‘As I walk this land with broken dreams, I have visions of many things…‘
I bet there’s not a Motowner reading this who doesn’t know these heartfelt lyrics. If there is, do please join us and play this Motown anthem with its dramatic, eerie yet commanding introduction that will pull you into the emotional turmoil being suffered by one Jimmy Ruffin. I was drawn to “What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted” after reading a press release dated July 1980, the year of Motown’s 20th anniversary, when Jimmy’s contribution to the celebrations was the “20 Golden Classics” release in the STMR series. So, for no particular reason, I thought I’d play his music to remember him this month in print. Nah, it’s not a biography as such, more a visit to recall his words with some interruptions from me!
However, just a quick mention before moving on. I spent quite a bit of time with Jimmy Ruffin, thanks to his fan club secretaries (don’t you just love that phrase!) Phil and Pete, who were dedicated to promoting the singer over here. For starters, I travelled to Brighton and Liverpool with these guys to watch Jimmy perform. In those days there were no chauffeur driven limousines. Pete did all the driving with the singer squashed in the front seat next to him.
While I was pulling items from my garage filing cabinets, I chanced to come across a review I wrote back in the day when I was looking after the Four Tops as their ‘fan club secretary’. This was, if I remember correctly, printed in a future newsletter. Anyway, rest easy, I’m not going to cut and paste it all here, but rather a couple of paragraphs. Do remember as you read on that this girl was all of twenty years old. “Tall, well-built thirty-one-year old Jim (Jim!!!) is one of the friendliest people I’ve met. He’s easy to talk to and his topic of conversation is wide – ranging from stars in the sky, records, politics and mini skirts. The latter is his particular fave and he confessed he’d never seen skirts so short.” And the other which I’m almost too embarrassed to publicise – but here goes. “After one of Jim’s performances a guy said, ‘ He must be the king of soul’. A startling exclamation for a Motown artist who, although known to each and every one of us, has been robbed of the chart success he so rightly deserves. But, be that as it may, Jim has certainly won our affection and has proved what a versatile and beautiful artist he is.” That’s enough. Except to add, while Mr Ruffin was a gentleman, rather on the shy side, I recall the guy travelling with him was less so. In fact, he made an absolute nuisance of himself where girls were concerned. So, let’s TCB, starting with the singer’s own words….
“I was raised in Meridan, Mississippi and it wasn’t until I moved to Detroit in 1960 and signed with Motown that things really started getting tough for me. I had to find another job to get money until one of my records broke and for the first year and a half I did a whole lot of jobs – I was a chauffeur, cleaned restaurants, mopped floors at night, shovelled snow in winter – anything to make a dollar. The nearest I came to making records was helping on other people’s sessions. The studio men hired people to snap their fingers, clap hands and stomp feet to achieve that early distinctive Motown Sound on records like ‘Where Did Our Love Go’. So I used to go along and get a couple of dollars for an hour’s work.”
“In 1962 my uncle got me a job at Ford Motors and I stayed on the assembly line there right up to 1965.” By this time Jimmy had actually cut two singles, namely, “Don’t Feel Sorry For Me” on Miracle in January ’61 and “Since I’ve Lost You” on its sister label, Soul, in August ’64. He continues, “Sometimes I had to take leave of absence for a week to play theatres, like the Apollo in New York, and to do tours with the Motortown Revues with artists who at that time hadn’t made it either. People like Martha & The Vandellas, Stevie Wonder and The Temptations. None of us had any money either.”
He picked up this conversation in a later interview with NME journalist Roy Carr when he said the spirit of competition that was rife in the recording studios over spilled into the touring revues. They were called ‘cutting contests’. “Even though the Motown Revue is made up of close friends the smaller supporting acts are always out to win the audience, so the bill-topper has to work real hard. You’ll get The Temptations joking with Marvin Gaye when they say ‘watch out next show, cause we’ll get you’ but they’ll mean it….The whole Motown Corporation is built around the basic American system of competition and progress. It’s healthy and I think that’s what’s kept Motown at the forefront of the industry.”
While competition is the best way to produce winners – and there was no bigger competitor than Berry Gordy – it could result in disaster. For example, Berry crashed into the danger zone when he unfairly pitted an adult hit-maker Marvin Gaye against a very young hitless Stevie Wonder in one of the “Battle of the Stars” contests staged at the Graystone Ballroom, a venue Berry purchased in 1962. It’s general knowledge in Motown circles that Jimmy Ruffin was asked to join The Temptations to replace Elbridge Bryant. However, he declined the offer to concentrate on a solo career and recommended his brother David, with whom he had sung in the gospel group, The Dixie Nightingales. Born on 7 May 1936, Jimmy was nearly five years old when David was born on 18 January 1941, the third son born to Ophelia and her Baptist minister husband Elias Ruffin. Their siblings were Quincy and Reada, another sister Rosine died in infancy, and music played an important role in the household.
