When he was a kid in rural Mississippi, living, for a time, in a house with no running water, he dreamed of being a famous performer. He might as well have imagined walking to the moon.
There weren’t many paths to wealth and stardom for Black people in Southern states that were still trapped, in the 1940s and 1950s, under the oppressive weight of Jim Crow laws and segregation. But David Ruffin could sing like a hurricane, and possessed an innate sense of how to connect with people, how to make them smile and laugh and feel what he felt. He just needed a stage.
By his mid-20s, Ruffin was the most electric member of the Temptations, and a regular presence in North Philadelphia’s Uptown Theater, where 2,000 or so fans often squeezed into the theater’s Art Deco contours to hear the band’s lush harmonies, their arms and legs a blur of matching suits and flawless choreography.
Six-foot-two and lamppost skinny, his face framed by thick, dark eyeglasses, Ruffin’s vocal cords powered the Temptations’ most popular song, “My Girl” — it went to No. 1 in 1965, and has since been played 498 million times on the streaming service Spotify — and a string of other instantly recognizable classics: “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” “I Wish It Would Rain,” (I Know) I’m Losing You.”
Ruffin’s ability to embody the ecstasy and agony of songs about love gained and lost cast an unbreakable spell on countless admirers who once watched, slack-jawed, as he and the Temptations, and other Motown legends, dazzled crowds. The performances at the Uptown in the 1960s compelled a young Daryl Hall to finagle his way backstage, where he was befriended by his idols.
“Crying in tune, that’s how I hear David’s voice,” Hall said during a recent interview. “He didn’t write those songs, but he owned them. He had a haunting, soulful voice, and that was an extension of his personality. He was a very complicated person.”
Offstage, Ruffin was a jumble of contradictions — playful but short-tempered, ambitious but hindered by hidden demons, at a time when substance abuse and mental health were widely misunderstood.
Fate drew him back to Philadelphia in the 1980s, when he was far removed from the limelight, and on the other side of an up-and-down solo career. Hall and John Oates invited Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks, another former Temptation, to join them onstage at John F. Kennedy Stadium during Live Aid, where the 89,484 people in attendance greeted the former Motown greats with thunderous applause.
It could have been a storybook start to a third act revival. But David Ruffin died in Philadelphia on June 1, 1991, the victim of what doctors determined to be an accidental overdose of cocaine. He was 50. News coverage of his death veered toward the sensational. “David Ruffin Collapsed at Crack House,” blared one headline from the Washington Post; “Overdose Called Massive: He Must Have Built Up Strong Tolerance in Past, Doctor Says,” read another, from the Philadelphia Daily News.
For three decades, Ruffin’s friends and family have mulled the what-ifs that haunt anyone who has lost someone they love to drug addiction, which has only recently come to be treated as a health epidemic, instead of a crime. But there’s something else, too, a gnawing sense that Ruffin’s legacy was shortchanged by media narratives that focused more on his flaws, and the way in which he died, than his talents.
“It wasn’t called a disease. It was just called a bad habit. People figured you can stop a bad habit, but they don’t understand addiction,” said the soul singer Candi Staton, a longtime friend of Ruffin’s.
“But there was more to him than that.”
The man in the limo
To his former bandmates, Ruffin could seem like a riddle. Otis Williams, the last surviving original Temptation, once recalled that Ruffin was a “lively, funny guy” prone to doing cartwheels while they walked down the street, who offered little about his background, no matter how much time the two spent together.
“As long as I’d known David, he was always a very complex guy, very intense about things,” Williams wrote in his 1988 memoir, Temptations.
Ruffin’s upbringing had been rooted in pain, something his niece, Gina Ruffin Moore, discovered when she was a little girl, living in Fort Bragg, N.C. Her father, Quincy Ruffin, a member of the U.S. Army Special Forces, had long insisted that he had been an orphan. But he one day admitted that he had a sister, Rita Mae, and two famous brothers: David, the Temptation, and Jimmy Ruffin, a Motown artist who sang “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted.”
Quincy tried to distance himself from the family’s roots in rural Whynot, Miss. The Ruffins’ mother died when David was a baby, and their father, Eli Ruffin, later forced the siblings to become a singing group — the Spiritual Trying Four.
“Mr. Eli would take them from church to church on Sundays, and people would feel sorry for these motherless children,” Gina said.
