June 1, 1991 – Davis Eli ‘David’ Ruffin (The Temptations) was born January 18, 1941 in the rural unincorporated community of Whynot, Mississippi, 15 miles from Meridian, Mississippi. He was the third born son of Elias “Eli” Ruffin, a Baptist minister, and Ophelia Ruffin (born Davis). Ruffin’s father was strict and at times violently abusive. Ruffin’s mother died ten months after his birth in 1941; and his father married Earline, a schoolteacher, in 1942. As a young child, Ruffin, along with his other siblings (older brothers Quincy and Jimmy, and sister Rita Mae), traveled with their father and their stepmother as a family gospel group, opening shows for Mahalia Jackson and The Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, among others. Ruffin sang in the choir at Mount Salem Methodist Church, talent shows and wherever else he could. In 1955, at the age of 14, he left home under the guardianship of a minister and went to Memphis, Tennessee, with the purpose of pursuing the ministry.
But at the age of 15, he went to Hot Springs, Arkansas with the jazz musician Phineas Newborn, Sr. They played at the Fifty Grand Ballroom and Casino. He continued to sing at talent shows, worked with horses at a jockey club, and eventually became a member of the The Dixie Nightingales.
He also sang with the Soul Stirrers briefly after the departure of Johnnie Taylor. He met and came under the guardianship of Eddie Bush and Dorothy Helen who took David to Detroit, Michigan and introduced him to Gwen Gordy Fuqua, Berry Gordy’s sister, and Billy Davis.
In 1957, Ruffin met Berry Gordy, Jr., then a songwriter with ambitions of running his own label. Ruffin lived with Gordy’s father, a contractor, and helped “Pops” Gordy do construction work on the building that would become Hitsville USA, the headquarters for Gordy’s Tamla Records (later Motown Records) label. Ruffin’s brother Jimmy would eventually be signed to Tamla’s Miracle Records label as an artist.
Ruffin also worked alongside another ambitious singer, Marvin Gaye, as an apprentice at Anna Records, a Chess-distributed label run by Gordy’s sister Gwen Gordy Fuqua and his songwriting partner Billy Davis. Asked about Ruffin in the Detroit Free Press in 1988, Gordy Fuqua said: “He was very much a gentleman, yes ma’am and no ma’am, but the thing that really impressed me about David was that he was one of the only artists I’ve seen who rehearsed like he was on stage”. According to Ruffin, both he and Gaye would pack records for Anna Records.
Ruffin created music as both the vocalist and drummer in the Voice Masters, a doo-wop style combo and eventually started recording at Anna Records, and recorded the song “I’m in Love” b/w “One of These Days” (1961), with the Voice Masters, a group which included future Motown producer, Lamont Dozier. Other group members included members of The Originals: Ty Hunter, CP Spencer, Hank Dixon and (Voice Masters and The Originals founder) Walter Gaines. (At one time, The Voice Masters also included another future Temptations member, Melvin Franklin, one of numerous people David would claim as a cousin). Ruffin did sign to Anna Records as a solo artist, but his work in that time was unsuccessful.
Ruffin eventually met an up-and-coming local group by the name of The Temptations. His older brother Jimmy went on a Motortown Revue tour with the Temptations, and he told David that they needed someone to sing tenor in their group. David showed interest in joining the group to Otis Williams whom he lived very close to in Detroit. In January 1964, Ruffin became a member of the Temptations after founding member Elbridge “Al” Bryant was fired from the group. Ruffin’s first recording session with the group was January 9, 1964. Though both David and Jimmy were considered, David was given the edge, thanks to his performance skills. These were displayed when he joined the Temptations on stage during the label’s New Year’s Eve party in 1963.
At Motown he started as a background singer, joining The Tempations in 1963, while also working at the Ford Motor Company.
In Nov ’64, songwriter/producer Smokey Robinson wrote a single especially for him to sing lead on. That song, “My Girl”, became the group’s first #1 single and its signature song, and elevated David to the role of lead singer and front man during the group’s “Classic Five” period as it became later known.
In the late 1967/68’s tensions grew on account of his cocaine addiction, tardiness and he was sacked from the the group, but was legally forced to continue with Motown as a solo artist. His first solo single “My Whole World Ended (The Moment You Left Me)” reached the US pop & R&B Top Ten.
His final Top Ten hit was 1975’s “Walk Away From Love”.
After being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989 with the other Temptations, Ruffin, Kendrick, and Dennis Edwards began touring and recording as “Ruffin /Kendrick/ Edwards: Former Leads of The Temptations”. Sadly the project was cut short, when David Ruffin died on June 1, 1991 from a drug overdose at age 50.
After a successful month-long tour of England with Kendricks and Edwards, David Ruffin died on June 1, 1991, in a Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, hospital of “an adverse reaction to drugs” – namely cocaine. Although the cause of death was ruled an accident, Ruffin’s family and friends suspected foul play, claiming that a money belt containing the proceeds from the tour ($300,000) was missing from his body.
Known for his unique raspy and anguished tenor vocals, David was ranked as one of the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time by Rolling Stone magazine in November 2008.