Just before 3 am one morning in June, 1991 a limousine brought the unconscious body of one of the greatest vocalists of the twentieth century, David Ruffin to a Philadelphia hospital. Wearing 'bright, multi-coloured Bermuda shorts, white sneakers and a lime-green sport shirt,' Ruffin carried no identification; 'when (the) doctors released his body to the Philadelphia Medical Examiner's Office, it was tagged, "John Doe."
Ruffin died one hour later from a drug overdose, aged 50 years old. One of the saddest parts of an extremely sad (and controversial) documentary on Ruffin's ascent to the top of US popular music, as part of the Temptations is the moment when his son, David Ruffin Jr. looks at the camera face-on to insist that his father died in a hospital (not a crackhouse). My father died in a hospital, he repeated with urgency. He died in a hospital.
When told of his death, Ruffin's girlfriend, Dianne Showers said she was saddened but not shocked by his death. 'He walked in the line of fire,' she said.
Ruffin became famous for his songs of love and loss. One website describes the 'moods' of his work using these adjectives; 'gritty, passionate, earthy, gutsy, poignant, romantic, dramatic, stylish' but then has only one word for his central theme: 'heartache'.
And yet Ruffin's musical achievement stems from the way it enacts contrasts, similar to those that dominated his life. Sweetness and light; force and delicacy; despair and determination.
David Ruffin famously fell out with Motown - just as he had with the Temptations - so the fact that the label decided not to release 'David' in 1971 perhaps should not come as a surprise. But it does, it is hard to imagine how even the most burnt-out execs did not recognise the record's essential impact and its great beauty. In the words of an Allmusic critic:
Starting with the extraordinary 'Each day is a lifetime' ....
This song amazes me every time I hear it, simply for the way it is constructed and the way his voice carries the melody; and then there are all the details (just listen to those backing-vocals, for instance or that bossy 'Listen' and the later interlude).
Such contrasts are put to even more dramatic effect in 'I can't be hurt any more' that starts with an over the top declaration to suddenly shift to a groove that is so sugary, while Ruffin's voice keeps breaking, cracking threatening to be overwhelmed by the backing track. My personal favourite, though is 'Let somebody love me' -
Marvin Gaye paid tribute to Ruffin by saying that 'I heard in (his voice) a strength my voice lacked' and this strength comes through here, even though he is expressing his need for love from 'someone true, you know what I mean ..'
Anyone with any knowledge of Ruffin's own complicated love life that involved a large number of attractive women might cough at the idea of him pining for a true woman who 'doesn't need to be a beauty queen' but these lyrics are part of the track's core sweetness and conceit. Like a lot of worldly soul singers from that era and since such feigning innocence only adds to their charm.
Whether it comes from listening to a lot of music these days with the intention of writing about it, or listening to a lot of sample-based music, when I listen to this track by Ruffin I hear all the different elements in isolation, but also together; I listen to that tricky drumbeat, so fragile compared to his voice, or the brass and the tinkly elements and feel newly impressed each time. On the same record there's also a cover of the Jackson 5 hit, 'I want you back'.
Here's just an added extra, okay yeah I'm just a bit of a (ridiculous) fan -
When Earline Ruffin, then 92, learnt of the death of her stepson in 1991 she said, 'I would be glad if they could send his body to Meridian so they could sing one of his songs over his body.' She wanted him to return to the church where he once won a watch in a singing competition.
'I was surprised at how he turned out in life,' she said. 'He wanted to play all the time. He could sing like a mockingbird.'