I’ve been blessed to have lived during a time when the music of our culture reached center-stage and changed the world. Of all of the great voices, I’ve heard during my time, I can say none has been more distinctive and profound than that of David Ruffin. I’ll gladly say, I feel blessed to have had my life enhanced by his music.
As we are about to celebrate Black History Month, I want to pay homage to this man whose music was a huge influence on my life, particularly my young life, to which I am grateful. In an interview after Temptation movie, something his son said struck me as profound. He said, “My daddy wanted love, but he got fame.” We know from the many talented artists to leave us of late that there is a line between triumph and tragedy. That line is often thin and frequently ends sadly. David Ruffin walked that line with tragic consequences.
Ruffin will always be remembered as the mightiest of all the Temptations’ lead singers. He was one of “the voices” that made the Temptations, and his legacy will live on in the depths of our souls as long as there is time. We will remember that sexy, gritty voice, those trademark glasses, and that stage charisma that sums up the one and only David Ruffin, and even that little crack in his voice was ok, well it wasn’t ok, but that was David Ruffin. To put his legacy into context; he achieved legendary status after only being with the Temptations for about four years.
His songs were like windows into his soul, exposing his greatest fears as a lover and a man. Even “happy” songs like “My Girl” brought out vulnerability in his voice. His relationship with the Temptations was a stormy one, but the marriage produced defining moments in 1960s soul, and his voice inspired just about every male vocalist – his influence is everlasting. We’ll never know how good he might have been, but we can rejoice in what he left behind.
Born Davis Eli Ruffin, on January 18, 1941, in Whynot, Mississippi. A sickly child inflicted with both rheumatic fever and asthma. His mother died in childbirth, and he was raised by his father, a Baptist Minister. He was a complex man and master vocalist with a gospel-trained voice that would gain him the affection of several generations of listeners, but Ruffin had more than a voice – he had a persona.
In the best of his music, there was a dark, terrible, tragic, and personal beauty. A good example would be in his self-penned composition “Statue of a Fool,” written when he was just 18 years old, in which he sees himself as a “man who lets love slip through his hands.”
My favorite line in that tune was “On his face, a gold tear should be placed to honor every tear he shed. And I think it would show, and everyone would know, concealed inside is a broken heart.” This was a powerful statement that spoke to the depth of his soul. However, as history would record he would share his most private pain in the Temptations’ biggest hits; “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” and “Since I Lost My Baby”, and the chilling “I Wish It Would Rain.
All of these songs were rooted in gospel where David began, singing in The Ruffin Family and The Spiritual Trying Four with his father, his sister Rita Mae and older brothers Jimmy and Quincy. David left home at 13 following his father’s footsteps to practice the ministry but was sidetracked, singing in Memphis talent shows where he met a young Elvis Presley. He later sang with the gospel group; The Dixie Nightingales out of Memphis, Tennessee, and toured with The Womack Brothers, The Swan Silvertones, and The Staple Singers.
It was with these gospel groups that Ruffin would develop his stage personality, dropping to his knees and doing splits just like the late Jackie Wilson before him. David’s show-stopping performances within the group would be enough to get him noticed on the secular side.
Then, in 1964, when problems arose between the Temptations and group member Elbridge Bryant, David would be invited to join the group. Shortly after David’s arrival, the group would record “The Way You Do The Things You Do,” a Smokey Robinson number with Eddie Kendricks on lead. Gone for a three-week gig in Saginaw, Michigan, the group would return home to find themselves with their first hit. It is said, when David saw the chart standings, he sat down on the long chaise lounge in the Motown lobby, took off his glasses, and cried like a baby.
Ruffin would turn out be an electrifying and dynamic force and set a course for stardom with their first universal #1 hit, “My Girl,” recorded just before Christmas in 1964, a tune that would turn the group into a household word and legends. The group began turning out one hit after another, and when David took such up-tempo hits as “(I know), I’m Losing You,” to the stage, he became a magnetic field of charisma. His greatness would then shine, and his permanent mark on the pages of history was sealed.
At his home-going service, Stevie Wonder told the audience: “We’re confronted with a problem that touches everyone of us. We’re confronted with the most devastating slave owner of all times.” Minister Louis Farrakhan, head of the Nation of Islam, who spoke at his funeral told the mournful audience, “In David there is a lesson. We should not clap our hands and mourn, for he is out of trouble now. You are still in it.” It is not my intent to rewrite history or to re-tell a story that we all know. Rather to simply to remind us that he is gone – but not forgotten. And that’s my Thought Provoking Perspective…
Rest In Peace