'Simply another child of the times'

Joe Nawrozki

June 06, 1991|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,Joe Nawrozki is a member of the staff of The Evening Sun.

THE LONG, thin body rolled into the emergency room of a Philadelphia hospital last Saturday had bright, multicolored Bermuda shorts, lime green sport shirt and white sneakers. He carried no identification.

After he was pronounced dead, the doctors released the body to the city's medical examiner's office. In the routine of such procedures, it was tagged "John Doe."

Not until the afternoon, when the FBI fingerprints came back, did the body get a name: Davis Eli Ruffin, 50, place of birth, Meridian, Miss.

People who knew the public life of the man -- better known as David Ruffin -- thought it an ignominious way to go. After all, didn't he represent the absolute best of what Motown records did in the '60s, when Ruffin joined Otis Williams, Melvin Franklin, Eddie Kendricks and the late Paul Williams to form the Temptations?

Come on. Dead on a slab with a tag wrapped around his toe? Not David Ruffin, not the silky smooth lead crooner of the group that helped white teen-agers nationwide tune soul music onto their transistor radios. Not the person who sang in his raspy baritone such classics as "My Girl," "Since I Lost My Baby," "Beauty's Only Skin Deep." Say it ain't so, Dr. Welby.

Actually, Ruffin was simply another child of the times, and the street showed him no compassion. Ruffin was no stranger to the demons of narcotics dating back to his peak years with the Temptations. If Hendrix, Joplin and Frankie Lymon died of overdoses in the apex of their careers, Ruffin died of the same in his gathering twilight. Before the Temptations, he was hardly known. After he left the group in 1968, he was largely forgotten.

In a larger sense, Ruffin was a metaphor for his music. He could hit the blues with the best of them and sing a tale of love lost, love recaptured, being on bended knee, girl come back to me, it's you I need.

Ruffin collapsed at a Philly crack house, where he had gone in a borrowed limousine. Police said he was "dropped off" at the hospital by a "friend."

Missing from Ruffin's person was a large sum of money in U.S. traveler's checks. The investigation goes on. He had returned from overseas, where he had toured on a moderately successful singing job.

Since 1989 Ruffin had lived with his girlfriend, Diane Showers, in Philadelphia. She told police she last saw him three days before his death.

"When David had a lot of money, he would be able to do things that he wanted to do," his girl said. "And for instance, if he needed privacy, he would go to a hotel. Things that he wanted to do that I would not approve of -- drugs."

His 92-year-old stepmother, Earline Ruffin, said: "I would certainly be glad if they could send his body to Meridian so they could

sing one of his songs over his body. I would just love for him to come back to Mount Salem Methodist Church."

It was at the church, she said, where Davis Eli Ruffin won a wristwatch at a talent competition. "I was surprised at how he turned out in life," said Earline Ruffin. "He wanted to play all the time. He could sing like a mockingbird."

The Temptations were formed in 1959 when the Primes and the Distants got together in Detroit. Ruffin joined the group in 1963, and they had their first big hit, "The Way You Do the Things You Do," the following year with Kendricks in the lead.

With Ruffin and Kendricks flip-flopping as lead, the Temptations became powerhouses in Motown's stable. They drew sellout crowds wherever they went. As the singers would move with the precision of a silent drill team, Ruffin, with his thick, black-rimmed eyeglasses, would drop to one knee and extend his hand to the screaming crowd, usually in the immediate direction of a young woman about to swoon.

Nothing succeeded like success, and the money rolled in. But as former member Otis Williams recalled in a 1988 book, Ruffin's uncontrolled ego led to friction. At one point, Ruffin refused to ride with the other four Temptations in their limousine. Instead, he chose his own limo, one with a mink-covered floor and his name painted on the side.

He left the group in 1968, and the troubles with the law and narcotics continued.

David Ruffin will be buried Monday from Bethel AME Baptist Church in Detroit, not Mississippi, his girlfriend and others have decided. Only the good Lord knows where Ruffin's troubled soul will land, but for a man who sang so powerfully and knowingly of love and hurt, perhaps he will become better acquainted with the former in the hereafter. His tragic expertise with the latter is well documented, in beautiful songs that now somehow seem haunting, like a John Doe morgue tag.

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