Five tall, handsome well dressed young men take the stage. All are dressed alike, in matching fashionable and stylish suits. One of the five steps forward wearing dark rimmed glasses, tossing a microphone in the air, then spinning on his heels in a 360 only to catch the microphone again before breaking into song in a raspy, yet powerful voice pleading with emotion. With each word he sings it is as if he is weeping at the same time, and behind the tears is a mighty sadness that is both beautiful and tormented at the same time. As he gestures with his hands in a visual accompaniment to each lyric, the four men behind him join in with melodious accompaniment to compliment his singular and lonely phrasings.
As a showman and vocalist, David Ruffin was unrivaled, and possessed the “it factor” long before the turn of phrase was coined, and upon first joining the Motown group The Temptations, even the sky itself posed no limit. But behind the dashing good looks and amazing talent was an ominous darkness. Whether a brooding anger or a deep sense of depression, it’s undeniable that Ruffin was his own worst enemy, making wrong decision after wrong decision that would ultimately lead to his undoing and demise.
“Oh, determination is fading fast
Inspiration is a thing of the past
Can’t see how my hope’s gonna last
Good things are bad and what’s happy is sad”
‘Since I Lost My Baby’
Accounts tell of a childhood filled with mental and physical abuses causing deep seeded damage that David Ruffin would carry with him into adulthood. As an adult, he would struggle with monogamy, and himself be abusive to the women who loved him, and at the height of his popularity he would turn to drugs like cocaine, ultimately be attributed to his undoing and, in the end, his demise. The duality of David Ruffin was that he was as talented as he was tormented, by demons whose origins we can only speculate.
Are the sadness and heartbreak of songs like “I Wish It Would Rain” or “(I Know) I’m Losing You” so believable because the origin of the sentiment is real? Even the iconic Temptations classic “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” is made all the more convincing with David Ruffin pleading the lyrics. The voice of David Ruffin is so filled with great despondency that the listener cannot deny that the despair and anguish seem eerily authentic, part of a struggling internal conflict.
“Day in, day out, my tear stained face
Pressed against the window pane
My eyes search the skies, desperately for rain
‘Cause raindrops will hide my teardrops
And no one will ever know
That I’m crying, crying when I go outside
To the world outside my tears, I refuse to explain
Oh, I wish it would rain”
‘I Wish It Would Rain’
On January 18, 1989 – coincidentally David Ruffin’s 48th birthday – The Temptations were officially inducted into The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, where four of the original Tempts took the stage to accept the award. Ruffin, third to speak, paused frequently during his thank you speech, as if searching for words, closing with “A thought remains from the endurance we have been through through the years… but this makes up for a lot of it”. His meaning is unclear, almost cryptic, but seemed to allude to a sense of closure. Two years later, in June of 1991, David Ruffin would die of a drug overdose in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
David Ruffin is a fascinating figure in the panorama of American popular music, and perhaps one of its greatest tragedies. He stood on the precipice of success, but fell victim to his own insecurities and self-defeating behaviors. Yet his artistic contributions are all too well documented, and his legacy – his soulful recordings – will remain beloved by millions, myself included, for many years to come.
Sources: Mark Ribowsky’s ‘The Troubled Lives and Enduring Soul of The Temptations –
Ain’t Too Proud To Beg‘, The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the great musical mind of
Mr. Nathaniel Jones (the senior) whose input was invaluable.