Soul Serenade

David RuffinI have mixed feelings when it comes to telling people about some of the shows I’ve seen. After all, the Beatles in ’64, Dylan in ’65, and the Stones in ’66 are pretty cool shows to have been to, and that’s just to name a few. On the other hand, it feels a little like bragging, and worst of all, it makes me just plain old. But I just love the sound of my own voice so much that I can’t help myself from spinning tales about the days when dinosaurs roamed the earth.

Out of all of the great shows I saw back in the day, one of my fondest memories is of seeing the “classic five” lineup of the Temptations. The show was at Seton Hall University (then a college), in South Orange, NJ, which just happened to be the town I was living in at the time. I somehow convinced my friend Mary to take a series of trains from Long Island to see the show with me. The tale of riding a bus late at night to return her to the train station in nearby Newark, at the time a tinderbox of racial unrest, is a whole other story.

It was the Philly kids who got me into soul music. I spent all of my childhood summers at my grandparent’s house in Atlantic City. All of the summer kids there were from Philadelphia. When we were teenagers, the hangout was called Chelsea. It was contained within one block of the world famous boardwalk between Chelsea Avenue and Morris Avenue. On summer weekends, it was wall-to-wall kids. On July 4th and Labor Day weekends, it was pretty much impassable. Those kids loved soul music with all of their hearts. Even after the Beatles had captured the imaginations of most young Americans, the Philly kids stayed true to the music that they loved. I’ll always be grateful to them for turning me on to the music that would bring me joy for the rest of my days.

Otis Williams, Paul Williams, Eddie Kendricks, Melvin Franklin, and David Ruffin. That was the classic Temptations lineup. Most of the details of the show are lost in the haze of memory, but my memory of the evening overall is still vivid, and still excites my soul when I think of it. I can still see those five good looking men, all dressed up in gold suits, performing hit after hit, doing their trademark “Temptations walk,” and blowing the crowd away. From that moment to this, I believe that David Ruffin is the greatest soul singer who ever lived.

What I didn’t know that night is that by then David Ruffin had begun his descent into drugs. He had missed some shows, and his ego was running rampant. He demanded even more of the spotlight, and wanted the name of the group changed to David Ruffin & The Temptations. The straw that broke the camel’s back came when he missed a show in 1968. He was fired from the group, replaced by his old friend Dennis Edwards. Unhappy about being fired from the group he had helped to reach stardom, he would show up at Temptations shows, walk on stage when they started to do one of the songs he had made famous, and take the mic from Edwards. It was embarrassing for everyone.

Eventually Ruffin began a solo career. In 1975, he reached the artistic peak of his solo career, maybe even his career overall, with the Van McCoy produced “Walk Away From Love”. The song reached #9 on the pop chart, and sold over one million copies. His performance is simply astonishing. Pay particular attention to his skyrocketing falsetto at the end of each chorus. It’s earthshaking. If pressed, I would say that “Walk Away From Love” is my favorite soul record ever.

I was fortunate enough to catch Ruffin live again in the late ’80s. At that point he was touring with his old partner Eddie Kendricks who had left the Temptations. I was living in Miami, and they were playing at a waterfront park. I couldn’t miss it. It was another thrilling performance, but it paled in comparison to the Temptations show that I’d seen 20 years earlier. In 1989, Ruffin and the other original Temptations were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Drugs continued to be a problem for Ruffin, and he spent some time in prison for tax evasion. On June 1, 1991, he collapsed in a crack house in Philadelphia, ironically the city that had given me my love for his music. Contrary to the depiction of his death in The Temptations bio-pic (which his family sued over), he was taken to the hospital in a limousine and escorted to the emergency room by the driver. He died there, at the age of 50. His cause of death was ruled an accidental overdose of cocaine, though family members still suspect foul play was involved. In any event, a great voice was stilled that day, and I’ve yet to hear its equal.