Ruffin, David Eli

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RUFFIN, David Eli

(b. 18 January 1941 in Meridian, Mississippi; d. 1 June 1991 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), lead singer of the Temptations, a Motown group, known for its onstage dynamism, that first hit the top of the charts with "My Girl" and later recorded such classic 1960s tunes as "Ain't Too Proud to Beg" and "I Wish It Would Rain."

Ruffin grew up in a family led by his strict Baptist preacher father, Eli Ruffin. His mother died shortly after his birth, leaving him and his two older brothers and sister to be raised by their father and stepmother. The family toured the South as a gospel group throughout Ruffin's childhood. When he was fourteen he left his family to perform with the Dixie Nightingales and other gospel groups; his touring eventually took him to Detroit, where his cousin, Melvin Franklin, was singing with the Distants, an R&B vocal group.

Ruffin's tenor voice—by turns soulful, pleading, and gruff—made him into one of the hottest singers on the Detroit R&B scene with the Voice Masters while he was still in his teens. Around 1960 Ruffin recorded a couple of singles as a solo artist for Anna Records, run by Berry Gordy's older sister, Anna Gordy. Two years later he tried to jump-start his solo career with some releases on Check-Mate Records but, like his earlier releases, they went nowhere. While Ruffin's career stalled, his cousin succeeded as a member of the Temptations on Motown's Gordy Records subsidiary. Franklin had founded the group along with two of his partners from the Distants, Otis Williams and Elbridge Bryant, and two members of the Primes, Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams. In 1962 and 1963 the Temptations released a number of singles that reached the top forty on the R&B chart but failed to match the success that other Motown artists like Mary Wells, the Miracles, and the Marvelettes were having on the pop charts.

In 1963 a fight between Bryant and Williams led to Bryant's ouster by the band. Ruffin, who had already made an impromptu appearance that year with the Temptations when he jumped on stage during a concert in Ann Arbor, Michigan, filled Bryant's place. With the addition of Ruffin, the Temptations immediately scored the band's first pop hit, "The Way You Do the Things You Do," which narrowly missed the top ten in the spring of 1964. Two other singles reached the pop top thirty that year, but it was their January 1965 release, "My Girl," that gave the group its first number-one single on the pop and R&B charts. Written and produced by Smokey Robinson, the song's clever lyrics and catchy tune typified the Motown sound of the mid-1960s. So too did the band's live performances, which typically featured the band members, in evening dress, performing smooth choreography by Cholly Atkins, best remembered for the synchronized "Temptation Walk." The group's stage presence—particularly Ruffin's emotional delivery on songs such as the 1966 hits "Beauty Is Only Skin Deep" and "(I Know) I'm Losing You"—made the Temptations the most popular concert act on Motown's roster.

The group's run of hits continued into 1967 with the release of "All I Need" and "You're My Everything," which went into the top ten, and "(Loneliness Made Me Realize) It's You That I Need," which was another top-twenty hit. Yet the strong personalities that made the Temptations such dynamic performers on record and on stage were pulling the group apart. While Otis Williams considered himself the group's leader, Ruffin wanted recognition as the group's primary lead singer. Although Eddie Kendricks had sung lead vocals on the group's 1966 classics "Ain't Too Proud to Beg" and "Get Ready," Ruffin demanded that the group change its name to "David Ruffin and the Temptations" to reflect his status. He began to travel separately from the other members of the group in a limousine lined with mink upholstery and adorned with his name on the side. His desire for a solo career was also fueled by the success of his older brother, Jimmy Ruffin, who had a top-ten hit with "What Becomes of the Brokenhearted" in 1966 on Motown's Soul label.

After leading the group on the top-five pop and number-one R&B hit "I Wish It Would Rain" in 1968, Ruffin was voted out of the Temptations by its other four members after he missed a concert date in Cleveland. The last Temptations single to feature Ruffin's voice, "Cloud Nine," was released late that year and became the group's seventh top-ten hit in four years. It also won the 1969 Grammy Award for best R&B performance by a group. With Dennis Edwards taking Ruffin's place, the Temptations recorded three more chart-topping hits with a more aggressive sound—"I Can't Get Next to You" in 1969; "Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me)" in 1971; and "Papa Was a Rolling Stone" in 1972—as well as the classic soul hits "Run Away Child, Running Wild," "Psychedelic Shack," and "Ball of Confusion (That's What the World Is Today)." Ruffin's long-anticipated solo career got off to a rocky start after he battled unsuccessfully to be released from his Motown contract. His first single, "My Whole World Ended (The Moment You Left Me)" hit the top ten in early 1969, but it was Ruffin's last chart appearance until 1975, when he entered the top ten again with "Walk Away from Love."

Ruffin battled drug dependency from the late 1960s onward, which contributed to his personal and career troubles. In 1982 he served time in a federal penitentiary for tax evasion and in 1988 was convicted of using crack cocaine. A 1991 Temptations reunion tour in England with Eddie Kendricks and Dennis Edwards put Ruffin back into the spotlight, but he continued to struggle with drug addiction. On 1 June 1991 Ruffin died from a drug overdose after visiting a West Philadelphia crack house; his funeral in Detroit brought together most of his former Motown colleagues in tribute to his life and career as one of the most talented singers and performers of his generation. He is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in Detroit. The most successful male vocal group on the Motown label during the 1960s, the Temptations were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989.

Ruffin's career is covered in the memoir by Tony Turner and Barbara Aria, Deliver Us from Temptation: The Tragic and Shocking Story of the Temptations and Motown (1992). Otis Williams coauthored The Temptations: African American Achievers (2002) with Patricia Romanowski. Histories of Motown Records include Nelson George, Where Did Our Love Go? The Rise and Fall of the Motown Sound (1985); Suzanne E. Smith, Dancing in the Street: Motown and the Cultural Politics of Detroit (1999); and Calling Out Around the World: A Motown Reader (2001), edited by Kingsley Abbott. Ruffin's later years were profiled by Duane Noriuki in the Detroit Free Press (26 May 1988). Obituaries are in the Detroit Free Press and Rolling Stone (both 11 June 1991) and Newsweek (17 June 1991). A list of the Temptations' chart singles is in The Billboard Book of Top Forty Hits, 6th ed. (1996), edited by Joel Whitburn.

Timothy Borden