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Jessica Cleaves: A Silky, Soulful — And Funky — Voice Goes Silent

Jessica Cleaves made a name for herself as a lead singer with the group Friends of Distinction. She later played with Earth, Wind & Fire as well as George Clinton
Jessica Cleaves made a name for herself as a lead singer with the group Friends of Distinction. She later played with Earth, Wind & Fire as well as George Clinton

Jessica Cleaves, the female lead for the '70s soul-pop group The Friends of Distinction, died on Friday, one of the last voices from the Golden Age of Pop and Soul. The four Friends performed tightly-harmonized songs that referenced the looser, hipper culture that flourished in the late '60s and early 70s. Their 1969 vocal version of South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela's 1968 hit, "Grazing in the Grass," stayed at the top of the pop and soul charts for more than four months.

The Friends had been playing around LA clubs for a few years when NFL Hall of Famer Jim Brown came across them and thought they had national potential. He became their manager, and got them an audition, then a recording contract with RCA Records.

The next two years were heady—especially for the willowy Jessica Cleaves. Her rich, dreamy alto could be pushed into multiple ranges and became an essential part of the Friends' performances. She often sang ballads that were both hopeful and tinged with sadness. I Really Hope You Do became another hit—on and off the airwaves, where windows at college parties fogged regularly when students relaxed in the warm embrace of Cleaves' honeyed voice.

The Friends, like the Fifth Dimension before them, were crossover favorites. Anchored by Cleaves, and her male counterpart, Harry Elston (and Barbara Jean Love and Friends co-founder Floyd Butler), their polished sound was appreciated at both high school dances and adult cocktail parties. But Cleaves became restless, and maybe a little bored with polish. She left The Friends of Distinction in 1972 to join fledgling rockers Earth Wind & Fire as a backup singer, where she provided soaring vocals for two of their early albums. (People still rhapsodize about the notes she hit toward the end of Keep Your Head to the Sky)

In I'd Rather Have You, the band provided backup for her:

Somewhere along the way, Cleaves left EW&F for wilder pastures, where she sang with Funkmaster George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic for a few albums. It's a totally different sound—rawer, rougher...funkier.

In the late '90s she recorded on Clinton's 'Dope Dogs' album. And then she just...disappeared. Perhaps, like Greta Garbo, she wanted to be left alone.

She was 65 when she died on Friday, May 2, in Beverly Hills. Very little other than the fact of her death has been announced. Reaction was swift and plentiful, on YouTube sites where Friends of Distinction and Earth Wind & Fire videos are posted. "Our friend Jessica Cleaves left us today," George Clinton posted on the memorial website. "Jessica, you will truly be missed, it was a great honor to funk with you...May you fly forever in peace."

Fans may take solace in the thought that Cleaves eventually may return — at least for a little while — on film: her godson, Armand Araujo, is said to be working on her life story: "Jessica Cleaves: My Friends of Distinction."

Until then, that hole will have to be filled with replays of Cleaves' work. She's physically gone, but on a fine warm day, I've often heard her spilling out of convertibles as they zip through Los Angeles, or over balconies on warm summer evenings, a fitting prelude for the romance that will inevitably follow.

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