David Ruffin

Versions: ‘(If loving you is wrong) I don’t want to be right’ David Ruffin (David Ruffin, Motown, 1973)

Often in online comments below panegyric reviews of a certain contemporary US pop/R&B superstar, readers complain: she doesn’t write her own material, how can she be lauded as a great artist, or a visionary? This criticism is interesting to me, in the way it profoundly misunderstands a key aspect of black American music.

Not only black American music – Soul/R&B, jazz - but dub/reggae and other musical traditions, such as la chanson française and popular music found in non-English speaking countries. The point is not if the singer wrote the material, but more how they interpret and make it their own. Indeed, the idea that it isn't something personal, or unique to them, but part of a broader tradition is central to the interest of their work; as I've written before in relation to sampling in hip-hop, there is always this doubling going on of paying homage, while making it new.   

What then makes an exceptional interpretative artist? (I’m aware that this term is being used rather loosely here). Three qualities: artistry, investment and self-awareness. The first is self-explanatory, they need a voice with depth, range and character, not the light/treated singing style favoured by pop, but one of those voices you can’t forget; a voice that haunts you; comforts you, unsettles you.

Investment is the quality of presence, where the singer gives the impression that he/she is fully present, there in the moment and the musical expression is offering direct connection with something private, their secret self. This might seem lofty, but listen to Cesária Évora or Fairuz  and this doesn’t seem so difficult to understand. Finally, self-awareness comes from the impression you have that the singer is fully conscious of their effect (this is where their charm and ability to captivate comes in).

David Ruffin is the great interpretative artist of his generation (when at his best). Ruffin's ability to re-invent classic songs of his era, while imprinting them with his character was formidable, unbeaten (even, even Stevie Wonder came up short in comparison, as in some ways his talent could not be 'used' in this way and was inexorably linked to the expression of the visions in his mind).

‘(If loving you is wrong) I don’t want to be right was first recorded by The Emotions – see my piece on their track ‘I don’t wanna lose your love’ from last month here  - but it was not until Luther Ingram released the song in 1972 that it became a hit, topping the R&B charts for four weeks. See this wonderful live performance by Ingram that one YouTube poster has said comes from the Watts StaxFestival in August, 1972…  

The Ingram performance is flawless in terms of the voice and conviction, but in terms of the psychological message it is relatively one-dimensional. He seeks our approval, he seeks our sympathy for his predicament. It’s moving, certainly, but there is nothing inherently difficult about it.

Isaac Hayes released a version of the song one year after Ingram. Now, I understand that Hayes is an important artist, a much-sampled artist, a key artist to understand if you want to understand black American music but so often the over the top orchestration of his music makes me laugh (listen to all those beeps and squeaks that come and go; those temporary dramatic drum-rolls and dramatic pauses, it’s kind of nuts).

And I don’t get the way he sings: it’s always so bombastic, he never sounds sincere to me. Musically it has a lot of interest and I can see the influence everywhere today, but as a singer interpreting a song and connecting with his listeners ….  

This brings us to the Ruffin version, released on his David Ruffin album in 1973. Obviously, this is my favourite, especially in the way it allows for emotional complexity that sounds utterly real; Ruffin allows us to feel his desperation, but he is also defiant – again using his trademark bossy turns of phrase, all those ‘Listens’ – as if he believes that whatever others might feel, he is right to cheat on his wife.

And yet, throughout Ruffin’s vulnerability is highlighted, expressed through the gravelly timbre of his voice but also in the way the song ends, the way it falls apart (my notes: ‘tender ending, riffing, growling almost’). No other singer of his generation had this same ability to express such nuanced contradiction and such sadness; one critic said that this performance ‘gave insight to his inner demons’ in that it finds him openly pleading as ‘ ... a man in desperation,’ before begging ‘...can't you help the situation.’

(After listening to Ruffin's best work, so many other much more feted stars from the 60s and 70s, Al Green, Otis Redding, seem bland, lacking mono-dimensional in comparison).   

The Millie Jackson version, released in 1974, is special for the way she built on the original and has its own intensity and power (this description is from Wikio):  

Millie Jackson, however, took a somewhat different approach. On both studio and live recordings, her version is typically divided into three parts: “(If Loving You Is Wrong) I Don’t Want to Be Right,” “The Rap,” and “(If Loving You Is Wrong) I Don’t Want to Be Right (Reprise),” which together have a running time of over 11 minutes. The first and third parts include the song more or less as originally written, while the second part was written by Jackson herself. Titled “The Rap,” the middle segment is a monologue in which an unrepentant Jackson discusses her status as the “other woman” and why she loves it.

‘I saw you when you met her’ David Ruffin (Me’n Rock’n Roll are here to stay, Tamla Motown, 1974)

Featuring perhaps the second-worst (albeit funny) justification for infidelity made by a swaggering alpha-male type in the 70s - the winner would have to be Tim Buckley’s Sweet Surrender

'Now you want to know the reason/Why I cheated on you/Well I had to be a hunter again/This little man had to try/To make love feel new again')

Ruffin’s ‘I saw you when you met her’ stands out from his other work because of its contradictory mood of menace and ease. 

