Date of Birth: 7 May 1936, Collinsville, Mississippi, US
Birth Name: Jimmy Lee Ruffin
Nicknames: Jimmy Ruffin
Thanks to his 1966 hit What Becomes of the Brokenhearted, Jimmy Ruffin, who has died aged 78, is guaranteed a place among the greats of soul music. On hearing of his death, Motown Records’ founder, Berry Gordy, commented that this was “one of the greatest songs put out by Motown and also one of my personal favourites”.
The song was originally written by William Weatherspoon, Paul Riser and James Dean for the Spinners, but when he heard it Ruffin managed to persuade Dean that he was the man for the job. In the event his supple and expressive tenor voice was perfectly matched to the stormy vocal and instrumental backing, which evoked the anguish and struggle in the lyrics (“Every day heartaches grow a little stronger, I can’t stand this pain much longer”). The music drew on hymns, gospel music and chain-gang songs, with some shrewd key-changes to prevent it from subsiding entirely into darkness.
The original release of Brokenhearted reached No 7 on Billboard’s Hot 100 and No 6 on the R&B chart, and climbed to No 10 in the UK. Re-released in 1974, it did better still in Britain, rising to No 4. Meanwhile, the song propelled Ruffin to further chart success. In 1967, I’ve Passed This Way Before reached the US Top 20, while Gonna Give Her All The Love I’ve Got went to No 29 (both of these were Top 30 hits in Britain).
However, subsequent releases such as Don’t You Miss Me a Little Bit Baby (1967) and I’ll Say Forever My Love (1968) described a downward trajectory. When Maria (You Were The Only One) just scraped into the Hot 100 in 1970, it was Ruffin’s last appearance on the chart for a decade.
He realised that the success of Brokenhearted had been a mixed blessing. “The problem was that everyone then expected my records to all sound the same,” he reflected in 1970. “The next couple were just extensions of Brokenhearted and I had become typecasted, if that’s the word. I wanted to change my style because I realised that I couldn’t go on doing the same old thing forever. However, the public didn’t accept my later discs and I was caught in the middle.”
Born in Collinsville, Mississippi, to Elias, a Baptist minister, and his wife, Ophelia, he was the older brother of David Ruffin, who would go on to become lead singer with the Temptations. As children, Jimmy and David, with another brother, Quincy, a sister, Rita Mae, and their father and stepmother (Ophelia died shortly after David’s birth), travelled as a family gospel group.
In 1961, Ruffin joined the Motown musical family in Detroit when he was signed to its subsidiary label Miracle, for which he released the single Don’t Feel Sorry for Me. His progress was interrupted when he was called up for military service. After being discharged from the army, he came back to Motown in 1964 and was invited to join the Temptations as lead singer. Aiming for a solo career, Jimmy instead recommended his brother David, who was reaching the end of a solo contract with Chess Records. Jimmy signed a solo deal with Motown’s Soul label, which led to his breakthrough with Brokenhearted.
In 1968, David Ruffin was ejected from the Temptations because of his temperamental behaviour (he had demanded that the group be renamed David Ruffin & the Temptations). The two brothers then teamed up to make the album I Am My Brother’s Keeper (1970), which enjoyed moderate success and included versions of Stand By Me and He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother.
Jimmy, meanwhile, decided to concentrate on the more receptive UK market, and in 1970 he scored Top 10 hits in Britain with Farewell Is a Lonely Sound and It’s Wonderful (to Be Loved By You). Reissues of Brokenhearted and Farewell Is a Lonely Sound in 1974 brought further chart success. He enjoyed a major return to the limelight in 1980, when Robin Gibb of the Bee Gees produced his album Sunrise. A single from it, Hold on to My Love, reached No 10 in the States and No 7 in the UK.
Having moved to Britain, in 1984 Ruffin collaborated with Paul Weller on the song Soul Deep (attributed to the Council Collective), a disc aimed at raising money for families of striking coalminers. In 1986 he sang on Heaven 17’s songs A Foolish Thing to Do and My Sensitivity, and he recorded duets with Maxine Nightingale and Brenda Holloway. During the 1990s, Ruffin also branched out into radio work, and made the seven-part series Jimmy Ruffin’s Sweet Soul Music for Radio 2. After David died of a cocaine overdose in 1991, Jimmy became a committed anti-drugs campaigner.
A compilation of his hits, There Will Never Be Another You, was released in 2012, and Ruffin had reportedly been working on new songs for an album to mark his 77th birthday in 2013.