The family had little money, and the older siblings later recounted being beaten by their father. David and Jimmy Ruffin, though, had their voices. “When David was about 13 or 14,” Gina said, “he used to always play a game — ‘Let’s pretend I’m on The Ed Sullivan Show!’ — and stand on a piece of wood, singing, and tell the other kids to clap for him.”
In 1965, when Gina was 8 years old, she met her uncle David for the first time. He arrived at her family’s house in North Carolina in an eye-catching white limousine that had been fitted with white mink carpet, accompanied by a large, white dog.
Ruffin was offered a barbecued steak. He fed it to his dog, and asked his surprised hosts: “You got any baby food?” David Ruffin then tucked into a jar of baby peaches, and quietly explained that he was plagued by an ulcer.
Few glimpsed such vulnerability in Detroit, where Ruffin tried to make it as a solo artist in the early 1960s. Motown Records founder Berry Gordy Jr. had begun assembling an impossibly deep roster of performers and songwriters — Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, the Jackson Five — who would change popular music forever.
The Temptations invited Ruffin to join them in 1964, replacing a fellow tenor, Eldridge Bryant. Ruffin had made a compelling case for the position after he climbed onstage with the band in a Detroit lounge, and began “throwing the microphone up in the air, catching it, doing full splits, plus singing like a man possessed,” Williams wrote.
Later that year, the group had their first hit, the Smokey Robinson-penned single “The Way You Do the Things You Do.” When Ruffin was told that the song was climbing the Billboard charts, he burst into tears.
Robinson soon wrote a tune with Ruffin in mind, something slow and sweet. “[A]ll I needed was the right song for his voice, and I felt like I would have a smash hit record,” Robinson once told NPR. “My Girl” was the band’s first No. 1 record, but proved to be so much more — a paean to love that has endured for more than five decades.
As the band’s popularity grew, they toured relentlessly with other Motown artists along the Chitlin’ Circuit, a network of clubs and theaters on the East Coast, the Midwest, and the South that were welcoming to Black performers. The Uptown Theater, on North Broad Street, was a prominent point on the circuit, an iconic part of Philadelphia’s Black community, and a venue where musicians could sometimes look out at an audience and see Black and white concertgoers enjoying music together.
But there was no escaping the racial hatred that coursed through much of the country. Williams described one Temptations appearance in Kentucky that ended in a hail of gunfire, as a group of white men began firing at the band as they loaded their bus, shouting racial slurs, and warning them, “don’t you ever come back here again!”
The Temptations soon reached a higher plane, the stage that Ruffin had fantasized gracing when he was still in Mississippi. Millions tuned in to CBS on Sunday nights to watch Ed Sullivan, and the band was rattled before they performed for his audience — except for Ruffin, who didn’t break a sweat.
“It ain’t nothin’ but another television show,” he told them.
There were hints that Ruffin’s future would be tumultuous. A relationship with another Motown star, the Philadelphia native Tammi Terrell, was shadowed by rumors of physical violence, which Ruffin’s family later denied. His tenure with the Temptations ended abruptly, in 1968, when the group fired him for skipping one of their concerts; Ruffin had opted instead to watch one of Dean Martin’s daughters sing at the Latin Casino, in Cherry Hill.
A year later, Ruffin released an album, My Whole World Ended, that was a modest success. He could still sing raspy songs of regret better than anyone — listen to his howls on 1973′s “I Miss You (Part 1)” — but peers like Marvin Gaye were tackling weightier topics, like the Vietnam War, poverty, and social unrest.
“Everything in the world was changing, and I think David was in this position where people were just having him sing the same kinds of things, instead of trying to figure out who David was,” said Paul Barker, the Motown Museum’s director of development and community activation.
Candi Staton saw in Ruffin a lust for life that could take different forms. Sometimes he was a fun-loving “wild child” in search of thrills; other times, he could turn self-destructive. She recalls once climbing into Ruffin’s Chevrolet Corvette convertible when they were both on tour, and panicking when the car rocketed through traffic.
“David,” she shouted, “slow down, for heaven’s sake!”
“I ain’t going to kill you, girl,” he responded. “Sit back and relax!”
On another occasion, Staton and the singer Bobby Womack visited Ruffin while he was recording new music in California. Ruffin wanted to end the session early and leave with his friends, but a producer insisted that he needed to stay. The two men argued, and disappeared from view.
Then Ruffin returned in a huff.
“David, what did you do?” Womack asked.
“Oh, I knocked him out cold,” Ruffin said, shaking his hand. “He’ll be all right.”