Ease as in the effortless ease of Ruffin's delivery most of the time here; unfussed, urbane and direct. Instead of his hallmark desperation mode. 

With its kind of dramatic portent and ‘Riders on the Storm’ rain/mixed with piano effect, it’s a stunning start to the song which only continues to build until Ruffin comes on the scene at around two minutes. One critic characterised this ‘delayed entrance’ as an error, but for me it makes sense as it allows for the creation of an ambiguous mood, with such an intense atmosphere, so that when Ruffin starts with his justification/explanation of why and how etc, the music has set up a kind of counterpoint, or commentary.

Ruffin’s delivery, as you would expect, is direct as if talking, or explaining to his partner why he ‘didn’t go to stay’ (he) only went to play’ – that’s the second-worst justification I mentioned earlier. But there is also an expression of regret in Ruffin's performance, as if he’s shocked that his partner was upset (as it meant nothing to him). 

I can’t think of a better depiction of the psychology of cheating in music, seen as it always is through the prism of one person’s personal needs (it meant nothing to me, ergo it means nothing and should mean nothing to you) alongside the shock and perhaps even frustration the same person feels when confronted by the fact that another person sees it otherwise.

Such psychological complexity is something Ruffin excels at; nearly every one of his better songs carries such nuance, it seems to me. This is where his genius lies in his ability to convey apparently contradictory emotions within the same performance. And then at 4 minutes or 30 everything kicks in, impressing me each time I hear it. It’s so divine.

Norman Whitfield, known as one of the key developers of the 'Motown sound' produced this album, having been behind many of the label's hits: The Temptations’ ‘Ain’t to proud to beg’, ‘Papa was a rollin’ stone’ and Marvin Gaye’s ‘I heard it through the grapevine’ among many others. Of interest was the development of ‘psychedelic soul’, aka ‘black rock’ - see here, The Temptations’ ‘Cloud Nine’ from 1969 …

Here's a description of the record from the Guardian, placing it all in context: 

Motown’s psychedelic experiment began with the bizarre Tardis-like intro to the Supremes’ hit Reflections, but it took Norman Whitfield and his songwriting partner Barrett Strong to really seize the zeitgeist by the throat in 1968. Despite showing little interest in politics and initially dismissing Sly & the Family Stone as “a passing fancy”, Whitfield realised Motown was ripe for change and he could be at the centre of it if he combined protest with psychedelia. To that end, he scooped up fresh talent like local guitarist Dennis Coffey, who introduced him to the wah-wah pedal, and arranged songs on the fly in the studio.

If someone had a good idea, it went in, and Cloud Nine was the first fruit of this approach. Caught between God and the devil, escape and despair, it’s an uplifting song about a dire situation. Whitfield and Strong continued to amaze for the next few years. To hear how far they could go when they weren’t worrying about hit singles, try the Undisputed Truth’s mind-expanding version of Ball of Confusion.

Speaking about the Undisputed Truth, they released a version of ‘I saw you …’ in 1975, which is perhaps better known than the Ruffin track and pretty fantastic in itself.

Listening to Ruffin’s album Me’n Rock’n Roll are here to stay is not an easy experience, aside from this classic opening track and his wonderful version of ‘Smiling faces sometimes’  to say that the record is patchy is being generous. As many others have noticed, the reasoning behind the looping of canned applause over the entirety of certain songs is hard to work out. One critic described it as a ‘hugely dumb decision’. It’s also sad, especially on the track called ‘Superstar (Remember who you are’) as Ruffin was, had been a great star but on this record and his other solo offerings was seriously struggling. Listening to this canned applause for the (lost) superstar strikes me as tragic and even a bit mean.

Ruffin’s war with Motown during these years, his ongoing fight to free himself, which he lost might be the reason why so many of these records were either not released, or not supported (or perhaps even sabotaged, though there’s no way for me to assess this).

To read more on this fight and how it might have affected Ruffin's output at this time, here’s an interesting article from last year, by Jason Elias ‘The Fallen Temptation: the Tragedy of David Ruffin’ that explores this subject in depth. 


'The prisoner' Gil Scott-Heron (Pieces of a man, Flying Dutchman Records, 1971) plus B.Holiday & D.Ruffin

The mark of genius: the ability to transform familiar elements, to deconstruct them while also having the capacity to imprint something of the artist's interior world (his/her 'soul') to make it a cohesive whole.

This music can be approached in many different ways; as the heartfelt expression of how it feels to be oppressed, how it feels to live in the United States as a black man in the 1970s and since, but it also represents as a kind of 'new poetry' set to music that melded spiritual jazz elements with an explicitly political edge. 

All and none of the above, perhaps, as hearing this you can't imagine any other artist, other than Gil Scott-Heron releasing this work, principally because of the vocal performance - one of the great vocal performances it seems to me.

