Jazz trumpeter Hugh Masekela died January 23 in his home town of Johannesburg, South Africa after a nearly ten-year fight with prostate cancer. He was 78.
When he was just 14 Masekela received a gift that would change his life.
An advocate for equal rights in apartheid-riddled South Africa, Father Trevor Huddleston gave Masekela a trumpet.
In 1960, at the age of 21, Masekela left South Africa and would not return for 30 years.
When he got to New York he enrolled at the Manhattan School of Music. The New York jazz scene called Masekela, who nightly caught shows of stars like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Mingus and Max Roach.
Legends Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong took Masekela under their wing and instructed him to create his own style, with a sound more African than American.
Then came the late 1960’s. Masekela moved to the other coast. During the “Summer of Love” he became friends with David Crosby, Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper.
At the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival Masekela performed alongside Janis Joplin, Otis Redding, Ravi Shankar, The Who and Jimi Hendrix.
One year later, his instrumental single went all the way to Number One on the American pop charts and was a worldwide smash.
In 1968, Harry Elston, Floyd Butler, Jessica Cleaves and Barbara Love formed “The Friends of Distinction.”
Elston had been working warming up for Ray Charles as part of the group the “Hi-Fi’s.” They broke up, and members Marilyn McCoo and Lamont McLemore co-founded “The Fifth of Dimension.”
Elston co-founded “The Friends of Distinction” that sounded a lot like “The Fifth Dimension,” so much so that the two groups were often confused for one another.
Football star Jim Brown managed “The Friends” who signed a contract with RCA Records.
They decided to add vocals to Masekela’s chart topper and Elston wrote the lyrics.
“We’d be on the road, touring, and that meant riding the bus for hours at a time,” Elston told REBEAST magazine.
“We’d drive past pastures, cotton fields, cornfields. I’d always see these cows, just grazing, so peaceful, and I’d think to myself, ‘You know, they have it made. They just graze and shit!’
“Well, I first called it ‘Flaking in the Grass’ because I didn’t know I could use the same title as the instrumental since I was changing the song and adding lyrics. But everybody was like, ‘Get out of here!’ so I came back with the same music and title and they loved it.”
In 1969 their Masekela re-make stayed on the pop charts for 16 straight weeks and went gold, topping at #3.
Elston still sings today with three other new group members.
This is a rare video of the group, meaning it could disappear anytime soon, performing on the Ed Sullivan Show.