Week 41: Real Friendly
I had this great plan for a comprehensive Friends Of Distinction triple post, that was gonna include my three favourite FOD albums: “Highly Distinct” (1969), “Real Friends” (1970) and “Whatever” (1970). All I had to do was find a replacement copy of my battered and unplayable “Real Friends” LP, which I did over the summer. Not cheap either…but at last I had them all ready for ripping – or that was what I thought.
So about two months ago, I started ripping the “Highly Distinct” LP…minty fresh copy…eagerly listening at the same time, taking notes for the write-up. After that, I continued with my 25 year old copy of “Whatever”…well played, but absolutely still up for the job. But when I came about 10 minutes into my “new” copy of “Real Friends” everything started to sound weird – nightmarishly wobbly and weird. Not a scratch on it, and not even a speck of dust…but smack dab in the middle of the tracks was this big dent, like someone had placed a really hot cup of coffee on it, or something just as stupid. My plan was ruined, and I chose to do that Gregory James Edition LP for the Week 32 post on instead.
About a week later I had checked with all the local vinyl shops for another replacement copy – to no avail. So I put a bid on a copy on eBay – and put off the FOD post for the future. That’s when Paros e-mailed me his rip of that First Gear LP, which I promptly posted…and within the following correspondence I told him the story about my “new” dented copy of “Real Friends”. He didn’t say a word about it then, but when I checked my mail the next morning there was a fresh rip of the album waiting for me. And my plan was back in action!
OK…I’m rambling, I know. So let’s take a break in the storytelling, and see what you know about the Friends Of Distinction. Let me break it down to you real quick:
The Friends Of Distinction was founded by the former members of The Hi-Fi’s, Ray Charles backing band of the early 60’s, Harry Elston and Floyd Butler – together with Jessica Cleaves (who later joined Earth, Wind and Fire) and Barbara Love…with Charlene Gibson as a stand-in for Barbara (thanks to her pregnancy) on the “Real Friends” album. With the help of their manager, football legend Jim Brown, they managed to sign a deal with RCA Records in 1968, and they subsequently dropped their first single “Grazin’ In the Grass” in early 1969 – an instant smash hit…and directly after that, their second release, the monster hit ” Going In Circles” – and the rest is history!
They managed to turn out 6 albums in 4 years – but after that Elston and Butler called it quits, and actually didn’t even speak with each other for about a decade or so. Fast-forward to 1990, Butler and Elston has finally overcome their differences, and decide to meet up for discussions on a FOD reunion – right there and then, Butler dies of a heart attack in the arms of Harry Elston. Sad story, for sure. But Elston didn’t give up – in 1996 he accomplished what he and Butler had set out to do, and reformed the Friends Of Distinction. And they’re still at it! To read a more extensive bio (or to book a gig), click here!
All in all, a heavily underrated vocal group – think stellar chops, mesmerizing harmonies and top notch vocal arrangements, in a slightly funkier vein than 5th Dimension!
Let’s end off this biographical segment with an interesting comment from John Florez, the producer of Friends of Distinction’s first two albums, that I found together with the 2-for-1 CD reissue of “Grazin’/Highly Distinct” on Amazon:
The Friends’ “Grazin'” album is still my all-time favorite production from the 15 years that I was in the record business.
Each “Grazin'” song was hand-picked and “majority rule” voted upon by the group, our talented arranger, Ray Cork, and me – just like the 5th Dimension selected their material. Even the choice of a lead singer for each tune was first individually auditioned and then voted on – an amazing, ego-free democracy.
No one ever mentions it in their reviews, but listen to “Eli’s Comin'” to witness an incredible performance by Jessica Cleaves and the group. They recorded this intricate vocal arrangment in an unbelievable one vocal “take”. Ditto for a one take performace of “Grazin’ in the Grass”.
On the other hand, “Highly Distinct” was always, and still is, highly unlistenable. My favorite cut is “It’s Just A Game”. At this point in their career, the group had enjoyed back-to-back million selling singles and RCA asked (correction: DEMANDED) that a new album be produced immediately.
Well … truth be told (as Harry Elston would say), the Friends had been on the road for months, headlined LA’s Greek Theater with Tom Jones, and simply didn’t have the time to put something special together for a follow-up LP. And most of the cuts had to be recorded live with a full orchestra because RCA didn’t want us to spend time cutting individual sets of tracks as we had done for “Grazin'”.
Thus, in a perfect world, RCA could have/should have released “I Really Hope You Do” (the “B” side of “Grazin’ in the Grass”) as the Friends’ follow-up single to “Going in Circles” and allowed the group MUCH more time to put a sensational new album together. However, as it turned out, this wish was granted a year later (though I was no longer affiliated with the group), when Ray Cork produced the “Real Friends” LP. THAT album should have been the followup to our “Grazin'” LP – not “Highly Distinct”. (And, had RCA released “It Don’t Matter To Me” instead of “Time Waits for No One”, I believe the Friends’ string of monster hits would have been extended.)
Real interesting information – the music business is a scary place to be sometimes.
And that concludes the in-depth information on FOD – back to my story on the post…where was I? Right, Paros came to the rescue!
So I started scribbling on this really ambitious write-up for my triple post…and that’s when Vincent the Soul Chef (who had heard about my FOD plans being back on track) pops in and tells me the happy news that he’s found their “Highly Distinct” LP on both eMusic and iTunes Music Store – “Finally, they’re coming correct with some great re-issues!”. Oh, brother! Once again my plans were foiled…I sure as hell wouldn’t post a newly reissued album (I mean, where’s the point in doing that?). And I feel kinda stupid I didn’t do the groundwork properly, figuring that shit out myself. Hmmm, so now my great triple header is down to a double…total bummer…but I’m still pushing ahead for a Week 38 post.
And that’s when my friend Paros hit me up with his fantastic Alex Brown contribution…and it’s soooo damn good I just put everything FOD-related to the side and immerse myself in the crazy rare goodness of “In The Search Of Love” – instantly changing my plan for what should be posted next!
Anyhoo…after another week or so, I stumble across the “Real Friends” LP in my iTunes playlist, and their sweet “Love Or Let Me Be Lonely” – their last charting hit single – and decided to go ahead with a FOD post after all. This time a simple, straight-forward single album post. I mean, Paros came through when I needed it the most…just like a true friend should – you got to honor stuff like that. And it wasn’t really a hard decision to make…it’s a great album in its own right!
Listening closer I also found that Khrysis had used some of the B-side’s “Crazy Mary” for The Away Team’s “The Shining”, off their 2005 album “National Anthem”…great song, awesome flip and a wicked beat!
OK, so this isn’t my ambitious FOD triple header post, but I think you’ll like it anyway!
Thanks, Paros for the contribution…you’re a real friend indeed! And to Vincent of course, for putting me straight. But first and foremost, Friends Of Distinction – thank you for the music!
(Ps. Just so you know, even though we will be concentrating on that 4BB/Damn! Remix Contest – we’ll make sure to keep things interesting on the regular side of things as well. So stay tuned for more weekly goodness coming your way!)