Just as every Temptations fan has his or her favorite single, each of us is likely to remember the sound of David Ruffin in a different way. For some, he'll always be the embodiment of romantic optimism describing "sunshine on a cloudy day" in the first verse of "My Girl;" for others, he'll be the epitome of soulful insistence, a singer who got so caught up in the spirit of "Ain't Too Proud to Beg" that his voice actually broke as he sang the words, "I know you want to leave me."
But in a sad, strange way, the first song that popped into my mind upon hearing of Ruffin's death of a drug overdose early yesterday was "Cloud Nine." Recorded back in 1968, it was a real departure for the group, the first step in the transition from the classic soul sound of "Since I Lost My Baby" and "Get Ready" to the funky psychedelia of "Ball of Confusion" and "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone."
It was also Ruffin's last session with the group before heading out after a solo career, but that's not the reason the single came to mind. No, it was the song itself that gave me pause, because in a way, it summed up much of what brought Ruffin's career to its sad and abrupt ending.
Producer Norman Whitfield wrote the lyric to this oddly topical drug song, but it was Ruffin who carried the lead, and it's the anguish and desperation of his performance that gives the single its power. Ruffin is all-too-convincing through the opening verses, describing a ghetto life so desolate and despairing that drugs seemed the only respite, but it's the closing section that's most chilling.
First, the other Temptations harmonize through a chorus of "I'm doin' fine/ On cloud nine," then Ruffin resumes the lead. "Let me tell you 'bout cloud nine," he sings, a bit of the preacher slipping into his voice. "You can be what you want to be/You ain't got no responsibility."
"And you're a million miles from reality."
Listening to it now, hearing the passion in his voice, it's difficult to imagine why Ruffin kept returning to his own cloud nine. It wasn't as if he was ever doin' fine there; he'd been in and out of rehab programs since 1967 and was arrested on drug charges numerous times. In 1987, he was finally jailed on drug charges, but neither that lesson -- nor his court-ordered stay in a rehabilitation center two years later -- seemed to have any lasting effect on his behavior.
Why Ruffin sought refuge in drugs is perhaps a little easier to understand. A gifted singer, he was a born soloist, with a strong baritone voice that easily cut through any ensemble, and a spirited, gospel-trained delivery that stood out amidst the more refined sound of his fellow Temptations. He knew how to take a lyric and turn it into a story, and he pulled real drama from love songs like "Ain't Too Proud to Beg" or "I Wish It Would Rain."
Even given the extremes of the Temptations' sound, from Eddie Kendricks' falsetto warble to Melvin Franklin's basso rumble, Ruffin's voice stood out.
But as far as Motown was concerned, he was merely one of five -- and that ate at him. His brother, Jimmy, had a massive hit in 1966 with "What Becomes of the Brokenhearted," and it was clear that David Ruffin wanted his share of personal glory.
Even though he eventually scored a pair of Top-10 hits -- "My Whole World Ended (The Moment You Left Me)" in 1969, and "Walk Away from Love" six years later -- Motown made it clear that as long as he was no longer a Temptation, he was no longer a priority for the label.
David Ruffin did eventually rejoin the group in 1982, making concert appearances, recording an album (the hit was "Standing On the Top," in which the Temptations played sidemen to Rick James) and appearing on the Motown 25th Anniversary special. But much of the magic was gone. Where once Ruffin performed with what critic David Morse described as a "rasping, carefully articulated and deeply soulful delivery," all that remained was the rasp and a sense of how the songs should have gone.
For most fans, though, a shadow of that greatness was enough. Now, we don't even have that. And though we'll never know what David Ruffin hoped to find on cloud nine, or why he kept going back, it's hard not to wish he hadn't looked somewhere else.
After all, if we fans could find emotional release and spiritual renewal in the music he made, why couldn't he?