With its wracked yet stoical vocal and a melody like a tolling bell, What Becomes of the Brokenhearted connected Motown to the blues to devastating effect
I have visions of many things
But happiness is just an illusion
Filled with sadness and confusion
What becomes of the brokenhearted?”
It should never have worked.
Written for the Spinners but hijacked by a no-hope singer on a Motown subsiduary label who’d been passed over for the vacant berth in the Temptations in favour of his little brother.
Cursed with a long (for 1966) intro created only because the original spoken word intro was deemed to be too irredeemably corny for top 40 radio, and with a doom-laden lyric that suggested nothing quite so much as the result of locking Smokey Robinson in the Detroit basement of Hitsville USA with only the works of TS Eliot for company, it was wildly at odds with the rest of the Sound Of Young America.
And yet, and yet ...
I first heard What Becomes of the Brokenhearted in 1974, then on its second go round in the UK charts; I was 16, in thrall to Alex Harvey and Mott the Hoople. Over the past 40 years nothing has happened to alter my initial impression that this was one of the greatest records I had ever heard, and certainly the best that Motown had ever produced.
I had never listened to Jimmy Ruffin – who has just died aged 78 – before, and I haven’t bothered to investigate any of his other records since because I knew they wouldn’t be, couldn’t be like this.
The Mississippi-born Ruffin delivers a staggering performance, lunging at the song and its tolling bell of a melody without ever losing control. It’s this inherent fatalism, this stoicism, this idea that he’s a cursed man in a blasted world who can’t do a damn thing about it, that harks back to the blues and gives the song one half of its astonishing power.
The other half, of course, comes from the music, which plays out in a taut counterpoint to that vocal, moving on up from its stately beginning with a glorious, swirling logic that says it doesn’t have to be like this, things can be better, things will be better.
That performance contains worlds: the North, the South, slavery and freedom; an America riven by the Vietnam war and the Civil Rights struggle; the small world of an English teenager living in the three day week and even, yes even, how rubbish you feel when you break up with your partner.
It’s as simple and as complicated as you want to make it - but it’s all there in the record. And that’s why Jimmy Ruffin will live forever.
Jimmy Ruffin may have missed out on a dream gig in the 1960s, but he went on to have a long career with Motown Records.
Any suspicions that soul singer Jimmy Ruffin might have harbored hard feelings after his younger brother, David, snatched one of the great gigs in 1960s pop music out of his hands would have been dispelled when the siblings came together in 1970 to collaborate on a harmonious update of Ben E. King's signature ode to solidarity, "Stand By Me."
Jimmy Ruffin, who died Monday in a Las Vegas hospital at age 78, had been in the running to join the lineup of Motown Records' great male vocal group the Temptations in 1964. But when the other members of the group heard David sing, they gave him the job for his slightly grittier sound.
That didn't sideline Jimmy for long: He heard a song that Motown writers William Weatherspoon, Paul Riser and James Dean had crafted with the Spinners in mind, and persuaded them to let him record it.
"What Becomes of the Brokenhearted," a lament for the anguish a man feels in the face of love that has departed, gave Ruffin his first Top 10 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart. It ignited a solo career that comprised 10 other charted singles, the last of which, "Hold On to My Love," brought him back to the Top 10 in 1980 during a new round of popularity, the result of his move to England to further his career overseas.
"Jimmy Ruffin was a phenomenal singer," Motown founder Berry Gordy said in a statement Wednesday. "He was truly underrated because we were also fortunate to have his brother, David, as the lead singer of the Temptations, who got so much acclaim. Jimmy, as a solo artist, had 'What Becomes of the Brokenhearted,' one of the greatest songs put out by Motown and also one of my personal favorites."
Early on, Jimmy and David Ruffin sang gospel music in the Dixie Nightingales while growing up around rural Collinsville, Miss., where Jimmy was born on May 7, 1936.
Jimmy Ruffin worked his way north to Detroit, then joined the rapidly growing stable of artists at Motown Records in 1961 — signed to its Miracle subsidiary label. But his career was put on hold when he was drafted and spent two years in the Army.
Upon being discharged, Ruffin had his brush with the Temptations, as members Eddie Kendricks, Paul Williams, Melvin Franklin and Otis Williams were searching for a replacement for fifth member Elbridge Bryant. Shortly after adding David to the lineup in 1965, the Temps scored the first No. 1 hit for a male vocal group at Motown with "My Girl," which featured David's lead vocal.
The following year, Jimmy made his rise up the chart with "What Becomes of the Brokenhearted," which he followed with "I've Passed This Way Before," which peaked at No. 17 in Billboard.
Not long after David left the Temptations in 1968, he and Jimmy recorded an album, "I Am My Brother's Keeper," as the Ruffin Brothers, including their version of "Stand By Me," which reached No. 61 in Billboard in 1970.
But Jimmy's solo career never sustained or surpassed that initial burst of success from "What Becomes of the Brokenhearted," so Ruffin decided to focus on the following that his recordings had established in Europe. He moved to London and spent much of the 1980s and '90s there.
English music fans' affinity for Ruffin's music paved the way for the Bee Gees' Robin Gibb to produce for Ruffin an album, "Sunrise," in 1980, which yielded "Hold On to My Love." His final chart hit, a duet with Maxine Nightingale on "Turn To Me," came in 1982.
On Wednesday, Ruffin's children Philicia Ruffin and Jimmy Lee Ruffin Jr. released a statement on their father. "Jimmy Ruffin was a rare type of man who left his mark on the music industry," the statement said. "My family in its entirety is extremely upset over his death. He will truly be missed. We will treasure the many fond and wonderful memories we all have of him."
No details on the cause of death were immediately available. David Ruffin died in 1991 at 50 of a drug overdose.