Some things just make you scratch your head and ask why. The fate of David Ruffin’s 1971 self-titled album is one of those things. Ruffin had embarked on his solo career after an acrimonious split from The Temptations (a separation likely accelerated by Ruffin’s drug-induced erratic behavior). There were Ruffin’s assertions that he should be highlighted in the same way that Motown elevated Diana Ross, and there were accusations that The Temptations were not receiving all of the money that the group had earned. That dispute resulted in a lawsuit. Dennis Edwards replaced Ruffin as lead singer, and the legal challenge went away when Ruffin became a solo artist.
Ruffin’s solo career actually got off to an auspicious start. He charted in 1969 with “My Whole World Ended (The Moment You Left Me)” in 1969. Soon after, Ruffin returned to the studio to begin work on David, a record slated to be released in 1971. David contained 12 tracks with nine being originals along with covers of “I Want You Back” by the Jackson 5, Brook Benton’s “A Rainy Night in Georgia and “Heaven Help Us All” by Stevie Wonder. Ruffin also cut seven other bonus tracks. For some reason, this album was never released.
Vaults can be filled with unreleased Motown songs. The label’s quality control apparatus was legendary, and if Berry Gordy and his team didn’t feel a tune was up to snuff, the song got mothballed with extreme prejudice. Of course, musicologists, collectors and Motown fanatics are just as diligent in trying to get their hands on all things Motown, so there was really no chance that these tracks would remain forever out of the public domain. Sure enough, a limited number of copies were made available digitally in 2004. And now Hip-0 Select.com is releasing a CD featuring the 12 tracks along with bonus tracks.
This wider release will ensure that conspiracy theorists will have a field day. Speculation regarding the true motives for killing this project will be rife because mothballing David had nothing to do with the quality of the work. Hard feelings die-hard and it wouldn’t be surprising if Gordy – who could hold a grudge – shelved the project to show Ruffin who was boss.
If so, it’s too bad that Gordy allowed emotion to cloud his business sense because David is one great piece of work. Let’s start with the three covers: Ruffin infuses “I Want You Back” with flourishes from the Baptist and sanctified church. The life experience of having to beg distinguishes his assertive vocals from Michael Jackson’s pre-teen version. Ruffin’s intonation and his angst-filled moans add a deeper sense of melancholy to “A Rainy Night In Georgia.” The same throaty and assertive vocals that turn “I Want You Back” into grown folks music transform “Heaven Help Us All” into a sermon and an indictment.
David includes several originals that could have netted Motown another Top 10 hit. “Each Day Is a Lifetime” finds Ruffin backed by the Funk Brothers and strings as he sings about how time crawls after the woman he loved has left. The lush ballad “Out In the Country,” which might bring to mind The Temptation tune “I Wish It Would Rain,” treads in the same musical terrain. This cut showcases Ruffin’s talent as a musical storyteller. The second verse, in which Ruffin describes his trip to the place where he and his lover once went on picnics, serves as the textbook example of how lyric and vocals work together to make an emotional connection with listeners.
It’s impossible to listen to this record without wondering why Motown shelved this project. While we may never know why this music stayed in the vaults for so long, as I listen to this glorious album it is less helpful to speculate on the past and more appropriate to express gratitude that somebody managed to pry those vaults open. Highly Recommended.
By Howard Dukes