Wednesday, September 21, 2016
Sure, blow and women and depression and panic went lengths to ravage the Mississippi-born singer’s vocal range and tone (it finished him off in the end) but it’s that hold-a-note-despite-the-odds quality—a perfect aural metaphor of just hanging on—that made David Ruffin one of the greatest soul singers to draw a breath. His voice didn’t age as much as reveal his life’s face-plants and failures and attendant sadnesses. And ain’t that what singing is all about? How did that stop mattering? Music would sound a lot different now had Ruff never existed.
This autobiographical, you-can’t-tie-me-down tune even references Tucson, Arizona in its open-road romance, and is tempered with a sense of yearning that defined Ruff’s life. There’s a lilting, post-psych/Sly Stone undercurrent too—the wah-wah guitar heroics and Funk Bros swing—that gets mellowed-out with an early ’70 bedroom-soul groove. Features a thoughtful, almost spry arrangement by David Van DePitte (Jackson 5), and production and co-write by undersung Detroiter Bobby Miller (Gene Chandler, Earth, Wind and Fire).
“The Rovin’ Kind” leads off Ruff’s third official, post-Temptations solo Motown LP (official ’cause Motown head Berry Gordy shockingly shelved Ruff’s brilliant third album, which finally saw light in 2004). The tune was originally tracked for the Four Tops, and then another ex-Temptation, Eddie Kendricks, before Ruff got it.
By this time Gordy had no love for Ruffin, hence Motown scarcely promoted this 1973 self-titled album. (It stiffed, peaking at No. 170 on the Billboard pop chart.) More, Gordy stopped Ruff from recording songs penned by A-list writers. But the good shit always rises, and years and years later Gordy has been proven dead wrong, and Ruffin gave us this, and many others, as well as that voice.
Sidenote: I owned a house in Detroit near 7 Mile and Livernois that was a few blocks from where Ruffin’ had lived when he recorded this song. One old woman neighbor remembered him in the hood from back in the day. She had a crush on him, of course, and said Ruff was bigger than life. “In that big black car, he seemed higher than the sun,” she’d told me. “He didn’t walk as much as float.” I’ll never forget that.