Jimmy Ruffin, Motown's Underrated Soul Singer, Dies

PHOTO: Jimmy Ruffin is seen in a 1960s Motown Records photo.Motown Records Archives
Jimmy Ruffin is seen in a 1960s Motown Records photo.

Jimmy Ruffin wanted to go it alone.

The singer – who died Wednesday at the age of 78 – had the chance to join The Temptations, the Motown hit-making group. But instead, he said he allowed the opportunity to go to his younger brother David.

“I was working and my brother wasn’t, so I suggested him for the job and he got it,” he said in a 1966 interview. “I think I’m much happier working as a single than I would be in a group.”

Ruffin is best-known for the 1966 smash “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted,” which peaked at number seven on the Billboard Hot 100. But his solo ambitions and “outspoken” nature, as he called it – along with his brother’s gigantic talent – kept Ruffin from achieving the heights of popularity of other Motown Records performers.

Motown founder Berry Gordy released a statement on Ruffin’s passing, calling the performer “a phenomenal singer.”

“He was truly underrated because we were also fortunate to have his brother, David, as the lead singer of the Temptations, who got so much acclaim,” Gordy said in the statement.

“He was a wonderful human being, quiet and unassuming, who touched many lives with his music, not just here in the states, but overseas as well.”

PHOTO: Jimmy Ruffin is seen in a Motown Records publicity photo.Motown Records Archives
Jimmy Ruffin is seen in a Motown Records publicity photo.

Ruffin was born Collinsville, Mississippi, in 1936. Davis, later known as David, came a few years later. The family sang together, with a focus on church choir. Ruffin and his siblings went by the name The Spiritual Trying Four. The brothers also appeared in the Dixie Nightingales, a gospel group.

Jimmy Ruffin was signed to Motown in the early 1960s, but often found himself in background roles, contributing to other performers’ studio sessions. He was drafted into the Army.

Ruffin found his greatest successes after returning from service.

As David Ruffin became an international star, contributing lead vocals on hits such as “My Girl,” Jimmy Ruffin carved his own successful path. An injury kept Ruffin from working his full-time job at Ford, leaving him additional time to pursue his singing career.

He made the most of that opportunity.

Motown songwriters penned a melancholy song, “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted,” for the group The Spinners – but Ruffin suggested he record the song instead. He felt a connection with the lyrics.

The songwriters agreed, and Ruffin secured his greatest hit. His vocals bringing a yearning, longing tone to the lyrics.

“As I walk this land of broken dreams, I have visions of many things/ But happiness is just illusion/ Filled with sadness and confusion,” he sings at the song’s opening. The lyrics fail to answer the central question – what actually becomes of the brokenhearted? – instead reflecting on loss, dealing in pain, documenting a heart’s splintering.

Other hits followed, including “I’ve Passed This Way Before” and “Gonna Give Her All the Love I’ve Got.” But as his chart momentum waned in the United States, and as other Motown performers found success by recording his songs, Ruffin turned his attention to England, attracting new fans there.

PHOTO: Jimmy Ruffin is best known for his 1965 hit single What Becomes of the Brokenhearted.Motown Records Archives
Jimmy Ruffin is best known for his 1965 hit single "What Becomes of the Brokenhearted."

Even at the height of his stateside fame, Ruffin embodied the role of reluctant star. In a 1966 profile by reporter Kurt Lassen, Ruffin discussed his hobby – math. “I find a fascination in working with mathematical problems. It seems to relax me,” he said.

Ruffin reflected on the missed Motown opportunities for an interview recounted in the book “Motown Encyclopedia.”

“I think that they just didn’t like me personally. I’m outspoken, I wasn’t part of the clique,” he said.

Ruffin experienced a U.S. comeback with the 1980 album “Sunrise,” produced by Bee Gees star Robin Gibb, including the single “Hold On (To My Love).”

Personal tragedy followed. David died in 1991 at age 50 of a drug overdose, leading Ruffin to become an anti-drug advocate.

Ruffin continued performing into his later years, with re-releases and greatest hits albums bringing renewed visibility to his work. Rumors circulated online that he was going to release a new album in 2013, but the project never materialized.

His children, Philicia Ruffin and Jimmy Lee Ruffin Jr., released a statement following his death: "Jimmy Ruffin was a rare type of man who left his mark on the music industry. My family in its entirety is extremely upset over his death. He will truly be missed. We will treasure the many fond and wonderful memories we all have of him."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Comments