What Becomes of the Brokenhearted
Motown was very much a family business. Founder Berry Gordy, Jr.'s older sisters got involved: he and Gwen wrote music together, Esther eventually held a position as vice president, and Anna went so far as to start her own label, named after herself, with Berry occasionally contributing songs and producing. He also collaborated with brother Robert, who made records using the name Bob Kayli and later ran Jobete, Motown's music publishing arm. Members of other families were represented, some of them relatives of Motown stars, such as Four Tops leader Levi's brother Joe Stubbs, who sang with both The Contours and The Originals, and Brenda Holloway's singing and songwriting sister Patrice. Girl group The Velvelettes originally featured sisters (Mildred and Carolyn Gill) and cousins (Bertha and Norma Barbee). The Pips, strictly a family act, signed on in the mid-'60s with lead singer Gladys Knight, brother "Bubba" and their cousins Edward Patten and William Guest. And let's not forget Lamont Dozier's famous partners, songwriting siblings Eddie and Brian Holland. Of all these sometimes-amicable, ofttimes-competitive kinfolk, Jimmy Ruffin and his younger brother David made perhaps the most obvious impact.
These future soul music stars were born in two small Mississippi towns near Meridian, Jimmy in 1939 and David in 1941, the sons of a Baptist minister. Both were interested in performing gospel professionally; in the late 1950s, David was a member of Memphis-based group The Dixie Nightingales. Jimmy moved in a secular direction, relocating to Detroit, where he recorded one single for Gordy's fledgling company, "Don't Feel Sorry For Me" backed with "Heart" (he penned both sides), the first release on the short-lived Miracle label in early 1961. Discouraged by the failure of his debut, he took a job on the Ford assembly line and was later a member of The Four Hollidays, a vocal group produced by Andre Williams that had a couple of singles on the Markie label.
David Ruffin followed his brother's lead, making records for Anna and another Detroit label, Check-Mate, gaining only minimal notice locally with "Action Speaks Louder Than Words" in mid-'61. Jimmy sometimes backed his younger brother at nightclub appearances, though usually playing guitar; he made one or two recordings at Motown that weren't released, but by the summer of 1964 the company was willing to give him another chance (by that time David had joined The Temptations as Elbridge Bryant's replacement). Jimmy was assigned to Hitsville's newest subsidiary label, Soul. His performance of Norman Whitfield's "Since I've Lost You" showed promise, but his dreams of stardom just weren't meant to be realized anytime soon.
Another single was finally released in the fall of 1965; "As Long as There Is L-O-V-E Love," composed by Smokey Robinson, received airplay in Detroit for several weeks at the end of the year and made a brief appearance on Billboard's "Bubbling Under" charts in January '66. Still, Gordy had other priorities; several months passed before the next single was released. The Spinners, coming off a top 40 hit, "I'll Always Love You" on Motown, were set to record "What Becomes of the Brokenhearted," a song written by Paul Riser, James Dean and William Weatherspoon, but Ruffin caught wind of it and convinced them to give him a crack at the tune. The song's gloomy message was one he related to in terms of both romance and career struggles. A spoken passage by Jimmy was intially recorded for the opening stanza but seemed overdramatic; the finished take discards this intro, letting Ruffin's heartfelt vocals convey the desperation of the lyrics ('...happiness is just an illusion...filled with sadness and confusion'), assisted by two sets of backing singers: male group The Originals and female trio The Andantes. The Weatherspoon-William Stevenson production hit the mark; it went top ten in the fall of 1966 on the national pop and R&B charts. Jimmy Ruffin finally had a hit...one that touched many people.
A follow-up appeared much more quickly this time. Dean and Weatherspoon's "I've Passed This Way Before," containing the same sort of forlorn message Jimmy clearly had a knack for conveying, used the spoken intro tactic that had been bypassed on the previous hit ('Life lands a crushing blow...and once again a heart is broken...') and it was nearly as successful, a top 20 pop hit in early 1967 and second consecutive R&B top ten. For the next single, Barrett Strong and Norman Whitfield came up with a song not quite so sad: "Gonna Give Her All the Love I've Got" made the top 30 in April. Other '67 and '68 singles ("Don't You Miss Me A Little Bit Baby," "I'll Say Forever My Love" and "Don't Let Him Take Your Love From Me") were less popular and it seemed that his career peak had passed rather quickly.
Jimmy's three hits had been well received in Great Britain, though to a lesser extent than in his homeland. Suddenly in 1970, his records came on like gangbusters; "Farewell is a Lonely Sound," a late-'69 release, made the U.K. top ten that spring. Two more 45s, a rerelease of "I'll Say Forever My Love" and "It's Wonderful (To Be Loved by You)," were also top ten hits in England that year. Back home, brother David (having gone solo after leaving the Temptations in '68) joined forces with Jimmy for a duet remake of Ben E. King's great "Stand By Me." All of a sudden, Jimmy Ruffin was hot...in a way he couldn't have anticipated. When I first heard the haunting "Maria (You Were the Only One)" in early '71, I was certain it would be big for him, but it didn't pan out. Still, his sudden success in Britain overcame any stateside struggles.
He left Motown a couple of years later and drifted for awhile without a label, then a reissue of "What Becomes of the Brokenhearted" returned him to England's top ten in the summer of 1974. Around that time he signed with Chicago's Chess label; "Tell Me What You Want" hit the top 40 in the U.K. in November, then made a decent showing on the U.S. Soul (formerly R&B) charts in early '75. At the end of the decade he teamed with Robin Gibb of The Bee Gees, who were fresh off their late-'70s disco-era domination of the music world. Gibb composed and produced "Hold On to My Love" for RSO and it gave Ruffin another top ten smash in the spring of 1980. There were more opportunities after this; "Turn to Me," a duet with British singer Maxine Nightingale, became a top 20 Black (formerly Soul) chart hit in 1982. By that time Jimmy Ruffin had moved to England, where he lived for many years.