Versions: 'I don't know why' Stevie Wonder (For Once in My Life, Tamla, 1968) Jackson 5, Thelma Houston, plus live performance

Forming a kind of flawless constellation, three points in triangle, that arguably represents the pinnacle of achievement of Black American Music in the 60s/70s: Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson and Thelma Houston.       

This song with its highly complex lyrics, describing an addictive state of desire that makes no sense, was written by a sixteen-year-old Stevie Wonder. There is something so arresting about the music, with its heavy atmosphere of portent – those descending notes and the dramatic build – but what I like best about it is Wonder’s surprising (and idiosyncratic) vocal performance. Before the two-minute mark there is separation between Wonder’s vocal line and the music itself where he breaks away almost, sounding hazy and drugged; you can hear his breathing as it all falls apart and yet the music maintains its forward movement.

You throw my heart down in the dirt
You made me crawl on 
This cold black earth, baby
No I never, I never knew 
How much love could hurt
Until I loved you baby
Till I loved you baby, baby
Oh baby, I can’t stop 
I can’t stop crying can’t you see
Here I’m pleadin’ on my knees
I’m on my knees
Won’t you help me, help me please
Cause I love you, I love you baby
Sure enough, baby, yeah

Here’s a live performance from 1969 from the Hollywood Palace; check out the ever so hip “thank you” at the start, in acknowledgment of the brief applause from the audience (other listeners appreciate his little knowing laugh later on; I like the opening curtain effect behind Stevie that happens for no reason, as he is in front of it, at the start).

Second star in the constellation …

This gem was recorded when Michael Jackson was eleven years old, or maybe 12. There’s not much to write here, as it’s all there the artistry so obvious clear from first listen, the intensity of his delivery all the extremely cute ad-libs/Soul additions, from the opening drama of the, “sure enough baby, baby …” The “darling, darling, darling” and especially the “baby dear” added to the original “You made me crawl on/This cold black earth, baby” is so sweet.

The Jackson 5 released this version on their 1970 ABC album   

The third …

Thelma Houston, as a vocalist, has a lovely quality of restraint, of singing just behind the musical line and never over-stating and exaggerating things for effect. I like the way she sings in such a controlled, but sensual way: there are no playful additions here, no need. But this version is special, surely for the wonderful grace of the musicianship. Listening to this I can’t help but hear the continuum with the past, where current and earlier hip-hop feeds off this heritage. Obvious to say, I know, but listening to this it’s made so explicit the way the various elements play with notions of fusion, similarity and difference.

Other well-known artists have covered the Stevie Wonder classic then and since, including the Rolling Stones in 1969 with this out-of-synch honky tonk version that has certain charm. 

According to Wik

"The Rolling Stones released a 1969 cover of the song in 1975 on their ABKCO outtake album Metamorphosis. It was recorded on 3 July 1969 during the sessions for Let It Bleed, the night that news broke of Brian Jones' death. It was also used as the b-side for their 1975 single." 

Related article: Versions: “Sunny” Bobby Hebb (Sunny, Philips, 1966) 


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. 


'All I do is think about you' Tammi Terrell (Tamla, 1966)

With a beat so clean, opening everything up like clicking fingers, while also offering such a sweet contrast with all the swooning effects and Tammi Terrell’s stunning delivery. Her voice is so pure, it could be an instrument right there in the mix, with her playful personality shining through.

Terrell’s phrasing is gorgeous, the way she pauses in unexpected ways to offer emphasis, but in a sense just also drawing our attention back to her gift; ‘trying … to find’ and I love the way she stretches the vowels, it’s highly expressive, but perfectly controlled.

When you hear Stevie Wonder’s 1980 version of the song he wrote as a teenager …

you can see how original Terrell’s singing was. (Stevie Wonder emphasises key words that make sense in terms of the lyrics’ meaning, Terrell emphasises words as if she’s luxuriating over the sounds. Having said that, this version by Stevie Wonder has one of the most extraordinary bass-lines in popular music, truly; the way it trips about, but maintains structure is something to behold. And on Wonder’s version, check out Michael Jackson helping out on backing vocals).

You can also hear how expressive Terrell’s version is when it is compared to that of Brenda Holloway, which appears to have exactly the same backing track and came out the same year, it seems.

Terrell’s individual style is so strong and so dominant in this song, with all those asides, all the ‘oh baby’ or ‘I’m going to tell you boy’. She’s so sweet, as a performer; something that also shines through in the duets with Marvin Gaye. See, for example, their cute, naughty expressions at the start of this famous song.

I love this so much, those first 30 seconds are so pure and beautiful ... it's enough to cheer anyone up on this below-zero, cold winter's day.

(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.'