b/w I Want Her Love
(Written by Norman Whitfield)
It’s odd; I know part of my reason for doing this blog was to remind people (including myself) of the sheer quantity of really good records Motown somehow managed to release in their heyday, but looking back over the last few weeks’ worth of A-sides, the quality threshold is just staggering, even for me. We’re entering a period now where it’s almost as though nobody at Motown could do wrong – talk about your Golden Age right here.
The Supremes, the Temptations, the Four Tops… former runts of the Motown litter were having a good time of it in 1964. Given the number of new stars bursting through the ranks at Hitsville, it’s therefore not so much of a surprise to see honest, hard-working slogger Jimmy Ruffin given the full Motown makeover treatment too. Berry Gordy had identified another potential superstar lurking on the books, and it was time to bring Jimmy along.
The last time we met Jimmy Ruffin was back in 1961, when he cut a flop single for the short-lived Miracle Records label, the little-remembered Don’t Feel Sorry For Me. Since then, he’d been condemned to a day job noted by Nelson George as the most gruelling work available in Detroit: a shift on the assembly line at Ford. (He didn’t spend these years serving in the Army, as many sources inaccurately state – Jimmy had enlisted in the Fifties, but was long since demobbed by the time he followed his younger brother David to Detroit at the turn of the decade).
The older Ruffin stayed in touch with Motown, keeping his hand in by doing piecemeal work: compere duties, occasional bottom-of-the-bill live engagements, handclaps, finger-snaps, and what seems to be one solitary trip back to Hitsville in 1962 to record a song (Half Of Your Love) that was subsequently shelved for 41 years (it eventually surfaced on Jimmy’s excellent anthology CD, The Ultimate Motown Collection, in 2003). He also played guitar for David’s sporadic solo gigs, before David joined the Temptations. If that meant the accompanist work dried up, it might also have served to remind everyone at Motown that David’s older brother was still technically under contract, and so it came to pass that Jimmy was temporarily recalled from the purgatory of the Ford factory.
If things had shaken out differently, Jimmy might have been able to clock off for the last time right then and there. Young Norman Whitfield, still pretty much at the bottom of the Motown food chain as a writer-producer, turns in a slinky, soulful pop-blues number, and Ruffin obliges him with a brooding performance full of reflective pain. Jimmy’s voice isn’t as quite as strong as it would become later in the Sixties, though it’s still a sweetly likeable effort – but it’s equally clear that Whitfield wouldn’t make his fortune working with this Ruffin.
Indeed, there’s an argument to be made that at this stage, Jimmy’s voice simply isn’t big enough for the song (and perhaps more importantly the arrangement) Whit builds around him here. Tender, vulnerable, full of vibrato, Ruffin pours his heart out over the hackneyed but touching lyric (I don’t need my arms, ‘cos I know / That they’ll never hold you again / What good are my ears, when they only hear / Bad gossip from our so-called friends). His reward is that he ends up subsumed by the bolder, brasher brass and backing vocals, all more professional and more direct than Jimmy can manage yet. He tries a few raw howls of emotion, but when a quirk of chronology means Since I’ve Lost You gets played back-to-back with Levi Stubbs, there’s only going to be one winner on that score.
Still, even if the overall impression is of a pretty record that never quite takes its foot off the brake pedal, there’s more than enough here to suggest Jimmy was one to watch. He’s personable and highly likeable, and his voice is good – it’s just perhaps not quite the right voice for this particular song.
All in good time, Jimmy Ruffin, all in good time; now, back to work on the assembly line. Your chance will come soon enough – and when you’ve been waiting this long for your break, what difference will a few more months make?
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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|The Four Tops
“Call On Me”
“I Want Her Love”
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