinyl isn't expensive used, but it is a value purchase.

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