Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Main Ingredient- Everybody Plays the Fool: The Best of The Main Ingredient (RCA, 2005)

Next to cheesesteaks with Whiz and women with large rear ends, early ‘70s soul music is probably the best thing ever. It had all the right stuff: lush strings, soaring harmonies, bigger than life production, and silky lead vocals always delivered by the smoothest ladies man you ever saw in your life. Those were the days, man! Circa 1971-74, the American soul scene was killing it! Philadelphia had The Delfonics. Chicago had the Chi-Lites. Detroit had The Spinners. New Jersey had The Moments. And New York had the mighty Main Ingredient!

Like all the great bands of the smooth soul era, The Main Ingredient had roots in traditional vocal R & B but developed a new sound through collaboration with a highly skilled producer. Donald McPherson, Luther Simmons, and Tony Silvester formed the group in Harlem in 1964, calling itself The Poets. The trio recorded some singles as The Poets and later The Insiders, and eventually changed its name for good to The Main Ingredient. Under the direction of producer Bert De Coteaux (arranger of B.B. King’s classic “The Thrill Is Gone”), The Main Ingredient was one of the earliest bands to push soul music in an orchestral direction. De Coteaux’s gorgeous arrangements and lead singer McPherson’s smooth voice proved to be a match made in music heaven. Early hits like “You’ve Been My Inspiration” and “Spinning Around (I Must Be Falling In Love)” are some of the most beautiful recordings not just of the early ‘70s, but of all-time! Tragically, McPherson took ill with leukemia in 1971 and died that year. Cuba Gooding, Sr. replaced him on lead vocals, bringing a swagger that would transform the Main Ingredient’s sound from quiet storm to more classic ‘70s soul. Buoyed by Gooding’s big pipes and suave persona, the new Main Ingredient hit the ground running with the famed 1972 single “Everybody Plays the Fool”, which hit #3 on the pop charts and sold over a million copies. The group would hit the top ten again in 1974 with a great cover of Blue Magic’s “Just Don’t Want To Be Lonely”. Not surprisingly, the Everybody Plays the Fool collection opens with both mega hits – two of the greatest recordings from a golden era of American soul. But there was so much more to The Main Ingredient than that, and this comp does a wonderful job of representing the many facets of a truly remarkable band.

Everybody Plays the Fool is comprised entirely of tracks from The Main Ingredient’s glory period, which began with 1970’s debut Tasteful Soul and ended with Gooding departing the band in 1977 for a solo deal with Motown (he returned to the group in 1979). Included are the aforementioned sweet soul gems “Spinning Around” and “You’ve Been My Inspiration” plus a few more choice tracks from the early years. McPherson sparkles on beautiful covers of Curtis Mayfield’s “I’m So Proud” and Bread’s “Make it with You” and belts it with conviction on the funky, stirring Afro power anthem “Black Seeds Keep On Growing”. The Gooding era tracks, although occasionally bordering on disco (“Happiness is Just Around the Bend), are aces too. Alicia Keys liked “Let Me Prove My Love To You” so much that she sampled it on her huge hit “You Don’t Know My Name”. “Girl Blue”, “I Am Yours”, and “Superwoman”- all Stevie Wonder covers from 1973’s superb Afrodisiac LP – are remarkable testaments to the trio’s singing talents and powers of interpretation. As upbeat and catchy as “Don’t Want To Be Lonely” and “Everybody Plays the Fool” are, this was a band that excelled most at being the epitome of smooth. Slow jams like “Spinning Around” and “Let Me Prove My Love To You”, while not the trio’s best-known songs, are the definitive Main Ingredient numbers. Call it mellow, call it easy listening, call it whatever you want. The music created in the early 1970s by The Main Ingredient has stood the proverbial test of time. Need some tunes to enhance your next romantic dinner? Check. Need to mellow out on a lazy Sunday morning? Check. Need to calm yourself while waiting in the dentist’s lobby? Check.

We all have our rock n’ roll fantasies, I suppose. When I was 10, I wanted to be Angus Young. When I was 25, I would have loved to have walked in Joe Strummer’s shoes. Today, though, if I could be any musician, I’d want to be a soul singer in the 1970s. I’d want to wear sharp suits and pimp hats and sport a big ‘fro and go on Soul Train and melt the fine sisters’ hearts with my smooth ways and velvet voice. Specifically, I’d probably want to be Cuba Gooding, Sr. The guy was flat-out cool. His son Cuba Gooding, Jr. would go on to exceed his fame – but Senior is still the badder dude if for no other reason than he didn’t appear in perhaps the worst movie of all-time, What Dreams May Come. And if I had my choice between working with Tom Cruise (what the hell happened to his career?) in the ‘90s or rubbing elbows with Don Cornelius in the ‘70s, it would be an easy call. There was just something magical about the period in music that was The Main Ingredient’s heyday. Some of it was about style, but substance was no less important. It was the era of the producer and the era of the singer – you weren’t any less of an “artist” if you were performing a song someone else wrote. You could put out an album comprised almost entirely of Stevie Wonder covers, and nobody called it a cop-out, because it wasn’t about who wrote the songs. It was about amazing vocals, incredible production, and beautiful recordings. Today The Main Ingredient are not quite as celebrated as a lot of their contemporaries. But one listen to Everybody Plays the Fool will make it clear they should be.

-Josh Rutledge

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