The Friends of Distinction are often underrated in the retrospectives of the late 60s and early 70s popular music. Despite the group’s short life, The Friends of Distinction made some of the most notable pop/soul music of all-time and were one of the most endearing and vocally coordinated singing groups of that era.
The group was formed in 1968 by Harry Elston, Floyd Butler, Jessica Cleaves and Barbara Love, who was replaced by Charlene Gibson in 1970 during her pregnancy. Elston and Butler had been part of Ray Charles’ backing band in the mid-60s, a group called the “Hi-Fi’s.” When that group split in 1966, members Marilyn McCoo and Lamont McLemore went on to co-found the enormously successful group The Fifth Dimension; simultaneously Elston and Butler started The Friends of Distinction, whose sound was similar to and often confused with, The Fifth Dimension though The Friends’ music was generally considered more soulful.
The Friends of Distinction were first discovered by former football star Jim Brown. He became their manager and brought them to the attention of RCA Records, who immediately signed them. In 1969, the band released their first successful single “Grazing in the Grass” which reached the top 5 on the Pop and Soul charts in 1969. Later that year, the band released another successful single “Going In Circles” which entered Billboard’s top 20 at No. 15.
On December 27th, 1970, The Friends of Distinction appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. Ed Sullivan announced their act by saying “Jim Brown former all pro-star of the Cleveland Browns discovered this exciting rhythm & blues group. Here are The Friends of Distinction!” That night, the firmly harmonized group performed their most famous hit “Grazing in the Grass.” With a contagious dance groove and dressed in 60s hip clothes, they gave an unforgettable upbeat performance.
The Friends of Distinction were a very prolific band from 1969 to 1971, releasing multiple top selling albums and singles including “Check It Out” (later remade by Tavares) and a terrific cover of Neil Sedaka’s “Time Waits for No One.” In the following years, The Friends continued to tour and record, however their subsequent lack of hits and the departure of Cleaves and Love from the group eventually led to the band’s split in 1975.
Although, The Friends of Distinction performed just one time on The Ed Sullivan Show, their appearance remains highly memorable. Their performance took place just a few months before the show’s official end in 1971 and serves as proof that The Ed Sullivan Show hosted nearly every big act in its amazing 23 year run.