“It was at one of the Motortown Revues when The Temptations asked me to join them,” recalled Jimmy in an early interview. “Eldridge Bryant, their tenor, was drafted and as I also sang tenor, I seriously considered the offer. But I couldn’t really see myself as a member of the group. So I turned it down. At this time, my brother David was released from his contract with Chess and he joined them. I think if he had definitely turned down the offer, I might have re-considered but I’ve never regretted turning it down in the first place.”
As a no-hit soloist, Jimmy joined others queuing for hit songs, as he explained: “In the early Motown days it was hard to get hold of good material because there weren’t that many writers and all the good stuff went automatically to the top acts. It was just by chance I got ‘What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted’. One day I got home from Ford, had a bath and went over to Motown to try and canvass some material. While walking through the building I heard this tune being sung by its writer James Dean. When I asked who the song was for, he told me The Spinners were going to cut it. But I told him to give it to me instead. So they let me have a try and liked my version enough to let me have it.”
With Mickey Stevenson and Paul Riser also credited as writers, “What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted” was steeped in the painful experience of lost love, with Jimmy appearing to live every word and phrase. The Originals and The Andantes provided support vocals on this and would continue to add their voices on most of his future recordings. The original plan was to feature a spoken-word introduction on the single, but the verse was removed from the final mix, hence the long instrumental opening on the released version. We didn’t miss out though. Jimmy’s spoken verse is on the alternate mix included in the 2003 release “Jimmy Ruffin – The Ultimate Motown Collection.”
Released in America during June 1966, and three months later in the UK, “What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted” surpassed all expectations, selling over 500,000 copies to peak at number eight in the mainstream chart. Recalls Jimmy, “This started moving real fast for me, too fast. I wasn’t really sure what was happening to me.” In a later conversation he confirmed he had recorded the single in Italian; it failed to hit the spot but sold enough copies to make the release worthwhile. It was a move he disapproved of because “it is extremely hard to do a song phonetically and still give it the same feeling that was on the original version. It’s far better to release the English version and get people to like the overall feeling and sound of the disc. You can’t really do Tamla in another language.”
Let’s just remind ourselves of Jimmy’s Motown hits; some were average while others were quite brilliant. From “What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted”, Jimmy released “I’ve Passed This Way Before” in November 1966, with the UK following three months’ later. This time a spoken introduction remained, proving to be an essential feature in the song penned by James Dean and William Weatherspoon, as they attempted to repeat the formula of its predecessor. Maybe a little too hastily some felt. Nonetheless, the single hit the top thirty. Re-issued during 1969, without the spoken introduction, journalist Peter Jones called it “a sturdy Tamla typified number.” Sturdy? “Gonna Give Her All The Love I’ve Got” was next in February/April 1967 and marked a change in writers to Barrett Strong and Norman Whitfield. In hindsight, the song really failed to show Jimmy’s vocals at their best, leaving further recordings from other artists to do the song justice. Nonetheless, it marked the start of his Strong/Whitfield collaboration where the future held diversity on several levels.
A mediocre song followed, “Don’t You Miss Me A Little Bit Baby” where the writers’ magic failed to work as reflected in the single’s poor sales in August 1967. A temporary blip because the composing team pulled out all the stops with “I’ll Say Forever My Love” in March ’68. I love the immediacy of the chorus and while critics decried it, I had nothing but praise for the stylish presentation. Whitfield and Strong then pulled out a song they originally gave to Gladys Knight and the Pips titled “Don’t Let Him Take Your Love From Me” which further cemented Jimmy’s decline in the UK, also adding to the demise of his American career. A woeful lack of promotion was blamed, with Jimmy adding his opinion, “Motown keep putting me in the R&B thing and the public don’t like it. The material is good but the public don’t like me doing it. R&B isn’t my thing anymore.”
