(Written by Smokey Robinson)
It’s a jarring thing to realise that Jimmy Ruffin – unspectacular, honest trier Jimmy Ruffin – was, by the winter of 1965, one of Motown’s longest-serving signings. In his four and a half years under contract at Hitsville, Jimmy, very much the forgotten Ruffin brother following David’s rise to stardom with the Temptations, had racked up a grand total of two single releases to show for his time – the long-forgotten (and possibly prophetically-titled) Don’t Feel Sorry For Me way back in 1961, and 1964′s I Want Her Love, a pretty good single but hardly the sort of stuff to take Jimmy to the next level. Now, almost exactly two hundred reviews later, we catch up with Jimmy once again on Motown Junkies, a year and a half after his last Motown 45; he’s like Hitsville’s very own Gordy’s Comet, returning at regular intervals for another bite at the cherry of stardom.
He’s getting closer, that’s for sure. The intervening time (not as long as first appears, as this was left on the shelf for another six months before finally being cleared for take-off) has been kind to Jimmy’s voice, still thin and wavering in places but with some of his warm personality now showing through, his Philly high harmonies hitting more often than they miss. Smokey Robinson, who writes and produces here, had by now developed a knack of bringing the best out of underpowered singers, and this is a fine effort; if it’s not exactly top-drawer Smokey (or indeed top-drawer Jimmy, though listeners at the time had no idea what that might sound like), it’s Ruffin Senior’s best single to date, both whistleable and likeable.
As presented on The Complete Motown Singles: Volume 5, this is a wonky, shonky sort of recording, the band track warped and distorted in places (the instrumental break around 1:20 is already a bad idea, failing to hide a particularly clunky key change, but the way it’s recorded it sounds like a duff tape copy of itself, a jarring, gurgling series of ropey orchestra hits that highlight the song’s worst moment in highly conspicuous fashion). It’s a fairly rudimentary song even behind all of the recording errors (and, actually, in terms of both its atmosphere and its failure to gracefully integrate the string parts, it now strikes me as being very similar to the Supremes’ Who Could Ever Doubt My Love which immediately precedes it on the CD).
But as we approach the chorus, and the strings swell to aid Jimmy on the climb to a huge buildup – don’t you know? – we get the sense that he really can make it, that this is going to be worth it. And, what do you know? He can, and it is. The chorus itself, creamy and sunny and feeling like a double helping of proto-Philly both in its simplicity and enveloping sweetness, the Andantes doing much of the heavy lifting, is almost criminally catchy.
It’s more than good enough to compensate for the dodgy recording, and perhaps gaining in confidence, Jimmy grows into his role as the song goes on. Few Motown singers audibly develop like this (and perhaps Jimmy has an unfair advantage when we’re only looking at the singles catalogue, given that we only get to meet him at very lengthy intervals, thus making his development seem more prodigious than it really is?); Eddie Kendricks managed it, Marv Johnson never did, but we can physically hear Jimmy Ruffin becoming a fine, fine singer. At 1:44, there’s a splendid echo of the future when Ruffin sings “Don’t doubt me ’cause you doubt him”, tears and pleading in his voice; somewhere in the distance, a light switches on in his mind; still brighter lights begin to beckon. “As I walk this land of broken dreams…”
MOTOWN JUNKIES VERDICT
(I’ve had MY say, now it’s your turn. Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment, or click the thumbs at the bottom there. Dissent is encouraged!)
You’re reading Motown Junkies, an attempt to review every Motown A- and B-side ever released. Click on the “previous” and “next” buttons below to go back and forth through the catalogue, or visit the Master Index for a full list of reviews so far.
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“Who Could Ever Doubt My Love”
“How Can I Say I’m Sorry”