Ruffin, Davis Eli (“David”)

views updated

Ruffin, Davis Eli (“David”)

(b. 18 January 1941 in Whynot, Mississippi; d. 1 June 1991 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), singer and member of the vocal group the Temptations who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989.

Ruffin, the son of Eli Ruffin, a strict Baptist minister and gospel singer, and Ophelia Davis, was born near Meridian, Mississippi. Ruffin’s mother died of complications from childbirth soon after he was born. His father married Earline Johnson, a schoolteacher, in 1942. As a child Ruffin sang both in church and with his older siblings, his sister Rita Mae and his brothers Quincy and Jimmy, who also achieved solo fame.

As a teenager Ruffin moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where he attended a high school for one year. In Memphis he joined a gospel group, the Dixie Nightingales, for two years. He also worked briefly as a racehorse jockey in Arkansas. In 1958, after moving to Detroit with his godfather Eddie Bush, Ruffin became a drummer and singer for the Voice Masters. In 1960 and 1961 he released unsuccessful solo singles for the Anna and Check-Mate labels, both of which were later absorbed into Motown. In February 1961 Ruffin married Sandra Kay Barnes. They had three children.

Both David Ruffin and Jimmy Ruffin were familiar with members of the five-man Detroit vocal group the Temptations, which had released several singles without any hits. At one of their performances David brought down the house when he joined the group onstage, spun around, threw the microphone in the air, and collapsed in a split. He was asked to join the group at Christmas in 1963.

In 1964, immediately after Ruffin joined the Temptations, the group had its first hit, “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” produced and co-written by William “Smokey” Robinson and featuring Eddie Kendricks on lead vocals. Their next hit was written particularly for Ruffin’s rougher, gospel-edged voice. In 1965 “My Girl” was a crossover smash, climbing to number one on both the pop and the rhythm and blues charts. Ruffin became the group’s dominant vocalist, singing lead on a string of their most successful and enduring songs, such as “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” “Beauty Is Only Skin Deep,” “(I Know) I’m Losing You,” “I Wish It Would Rain,” and “I Could Never Love Another,” all of which reached number one on the rhythm and blues chart and the top fifteen on the pop chart.

Tall, thin, and always wearing his trademark thick-rimmed glasses, Ruffin was a charismatic showman whose soulful, raspy voice expressed tremendous emotion and stretched from baritone to gospel-inflected tenor. Ruffin was also responsible for suggesting that the group employ a four-headed microphone stand onstage, which, along with their famous “Temptation Walk” (a coordinated line dance in which all the Temptations would high-step, sway, and swivel), become the group’s trademark. With their sweet harmonies and slick choreography, the group appeared on many television shows and in 1968 shared a television special with Motown’s top female group, the Supremes.

Ruffin’s vocal prowess and natural showmanship made him the group’s focal point, which the other four members sometimes resented. He had been in a drug rehabilitation program in 1967, and his erratic and sometimes egotistical behavior coupled with his sizable entourage served to alienate him from the rest of the group. He missed rehearsals and performances, and he suggested that the group change its name to David Ruffin and the Temptations, as some other Motown groups, like Diana Ross and the Supremes, had done. Ruffin insisted on driving separately in a minklined limousine. Some people alleged abuse when Ruffin’s live-in girlfriend, the singer Tammi Terrell, collapsed onstage in 1967 from a brain tumor. Ruffin was fired from the group in mid-1968 when he chose to be with a girlfriend on her opening night rather than with the Temptations on theirs.

Complaining about being underpaid and overcontrolled, Ruffin tried to leave Motown, but the company, which had a contract, sued to keep him. The company delayed the release of his first solo hit, “My Whole World Ended (the Moment You Left Me),” which eventually reached the top ten on both the pop and the rhythm and blues charts in 1969. He continued to record regularly for Motown throughout the 1970s, including cutting an album with his brother Jimmy. But Ruffin felt that the label concentrated on Ross, Marvin Gaye, and Stevie Wonder and did not actively promote his records. Suspecting that this was punishment for trying to leave, he called it “economic peonage.” His only other significant hit single during this time was “Walk Away from Love” in 1975, and he later began performing as a duo with another former Temptations member, Eddie Kendricks. Ruffin and his wife divorced in 1977. He also had a son with a live-in companion, Genna Sapia.

The nostalgia boom of the early 1980s generated renewed interest in the Temptations, and Ruffin and Kendrick, who had shortened his name, briefly rejoined the group in 1982 for a Reunion album and tour. The longtime fans Daryl Hall and John Gates invited the duo to join them in 1985 at the reopening of the Apollo Theater, a concert that was released as a live album, and at the July Live Aid concert. In January 1989 the Temptations were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Ruffin started smoking crack cocaine, which affected his asthma, forcing his hospitalization for respiratory failure and squashing his many comeback attempts. The 1980s were a litany of legal and drug-related problems. Ruffin was fined and jailed in 1982 after the Reunion tour for failing to file a tax return for 1976, and his house was foreclosed. He was arrested in 1986 for receiving and concealing a stolen handgun and in 1987 for cocaine possession. In 1988 he was convicted of using cocaine, and after moving to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in the summer of 1989, he tested positive for cocaine, a probation violation, and was sent to rehab.

In 1991, after a successful month-long tour of England with Kendrick and Dennis Edwards, Ruffin collapsed in a Philadelphia crack house after sharing ten vials with a friend in under half an hour. He was rushed to the hospital, where he died. His body was positively identified only through Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) fingerprints. Although the cause of death was ruled an accidental overdose of crack cocaine, Ruffin’s family and friends suspected foul play, claiming that a money belt containing the proceeds from the tour ($40,000) was missing from his body. He had only $53 in his pocket. Michael Jackson paid for Ruffin’s funeral in Detroit. The service at New Bethel Baptist Church featured performances by Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, and the surviving Temptations. Ruffin is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in Detroit. Although to many it seemed Ruffin spent more time in courtrooms than in concert halls in his later life, Ruffin’s rough but romantic voice made him one of America’s finest soul singers.

Ruffin’s companion Genna Sapia has self-published Memoirs: David RuffinMy Temptation (1998) about their life together. Ruffin’s strained relationship with Motown is covered in Nelson George, Where Did Our Love Go? The Rise and Fall of the Motown Sound (1985). Numerous reminiscences about Ruffin and the Temptations by the group’s bass singer Melvin Franklin, a distant cousin of Ruffin, are in Don Waller, The Motown Story (1985). Temptations (1988), by the group’s founder Otis Williams with Patricia Romanowski, provides a firsthand, though frequently anti-Ruffin, view of the early days of both Motown and the group. Tony Turner, the road manager for many of the later tours, details Ruffin’s drug use in Deliver Us from Temptation (1992), written with Barbara Aria. An article on Ruffin is in Contemporary Musicians: Profiles of the People in Music, vol. 6 (1992). Of the many tributes to Ruffin, the most notable are by the music critic Tom Moon in the Philadelphia Inquirer (3 June 1991); Richard Harrington in the Washington Post (9 June 1991); and the singer Daryl Hall, “Last Thoughts on David Ruffin: Remembering a Great Temptation,” Musician (Sept. 1991). Obituaries are in the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times (all 2 June 1991), the Detroit Free Press, the Chicago Defender, the New York Times (all 3 June 1991), and the Michigan Chronicle (5 June 1991).

John A. Drobnicki