David Ruffin was lead singer for The Temptations on some of their best-loved hits. We take a look back at his career and sad end on what would have been his 70th birthday.
Born David Eli Ruffin in Whynot, Mississippi as the son of a strict and sometimes abusive Baptist minister, Ruffin, like many of the performers who’d go on to Motown stardom, got his start singing in church. Along with his older siblings, he was part of a traveling gospel group that opened for Mahalia Jackson and the legendary Five Blind Boys of Mississippi.
By age 14, he’d moved to Memphis to pursue the ministry and soon joined first the Dixie Nightingales and later the Soul Stirrers, whose members over time included Sam Cooke and Lou Rawls. Traveling with these groups allowed him to witness up-and-coming acts like Elvis Presley and Little Richard – artists whose sense of showmanship he would later bring to The Temptations. It was a transitional time in black music, as many of the leading gospel artists began going secular. If you were a rhythm and blues musician, Detroit was the place to be. Ruffin’s brother Jimmy was already living there, working at the Ford Motor Company while he pursued music on the side, and in 1957 a still-teenaged David Ruffin relocated there and met Berry Gordy, who would soon form Motown records and become arguably the most important figure in R&B for the next two decades plus.
But Motown was still a ways off. Ruffin made ends meet working construction with Berry Gordy’s father and packaging records to ship from the Anna Records label (the latter a job he shared with Marvin Gaye). After Ruffin recorded a couple songs for VEGA Records, the higher-ups at Anna Records must’ve seen his talents were wasted in the shipping department and they released four Ruffin singles between 1961 and 1962.
When stardom proved elusive, once again it was brother Jimmy who paved the way.
Jimmy was on tour as part of the Motortown Revue, a bill which also included The Temptations. He heard they needed a new tenor and encouraged David to give it a shot (though he also tried out for the band himself). Impressed with his showmanship, the band gave David Ruffin the job in 1964.
The next three years would be the most successful in Ruffin’s life and in the band’s history. It started off slowly though, with The Temptations, unsure how to use Ruffin’s talents, keeping him in the background. Songwriter Smokey Robinson wanted the perfect song to showcase Ruffin’s voice, and he found it with “My Girl.”
Released in 1965, the song shot up the charts and established Ruffin as the new frontman of the group. Other hits followed closely on its heels – "It's Growing" (1965), "Since I Lost My Baby" (1965), "My Baby" (1965), "Ain't Too Proud to Beg" (1966) – all featuring Ruffin on lead vocals. But as his stardom grew, so did his ego, a situation not helped by his flirtations with cocaine (which would later blossom into a debilitating and lethal romance). He refused to travel with the band, insisting instead on his own fur-lined limo. He began missing rehearsals and demanded the band change its name to David Ruffin & The Temptations.
In 1968, when Ruffin missed a concert performance, his bandmates decided they’d had enough. They fired him and replaced him with Dennis Edwards of the Contours. Just three years and a dozen hits since Ruffin joined, what would later be recalled as The Temptations “classic five” era had come to an end. Without Ruffin, The Temptations smooth ballad sound would be replaced by psychedelic soul and many other music style variations through the years as new members came and went. To date, more than 20 musicians have been part of The Temptations, with the only permanent member being Otis Williams.
Acrimony followed Ruffin’s exit – he tried to sue Motown to get out of his contract, and The Temptations hired extra security at their gigs to insure he didn’t show up and cause any trouble. Ruffin released the solo album My Whole World Ended the next year, and while it would be a stretch to say the title was an apt metaphor for his career at that point (the album topped the Billboard R&B charts and was a crossover success), things would soon begin to unravel.
His next record, Feelin’ Good, released only six months later and consisting largely of tracks left over from the My Whole World Ended sessions, only reached number nine on the R&B charts. He also had modest success recording with his brother Jimmy as The Ruffin Brothers, their 1970 album I Am My Brothers Keeper cracking the Billboard 200. A third solo album was recorded in 1971, but Motown mothballed it (the record wouldn’t come out until 2004, more than a decade after Ruffin’s death). Abandoned by his label and with his career in a tailspin, Ruffin's cocaine abuse worsened.
Ruffin left Motown and signed with Warner Bros. where he released two solo albums in the late 1970s. Neither was a commercial success. By 1982, he smoothed over things with The Temptations enough to embark on a successful reunion tour with them, but that year also saw him spend six months in jail for failing to pay taxes. Four years later, he faced legal trouble again after being nabbed for possession of a stolen handgun. A year later, a cocaine bust would land him in jail for violating the conditions of his parole.
In the last years of his career, he toured with fellow ex-Temptations members Dennis Edwards and Eddie Kendricks, and it was after returning from a stint in England that Ruffin finally succumbed to the addictions that had plagued him for over two decades. After collapsing in a Philadelphia crack house, Ruffin was pronounced dead from accidental cocaine overdose on June 1, 1991.
More than 2,000 people lined the Detroit streets near the New Bethel Baptist Church where his funeral was held, many of them no doubt hoping to glimpse fellow mourners like Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Louis Farrakhan and Robert Townsend. The funeral was paid for by Michael Jackson (who would also die at age 50 of a drug overdose) and members of the Temptations, past and present, performed a rousing rendition of “My Girl.” Outside the church, violence erupted as police were called to quell disturbances in the crowd.
A fitting tribute to a man whose life was marked by both beautiful music and endless turmoil.