In 2008 I produced and co-presented a programme for London’s Capital Gold (now Gold) called The Top 100 Motown which was a countdown of the most successful Motown songs in the UK based on a complex points system devised by my co-author on the Complete Book of the British Chart, Neil Warwick, and the song that lead the way was Jimmy Ruffin’s 1966 hit What Becomes Of The Broken Hearted. Now that legend has died.
Jimmy, who was born in 1936, not 1939 as has been regularly published, had been in hospital since September after he developed pneumonia, further complications and the discovery off cancer saw him moved to intensive care in more recent times.
A Mississippi native and the older brother of the late Temptations singer David Ruffin, Jimmy began as a backing singer for Motown in the early sixties before being drafted into the U.S. Army and stationed in Germany. Upon returning to Motown in 1964, he cut material with little success before striking it big in 1966 with Brokenhearted, which took him to number seven on Billboard chart and number eight in the UK, although it did reach number four when re-issued in 1974.
The two brothers collaborated on the 1970 album I Am My Brother’s Keeper, and while Jimmy Ruffin ultimately notched eight solo songs on Billboard’s R&B chart, his biggest success came in England, where he lived for a stretch and continued to perform frequently in later years.
His last big hit came in 1980 with the fantastic Robin Gibb written and produced track Hold On To My Love which reached number seven here and number 10 Stateside. In 1984 he collaborated with the Style Council for Soul Deep, a benefit song to raise money for striking coal miners.
“All of his songs were about love, so that spoke to the kind of spirited guy he was, and spiritual too,” said his daughter Philicia, “He came up in the church, and that’s where he started singing. Dad was living in the metro Detroit area as recently as 2010, but returned to his home in Las Vegas, where he was planning to begin performing again before taking ill,” she concluded.
“He had a good voice, kind of unique,” said former Motown A&R director, Mickey Stevenson, “And a great heart, a very sensitive guy. He wasn’t the hungry, demanding guy – he wasn’t that kind of artist. Everything was patience, everything was OK. It was never, ‘Look, man, I’ve gotta have my time in the studio right now!'”
While David Ruffin became an international success with the Temptations, Stevenson said he never witnessed the sort of jealousy or rivalry that often crops among artist siblings.
Motown Records founder Berry Gordy said he was a “phenomenal singer” and was truly underrated because we were also fortunate to have his brother, David, as the lead singer of The Temptations.
David died in 1991 of a drug overdose which prompted Jimmy to become an anti-drug campaigner.