The singer had four children — a son, David, and daughters Cheryl, Nedra, and Kimberly — who saw him in a different light. “He taught me how to drive, took me to get my license, and taught us how to ride horses,” Cheryl Ruffin-Robinson said.
She remembers holiday dinners and birthdays drenched in laughter and filled with food. When she was a teenager in the mid-1970s, her father took her on the road with him as he toured in support of a hit single, “Walk Away From Love.”
“I was interested in singing. He wasn’t interested in trying to get us to sing,” she laughed. “But he took me with him, and told me that the business aspect of it was not so fun. He said the fun part was what you see [onstage].”
In 1982, Ruffin participated in a short-lived Temptations reunion; the band quickly lost patience when he missed some of their scheduled concerts. That same year, he was indicted on federal tax fraud charges.
His career had seemingly bottomed. But then Hall and Oates invited Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks to perform a medley of Temptations classics when the Philadelphia duo played a benefit concert in May 1985 at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, N.Y.
“They were my gods, man,” Hall said. “The way they sang moved me, like probably nobody ever has.”
When Oates was 19, he and Hall had watched the Temptations from front-row seats at the Apollo, and met the towering Ruffin in a backstage stairwell. Singing with his heroes onstage “was the high point of my life, no doubt about it,” Oates said. “I felt like I was watching myself from above. I don’t want to get too hippy-dippy about it, but I felt like I was out of my body.”
They repeated the experience at Live Aid, and then Oates produced a song, “One More for The Lonely Hearts Club,” that Ruffin and Kendricks recorded for a 1987 album. Ruffin was excited for new performance opportunities that were opening to him — and sliding deeper into addiction’s gravitational pull. “David was hanging with a bad crew,” Hall said. “They were enabling him.”
The industry could be indifferent to stars who suffered substance abuse crises.
“If you think the music business had any kind of social conscience in those days,” Oates said, “you’re dreaming.”
A painful coda
When the crack cocaine epidemic surged in the 1980s, government leaders responded with tactics that disproportionately criminalized and punished people who had addictions, particularly in Black communities. Ruffin was arrested in the late ‘80s for drug possession, and went through rehabilitation.
He moved to Philadelphia in 1989, lived with a girlfriend, Diane Showers, and palled around with Linster “Butch” Murrell, the owner of a small limo service. Murrell remembers watching Ruffin sometimes disappear into properties to buy drugs. “He was getting high so much. The man was a walking skeleton.”
But Ruffin also reached out to his brother Quincy in 1991, and suggested they go back to Mississippi, and walk along a lake together, their feet in the sand. “He wanted to get back to what life was really all about,” his niece said.
On May 31 of that year, dressed in Bermuda shorts, white sneakers, and a lime-green shirt, Ruffin climbed into a gray limo that belonged to Murrell, driven by a man named Donald Brown. They ended up at a property on 52nd Street near Columbia Avenue in West Philadelphia, where Ruffin split 10 vials of crack cocaine with another man, William Nowell, according to reports at that time.
It was shortly before 3 a.m. on June 1 when Brown pulled up to the emergency room entrance to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, and told hospital staff that his passenger, David Ruffin, had overdosed. The singer was pronounced dead an hour later.
Much of the ensuing news coverage treated the details of Ruffin’s death salaciously. Of particular interest was whether someone had robbed Ruffin, who had recently toured with Kendricks and another ex-Temptation, Dennis Edwards; one of Ruffin’s managers suggested he could have carried as much as $40,000 on him the night he died, but he arrived at the hospital with just $53.
Cheryl Ruffin-Robinson said her family has long believed that there was foul play involved in her father’s death, and many questions they have about his final hours are still unanswered. Their grief was compounded by stories that they felt “tore his character down,” she said. “They blamed the person, instead of the disease.”
Thousands attended his funeral in Detroit, a send-off that said more about Ruffin, and what his music meant to people, than any of the headlines about his death.
Candi Staton sometimes revisits one of her favorite memories of her old friend. She was performing at a club in Detroit. Ruffin ventured inside, and somehow got his hands on a microphone. From a seat in the audience, he began to serenade her.
She starts to sing the same words that he did — slowly, carefully, like someone unfolding an old letter that might crumble.
I’ve got sunshine
On a cloudy day
When it’s cold outside
I’ve got the month of May
“It’s so sad,” she said, “how people can zero in on one negative thing about your life. And that becomes your life. But that is not your life.”