The 1969 re-release of “I’ve Passed This Way Before” returned a thankful singer to the UK top forty, but the next reinstated him in the top ten thanks to his original composers James Dean and William Weatherspoon. “Farewell Is A Lonely Sound” returned Jimmy to familiar territory; a ballad with punch in the heart… “Then a tear appears in her eyes, as she tightly holds your hand. Then you let her know that it’s time to go, you must leave while you can.” Oh, that railway platform is the place where he does not want to be. Ignored in America, where by then, Motowners wouldn’t know a hit song if it hit them in the face, we proved to Jimmy that the UK knew their music; fans loved him and it was the country he should concentrate on. The knock-on effect across Europe followed. “Farewell Is A Lonely Sound” was given a helping hand by Jimmy who locked into a UK club and ballroom tour.
Prior to this visit, he had scrutinised his career’s failings and while he had little influence over what he recorded, Jimmy believed he could reinvent himself as a performer. He said he’d been trapped in a public image he hated and, while it took a long while to realise this, admitted “My act was (weak). I was in a ballad bag with no visual excitement. The trouble was people around me kept wanting to push this ‘sad man of music’ image. Now when I walk out there in front of an audience I’m me, and I do exactly what I want.”
It was this attitude that delivered the goods to prompt reviews like, “the reaction he’s causing isn’t surprising. Ruffin now has one of the slickest, fastest moving acts you’re ever likely to encounter. He combines high quality singing with dynamic stage routines and leaves you amazed that one man can be such a powerhouse….He’s a natural entertainer, his patter is as lively, polished and as uncontrived as his vocal and visual performances. It can’t be much longer before he becomes the hottest male property in the Motown organisation.”
In interviews around this time an honest Jimmy Ruffin acknowledged his career in America had stagnated. “The thing about the American market is promoters assess you by hit records. You could have an enormous following but without a hit, promoters don’t want to know.” He also said, “It’s the people who determine who the stars are. So when I arrived in England I said to myself ‘I’m going to work so hard and play to as many people as possible and they’ll just have to like me.’ I like a challenge and I looked at England as just that. I was on the brink of failure, very insecure in terms of drawing power, as cold as a fish.”
He meant business this time: he dropped his management contract with Motown and hired a UK-based agent which made more sense. However, the decision prompted rumours that Jimmy was also dropping Motown or vice versa. He soon scotched this. “I’ve had too much success with them to leave. I have to be pleased with my time there if only for the success I’ve had there, which has helped make me an internationally-known artist. What I’m building here I don’t think would have happened with any other record company. The type of songs I’ve made it with I wouldn’t have found elsewhere.”
The re-issued “I’ll Say Forever My Love” was the obvious follow-up, peaking at number seven, while Dean/Weatherspoon’s “It’s Wonderful (To Be Loved By You)” hit the top six. Three top ten hits across 1970! A couple of really mediocre singles then crept in – “Let’s Say Goodbye Tomorrow” and “On The Way Out (On The Way In)” – during ’71, marking the end of Jimmy’s British Motown singles. Sadly they were an unremarkable farewell. However, we were in the unique era of re-issue-mania which led to Jimmy remaining a bankable singer and performer. I think I’m right in saying here, “What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted” was released a further three times; “I’ll Say Forever My Love”, twice, with the other hits one more time each. And all sold enough to warrant the re-issues.
In between single releases, excellent albums appeared, starting in 1967 with “Sings Top Ten”, re-titled “The Jimmy Ruffin Way” for British release. Two years later “Ruff ‘N Ready” arrived, and “The Groove Governor” in 1970. An album that begs not be ignored is 1971’s “I Am My Brother’s Keeper” with David, an inevitable release of course that almost lived up to its pre-release hype. This ‘mix and match’ project, again with vocal support from The Originals and The Andantes, was confusing as it followed no particular theme. Even the released singles “Stand By Me” and “When My Love Hand Comes Down” couldn’t push it higher than the periphery of the American top one hundred listing.
Jimmy Ruffin spent just under twelve years with Motown during which time he was a consistent hit maker for us British Motown lovers and a regular visitor to these shores until the time came for him to move here permanently during 1980. His success here far outweighed that he enjoyed – or should I say didn’t enjoy – in his home country. From Motown, he had hits with companies like Polydor, RSO and EMI but in all honestly, Mr Ruffin will always be remembered for his Motown masterpieces, and I’m sure there must be a compilation pending sometime soon. Please.
The ‘sad man of music’ died on 17 November 2014 in Las Vegas, following a month-long illness. He was seventy-eight years young. Y’know, it’s only while writing this and listening to Jimmy Ruffin’s music, that I’ve realised how many memories have actually flooded back. Some I hadn’t thought about for years……