In his native South Africa, the trumpet player Hugh Masekela is esteemed for his huge catalog of jazz recordings. In the rest of the world, he's best known for "Grazing In The Grass," a song he considered a throwaway, recorded to complete the album.
Masekela had been recording since 1962, but in 1967 he moved to the Uni label. When he was working on his third album for Uni, The Promise Of A Future, the label pointed out that it was 3 minutes short of the contractually agreed length of 30 minutes. Masekela's producer, Stewart Levine, suggested they fill the gap by reworking a 7-inch single that Hugh had bought on a trip to Zambia earlier in the year, a novelty tune called "Mr. Bull #5" that started with a cowbell. They banged it out in less than an hour; Levine said it was "a bit of a spoof," but when Uni Records executive Russ Regan heard it, he declared it a "smash." He was right: the song shot to #1 in July 1968 and became one of the all-time summer anthems.
There is only one credited songwriter on this track, and it's not Masekela. When they worked up the song in the studio, an African actor/musician named Philemon Hou was in the studio and came up with the melody. He was given the sole songwriting credit, which proved very lucrative.
"Grazing In The Grass" got its title because of the song it's based on, "Mr. Bull #5." That song takes place in a cow pasture, opening with someone yelling at the cow. That's also where the cowbell came from.
The guitarist was Bruce Langhorne, an American folk musician who was the subject of Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man
Trumpet music was all the rage at this time thanks to Herb Alpert, whose song "This Guy's In Love With You
" was knocked out of the top spot by "Grazing In The Grass" after four weeks at #1. Masekela's record company tried to position him as "the black Herb Alpert," and pushed for more hits. He never again cracked the Top 40, but remained very popular in the jazz community.
In 1969, a vocal version by The Friends Of Distinction
charted at #3 in America. This version has lyrics about digging the mellow scene while grazing in the grass. The lyric was written by group leader Harry Elston, who was inspired by the many cows he saw from the tour bus when he was riding with Ray Charles' revue.
Hugh Masekela was originally introduced to the trumpet as a teenager by the British anti-apartheid campaigner Father Trevor Huddleston, who was at the time his school chaplain.
Hugh, who died in 2018 at age 78, is the father of Sal Masekela, who is known for his work as a commentator on ESPN's X Games and other events.