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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

"Grazing in the Grass" has a heck of an origin story and a decade-defining sound

It doesn't get more 60s than how the Friends of Distinction spun an instrumental classic. And how do Zambia and Jim Brown each play a part?


On occasion I've seen or heard people talking about what song most sounds like the time in which it was released. Today, I'm writing about my answer to that question when it comes to the 1960s.


It's so difficult to distill as sonically diverse a decade as the 60s into one single track. Between rock shedding its rhythm-and-blues and country leanings, the proliferation of funk and soul, the emergence of Latin and Caribbean sounds in the popular scene, and the undeniable effects of psychedelia on all things art, the 1960s was a time of musical plenitude and variety.


The most 60s-sounding song of the 60s, in my mind, has to fuse at least a couple of those aforementioned sounds, and my pick most certainly does in its sublime psychedelic soul. I'm going with the Friends of Distinction's 1969 cover of "Grazing in the Grass."

Before I explain how the recording sounds so quintessentially 60s, I would be remiss to not relay its origin story. The tale of "Grazing in the Grass" and its progression to the Friends of Distinction's version spans three countries across two continents. It begins in Zambia, a landlocked country in south-central Africa. There, musician Freddie Gumbi, alias "Mr. Bull," cut a track called "Mr. Bull No. 4." I had never heard of the track until doing research for this article, but one can very clearly hear the beginnings of "Grazing in the Grass" in the one video of "Mr. Bull No. 4" I could find across the entire internet — how lucky we are to have that sonic record preserved in any form.


South African jazz trumpeter Hugh Masekela had heard "Mr. Bull No. 4," and when his album The Promise of a Future was a few minutes short on its runtime, he put his own spin on the track. Masekela and Philemon Hou fleshed out some of the track's melodic lines and added a new 'response' line on his trumpet based on the "Mr. Bull" guitars. The result was "Grazing in the Grass," which was released on The Promise of a Future in 1968. With "Grazing in the Grass," Masekela accomplished the incredibly rare feat of topping the Billboard Hot 100 with an instrumental — of the 1,129 number-ones in Hot 100 history at the time of writing, only around 20 (approximately 0.018%) have been instrumental tracks. A year after Masekela recorded "Grazing in the Grass," the Los Angeles-based Friends of Distinction — who were managed by football legend Jim Brown — had their crack at a vocal version of the hit.


Now, putting lyrics to an established instrumental is risky, and it often is just downright suboptimal. I can't help but think of a couple sets of lyrics to John Coltrane's hard bop classic "Giant Steps," of all things. The words often feel forced and unnatural, and they make you wonder if they were really necessary with the instrumental version both coming first and being so well regarded. When it comes to "Grazing in the Grass," though, frontman Harry Elston's words just work. Inspired by tour bus views of cows peacefully grazing in vast fields, the lyrics very cleanly conform to the melody and match its laidback tone. The backing vocals and additions aren't overpowering, and everything fits within the harmonic and rhythmic structure Masekela's instrumental established.


At last, with the song's background relayed, I can get into just what makes it so perfectly 60s, firstly through examining the lush orchestration behind the Friends of Distinction. That feeling starts right away with the four trumpets stating the opening riff. While horns become even more prominent in funk and soul in the 70s, their use in the prior decade was still quite common, especially in a more mellow fashion like how they are heard for most of the track. Even in their more accented moments, the trumpets never feel too forceful or assert themselves over the beat or the vocals. Max Bennett's bass plays a somewhat melodic line and has a somewhat gentle sound in its lack of an overpowering low end, in favor of a more prominent high end that allows it to better mesh with the other backing instruments. The rhythm guitar stays behind the vocals with chords that remain reminiscent of Mr. Bull, while accenting the backbeat along with Johnny Guthrie's drums, whose snare hits and fills in the chorus provide much-needed accentual intrigue. Melding with the drum kit is King Errisson's work on the congas, adding a bit more bite to the percussion.


While the instruments mentioned thus far all play relevant roles, the strings and piccolo may consistently do the most for the 60s sound throughout the verses. The strings are a standard quartet of two violins, a viola, and a cello, and they move together in octaves throughout the track alongside the piccolo. The instruments have lines and flourishes that follow nearly every one of Harry Elston's vocal lines, almost as a response to him that leads into his next lyric. In the moments the piccolo separates from the strings, its high, bright sound changes the tone just enough while keeping it gentle and in line with the lyrics. In the fast-paced chorus, the trumpets' octave backing temporarily takes the crown, which is passed to the electric guitar in the vocal break. A brief, but fiery guitar solo brings in shades of Hendrix-like psychedelic rock before the song repeats its form, covering another base for the decade in its short role.


Above all that, the Friends of Distinction's lyrics are a perfect marriage of psychedelic imagery and soulful melodies and phrasing. Harry Elston's sweet, melodic delivery matches the feeling he describes in the opening: "It sure is mellow grazing in the grass." Behind him, the iconic backing vocals — "Grazing in the grass is a gas, baby, can you dig it" — mimic Masekela's response line from the instrumental, while adding a bit of tension in their greater speed in this faster-paced vocal cover. The aforementioned piccolo line backs the lyrics "The sun beating down beneath the trees" in a gorgeous, imagery-filled moment. It's all so cool, groovy, "outta sight" as Elston says, and in its unrelenting, unifying optimism and calm visions it fits the psychedelic part of its billing.


The song's most fun moments, though, are in its R&B and funk leanings. The "so real" portion leaves space for a quite literally rockin' vocal counter line; credit Jessica Cleaves for making the most of it with a clear Aretha Franklin homage in her "rock it to me, sock it to me" delivery. Then there's the part I love mimicking the most, the part I hear as the chorus more than any other: the fast-paced "dig it" section. In the highest-energy portion of the vocals, all the "diggin' it" from earlier comes to a head in an expression of unity and ecstasy.

I can dig it, he can dig it
She can dig it, we can dig it
They can dig it, you can dig it
Ohh, let's dig it
Can you dig it, baby?

Few lyrical moments from the entire decade can compare.


"Grazing in the Grass" has everything you'd expect a 60s track to offer and more. Its instrumental is classic soul with leanings of R&B, funk, and psychedelic rock, and its lyrics only add to those sonic footprints. It makes complete sense that a track from the end of the decade (March 1969) is the one that sums it up the best, and that the track remains so timeless even with the Friends of Distinction's lack of staying power. In their greatest moment, they summed up the sound of their era in a three-minute slice of bright soul pop.

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