Each month in “The Story Behind,” I’ll look at the history of a well-known Top 40 hit based on interviews I’ve conducted with individuals who performed some of the most familiar pop hits of the 1960s and ’70s. This month, I’ll look at the Main Ingredient’s “Everybody Plays the Fool.”
The Main Ingredient was a Harlem group that began as the Poets and consisted of Donald McPherson, Luther Simmons, and Tony Silvester. Even though Harlem resident Cuba Gooding wasn’t an original member of the group, he was friends with the guys, and they all came from similar backgrounds.
“If you were a kid growing up in Harlem, and you didn’t want to be a pimp or a bum or a gangster, and you weren’t well-educated, you sang or hoped to be in the music business,” Gooding said. “I grew up eight blocks from the Apollo Theater, and at that time, I could walk down 125th Street and run into Sammy Davis Jr., Ella Fitzgerald, Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, and that ilk. We believed it was the entertainment capital of the world.”
The group, without Gooding at that point, first recorded on the Red Bird label, later changed its name to the Insiders, and then in 1967, released two singles on RCA. They then changed their name to the Main Ingredient (taken from the wording on a Coke bottle) and, from 1969 to 1971, released nine more singles. Several of these records made the lower reaches of the charts, but none were big Billboard pop hits.
Gooding had been singing backup with the group occasionally while working as a door-to-door salesman selling encyclopedias and magazines. Gooding’s role was about to change, however, as McPherson contracted leukemia and died not long afterward, and Gooding was elevated to the role of lead singer. But Gooding’s distinctive voice meant a new sound — and success the likes of which the group had not previously seen.
First up was “Everybody Plays the Fool,” which was “actually written for Charlie Pride,” Gooding told me. “He listened to it and decided it wasn’t country enough for him to sing. He said, ‘I’ll never be able to sell this as a country song. It’s more like a pop song.’
“So we gave it to our arranger, put an orchestra behind it, and recorded it ourselves. But we never liked it — we never believed it was going to be a hit record. We wanted to be more like the Temptations or the Four Tops, and that’s what the rest our album was about.
“They sent us on a European tour for two weeks, and when we came back, ‘Everybody Plays the Fool’ was the hottest record on pop radio.” The record surprised them by becoming the group’s first big hit. But oddly enough, the group, who until that time had been firmly entrenched as an R&B group, at first couldn’t get airplay for it on soul stations.
“Black stations wouldn’t even play it. They said it wasn’t R&B. RCA signed me to a three-year contract as the lead singer for the group, everybody was rolling in dough because of the song, but the black stations wouldn’t play it.” Eventually, that would change, of course, and the song sold more than a million copies, was awarded a gold record, and was nominated for a Grammy as R&B song of the year.
The group released three more moderately charting singles before their next big hit, 1974’s “Just Don’t Want to Be Lonely.” “The song had been recorded by three or four artists before we did it,” Gooding said. “Blue Magic did a good version, and Ronnie Dyson did it and almost had a hit record with it [#60 on the pop charts].
“Well, we were on the road, as usual, going to a gig on what used to be called the “Chitlin Circuit,” and we turned on the radio and someone was singing it — maybe Blue Magic. And we said, ‘Let’s put that on the next album.’” But the group wasn’t content to merely imitate the other groups and wasn’t sure that would work anyway.
“‘Just Don’t Want to Be Lonely’ was always done as a slow ballad,” Gooding says, “and it always crashed and burned. When we put the grooves on it, like at the beginning — ‘dum-dum, dah dah dumm dum…’ — it just took off.” It went to #8 on the R&B chart and #10 on the pop chart, sold over a million copies and even charted in England, going to #27.
Their next few singles did moderately well but were not big hits, and 1975’s “Rolling Down a Mountainside” was their next big release. “It was another one we adapted,” Gooding said. “It was done by Isaac Hayes as a ballad, but we put a ‘dah daha daha’ groove to it, and it did well.” Despite its success on the R&B charts (#7), the song didn’t do well on the pop charts (#92). Though they would have seven or eight more songs make the R&B charts, “Rolling Down a Mountainside” would be their last pop charter.
Perhaps it was just as well, as members of the group were ready to move on to other projects and, in some cases, pursue solo careers, though they separated and came back together several times.
Gooding now performs those classic hits all over the country. Even though today he may be even better known as the father of Oscar winner Cuba Gooding Jr. (“The media decided to put the senior after my name after he won the Oscar — that was never my plan!”), he is still known to music enthusiasts as the lead on some very notable ’70s classics.