What stopped me, though, when listening to this again recently apart from the musical accompaniment was the ambiguity of the lyrics carried by the shifting perspective (from first person, I to how the man is seen - or not seen - by others, his children, his wife):

Here I am after so many years
Hounded by hatred and trapped by fear
I’m in a box, I’ve got no place to go
If I follow my mind, I know I’ll slaughter my own

Help me, I’m the prisoner won’t you hear my plea?
I need somebody, yeah, to listen to me
I beg you, brothers and sisters
I’m counting on you, yeah

Black babies in the womb are shackled and bound
Chained by the caveman who keeps beauty down
Smacked on the ass when they’re squalling and wet
Heir to a spineless man who never forgets

Never forgets that he’s a prisoner, can’t you hear my plea?
’Cause I need somebody, Lord knows, to listen to me
I’m a stranger to my son
Who wonders why his daddy runs, yeah

On my way to work in the morning
When I don’t give a damn
Can’t nobody, can’t nobody
Can’t nobody, can’t nobody see just who in hell I am?

Hemmed in by a suit, yes, all choked up in a tie
Ain’t no wonder some times near morning I hear my woman cry
She knows her man is a prisoner, won’t you hear my plea?
Yeah, ‘cause I need somebody to listen to me

My woman, she don’t say but she hates
To see her man chained this way, yeah
Help me, I’m the prisoner
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m the prisoner

Such splitting works in that it makes the singer's personal experience universal - Scott-Heron is singing on behalf of those without a voice - but also destabilises our point of reference, or connection. But then, you notice that these external perceptions are his alone, thoughts whirring around in his head and feelings of internalised shame, fear of his subsumed violence. 

On the basis of language and imagery some of the lines in this song are extremely powerful; for example this section which starts boldly talking about 'Black babies in the womb ..' almost in the style of Billie Holiday's 'Strange Fruit' singing of 'black bodies' ...

Both pieces of music allow the facts to be presented simply without commentary as if it were a photograph. 

Black babies in the womb are shackled and bound
Chained by the caveman who keeps beauty down
Smacked on the ass when they’re squalling and wet
Heir to a spineless man who never forgets

But Gil Scott-Heron's inclusion of the final line, 'heir to a spineless man who never forgets' (that he is a prisoner) completely upsets the documentary style description to something more complex. The reference to babies 'smacked on the ass when they're squalling and wet' links with the opening where he introduces himself: 

Here I am, after so many years
Hounded by hatred and trapped by fear
I’m in a box, I’ve got no place to go
If I follow my mind, I know I’ll slaughter my own

This is a dramatic movement away from 'Strange fruit' - both are laments and have equal affective power - but in 'The prisoner' Gil Scott-Heron implies that the violence is not separate to him, not committed by white racists in the South, but something inside his self: 'If I follow my mind, I know I'll slaughter my own'. Four decades plus on, this is still extremely brave.

Compare this song with another released the same year, 1971 by David Ruffin 'Heaven help us all' from the unreleased David album:  

Now I love this song too, mainly for the way it all comes together in a cohesive whole, but Ruffin is doing his thing, we know this, we feel this; it's a performance, a flawless performance but there is distance (sure, anger can be felt there, as he lists all the 'people with their backs against the wall' but it's also ironic, as it's hard to imagine Ruffin believing any of this).

In contrast, Scott-Heron's lyrics and delivery are painful, difficult. We find ourselves inside his consciousness as a man who fears his own potential for violence, surrounded by people who refuse, or are unable to see him for who he is, or who he could be. 

Musically too 'The Prisoner' is extremely rich, perfectly showing off Scott-Heron's immaculate vocal style. I particularly appreciate the unmade beginning, where the musicians are spooling their instruments, tuning, meandering about ... as if there is a kind of desire to show the materiality of the music, the fact that it is made, constructed. The drum, too is striking for me: very basic, disappearing completely at times, a kind of pounding of skin.

Five minutes in there is a very elegant coming together of the different instruments, especially the piano line by Brian Jackson (Scott-Heron's chief collaborator in this era) that continues for a few minutes, before Scott-Heron returns. And then at the very end the percussive elements return, again in a kind of deconstructed way, sounding like shells.  

(the forgotten masterpiece 2) the unreleased David Ruffin album, 'David' 1971

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:

While this music was rooted in Motown’s signature sound and performed by the Funk Brothers, it also looked beyond Detroit, adding heavy doses of funk, psychedelia, and smooth soul, filled with galvanizing horns, driving guitars, down-n-dirty clavinets, flourishes of electric sitar, fuzz tones, and wah-wah guitars, all grounded by Ruffin’s earthy testifying and tied together by top-notch songwriting. All these elements wound up sounding much hipper than much of the music officially released by Motown in the early 1970, when Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye were just beginning to break free of the studio’s formula, and while David and its accompanying bonus tracks are not a masterpiece along the lines of Talking Book or What’s Going On (or even Where I’m Coming From, for that matter), it’s vibrant, exciting music that still sounds fresh — arguably fresher than full-length Temptations albums of the late ‘60s — which qualifies it as a lost classic of sorts.
— Stephen Thomas Erlewine review, 'Allmusic'

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.'