Archive for June 30th, 2006

Hugh Masekela / The Friends of Distinction – Grazing In the Grass

June 30, 2006


Hugh Masekela




Heyyy! How’s everybody doing?

Here we stand, on the cusp of the Fourth of July weekend, which due to the vagaries of the calendar will be especially long this year. With any luck, the East Coast will get a respite from the monsoon long enough to launch some fireworks, eat a hot dog or two and whoop it up on our country’s 230th birthday*.

NOTE: If you do not share my political POV – which skews a touch to the left – please skip ahead a few paragraphs. You don’t have to read what I’m about to say, but I have to write it.

Yesterday, in the same spirit of celebration – one hopes – the few surviving human beings on the Supreme Court told El Presidente that he and his goons were breaking the law with their little star chamber in Cuba, and had to start playing by the rules (including the Geneva Convention, which according to them only applies when it’s “our” guys getting the POW treatment).

Their response was to roll out that wheezing, two-faced hack John McCain – who REALLY ought to know better – to mumble his way through what amounted to a declaration that they would find some way around the Supreme Court decision. Not to mention the fact that following the decision, Justice Clarence Thomas (who has served in NO military capacity at all) criticized Justice John Paul Stevens (who served in the navy from 1942 to 1945 – that would be during WW2, the BIG ONE) for being “unfamiliar with the realities of warfare”.

You gotta love it.

God Bless the USA!!!!

Today’s Selection….

Anyway…. In the spirit of the concepts – maybe even the realities – of summer, the long holiday weekend, and of course good music, I bring you a double-hitter of sorts. Two outstanding records (one maybe a little more outstanding than the other, but that’s neither here nor there), recordings of the same song, presented first (and foremost) as an instrumental – the way it’s creator intended – and then with the addition of a delightful set of lyrics, for the folks in the crowd that need to hear some singin’ with their playin’.

The song I speak of is ‘Grazing In The Grass’, written by South African Philemon Hou, and first offered for your appreciation just around this time of year 38 years ago (that being late June of Nineteen and Sixty Eight).

Trumpeter Hugh Masekela was the most prominent of a number of South African expatriates that came to the US in the early 1960’s, including (his then-wife) Miriam Makeba, Letta Mbulu (and her husband Caiphus Semanya) , Dollar Brand, and Jonas Gwangwa. He recorded a couple of little heard (but excellent) jazz LPs for MGM, before relocating to Los Angeles and co-founding Chisa Records. 

Masekela appeared at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, where in addition to his solo set, he and his percussionist Big Black joined the Byrds (reprising his appearance on the studio version of the song on 1967’s ‘Younger Than Yesterday’) on ‘So You Want To Be A Rock and Roll Star’. I don’t know if this was ever officially released, but I have an old bootleg of the performance (in which David Crosby, who sounds as if he is utterly filled with chemical enthusiasm – repeatedly refers to him as “Hughie”) that is excellent.

He recorded ‘Grazing In The Grass’ in 1968, where it made it to the Number One position on both the R&B and Pop charts. Opening with a ringing cowbell, before the guitar and piano come in off the beat, ‘Grazing In The Grass’ is as joyful a piece of music as I’ve ever heard. Masekela manages to meld jazz and pop with the rhythm of the Townships to create a funky, very danceable mixture. The fact that it was hugely popular is no surprise as it’s the kind of record than even people that don’t really dig music, have to dig whether they like it or not. It’s infectious in the best sense of the word. I can only imagine housewives and old folks hearing ‘Grazing In The Grass’ and shaking their asses (or at least bobbing their heads and tapping their feet…maybe snapping their fingers) when they thought no one was looking.

Early the following year, the Friends of Distinction had a hit with a vocal reworking of the tune. I had always thought that the Friends of Distinction were basically a rehashing of the Fifth Dimension “formula”, until I found out that founding members of the former group (Floyd Butler and Harry Elston) had been members of Ray Charles’ opening act, the HiFi’s with Marilyn McCoo and Lamont McLemore (later of the Fifth Dimension).

Elston wrote lyrics to Hou’s melody, straightened out the rhythm a little bit, picked up the tempo and managed to make it into the Top Ten in both the Pop and R&B charts. While the Friends version of “Grazing’ lacks the easy funk of Masekela’s version, there’s no denying that their take is also quite good. Not to mention the very tasty drum break in the middle of the record.

Slap both of these on the MP3 delivery mechanism of your choice, and sometime this weekend, when you’re half inside whatever the bag is that you choose to be in, fire them up, let the sunshine, the warm July breeze, and the scent of citronella wash over you and smile (taking time later to pick the mosquitos out of your teeth).


ANOTHER NOTE: The move of the Funky16Corners blog to it’s shiny new WordPress location is complete. I finished moving and reinstalling the blog archives (available in the sidebar under the Back issues heading) yesterday, going back to it’s fossil form in November of 2004. I will be placing a forwarding message on the old Blogspot space, and leave that up hoping that folks will eventually get the idea and reset their bookmarks to the new location. .

*YET ANOTHER NOTE:Thanks to Todd Lucas for reminding me that the USA is actually 230 years old, not 220 as I previously stated.