One of the most likeable and vocally cohesive singing groups of the late 60s and early 70s, the Friends of Distinction are too often forgotten in retrospectives of that era, but their music has continued to live on. Formed by Harry Elston, Floyd Butler, Jessica Cleaves and Barbara Love in 1968, the group had a relatively short life in its original incarnation, but made some of the most memorable pop/soul music of all time.
Elston had been singing with the Hi-Fi's in the mid-60s, warming up for Ray Charles in tours across the country. When that group split in 1966, members Marilyn McCoo and Lamont McLemore went on to co-found the enormously successful Fifth Dimension and Elston started the Friends, whose sound was similar to, and often confused with, the Fifth Dimension -- both included tightly harmonizing men and women dressed in late 60s "hip" clothing -- though the Friends' music was generally more soulful.
The newly formed Friends of Distinction was managed by football great Jim Brown and signed with RCA Records. Hitting the popular music scene when Motown and Stax were dominating, the Friends arrived with a breezy California pop/soul sound. Great harmonies and crossover arrangements backed the individually strong lead vocals of the group members. Combined with top notch material (both originals and covers), the group, like the Fifth Dimension, sounded like a breath of fresh air on Pop radio in 1969.
Their first single, "Grazin' In the Grass," was a Elston-sung vocal remake of a Hugh Masekela instrumental cut, and hit the top 5 on both Pop and Soul charts in 1969. The group's follow-up, "Going In Circles," was a brilliant ballad that also charted high. Love took some time off to have a baby, and Charlene Gibson stepped in and sang lead on the group's third big hit, "Love or Let Me Be Lonely." She also sang on the wonderful album cut, "Crazy Mary."
The Friends were quite prolific from 1969-71, releasing 5 albums (a sixth appeared in 1973). They also released a number of great singles, including "Check It Out" (later remade by Tavares) and a terrific cover of Neil Sedaka's "Time Waits for No One." Their best cuts are excellently compiled in The Best of the Friends of Distinction, which was released in 1996.