Every trend era has its also-rans—its one-hit-wonders, near-misses, and “criminally underrated” artists. So, while R&B’s pre-disco golden age of the 1960s and ‘70s gave the world Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, and the O’Jays, it also offered up The Main Ingredient. One of the results of the recent Sony-BMG merger is that the Legacy reissue label now has access to the Harlem, New York vocal group’s RCA catalog. Hence Everybody Plays the Fool, a 16-song, non-chronological collection—one of those “Best of” albums that can’t honestly be called “Greatest Hits” because if it were, it’d be a single instead.
Everybody Plays the Fool covers The Main Ingredient’s pinnacle in the early-to-mid 1970s. During this time they enjoyed their only major chart hits, which are the highlights of this collection. The title track is the best known; and, if it were possible for most people under 50 to hear it without thinking of Aaron Neville’s sickly-sweet, career-reviving 1991 hit cover version, they’d be wooed by the happy flute lick, mellow percussion, and soul-settling arrangement of the original. “Just Don’t Want to be Lonely” is an original soul classic as well, an irresistible ballad that combines the smooth, effortless Philly Soul sound with Motown’s pop smarts, all with angelic harmonies and an incisive guitar riff.
But here’s a story familiar to anyone who’s owned a “Best Of” album by an “underrated” band: it’s the end of track two, and the best part of the album is over. You’re left with a bunch of songs you’ve never heard before and might not ever be interested in hearing, even if they’re actually pretty good. Well, hang in there for a beguiling take on Stevie Wonder’s “Superwoman”; the swooning, wah-wah-enhanced “Rolling Down a Mountainside” (which really does sound like it shoulda been a hit); and “Happiness is Just Around the Bend”, which predicts the bass-driven, gently-chugging soft-soul out of which Sade made her career.
What comes next is slow-jams. Ballads. More ballads. And yet more ballads. Nothing wrong with the form in general, it’s just that you can only take so many sweet-voiced, string section-enhanced declarations of love in a row. With Cuba Gooding’s rich, ultra-smooth voice (yes, his son is Cuba, Jr. of Boat Trip fame), and writing credits that feature more Wonder and Curtis Mayfield, almost all are listenable. “Spinning Around” and a sterling take on Bread’s “Make it With You” are even sublime. A version of Seals & Crofts’ “Euphrates”, on the other hand… well, enough said. The quiet storm is broken up only a couple times. When you get to the last song, the tough, self-penned Black Power anthem “Black Seeds Keep on Growing”, you wonder why the folks at Legacy didn’t mix things up a bit more.
The Main Ingredient’s intelligent, carefully-crafted combination of R&B and mainstream styles—from a time when those styles were not one in the same—helped set the stage from which Sade and Hall & Oates would attain massive success. If nothing else, Everybody Plays the Fool is a pleasant reminder of that.