Listen now on:

Revered as an artist and destined for superstardom, Motown’s most powerful voice never got his due. Probably because his best music was never released in his lifetime.

Not many folks know David Ruffin’s name, but pretty much everyone has heard his voice. His spiced-honey croon and sandpaper shout fueled The Temptations biggest hits from their classic era, “My Girl,” “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg,” “I’m Losing You,” and “I Wish It Would Rain.” Truth is, Ruff’s voice was the most powerful instrument in Motown’s arsenal. Even Marvin Gaye, arguably the only man at Motown who could out-sing Ruffin, envied his depth and artistry, calling him “a monster singer,” saying that Ruffin’s voice had a power his own lacked.

The best music Ruffin ever made was never released in his lifetime

When Ruff got kicked out of The Temptations for bad behavior, he and Motown were both damn sure he’d end up a household name as a solo artist. According to Smokey Robinson, “Berry [Gordy] and the rest of us were convinced his star would would rise as high as anyone’s.” But Ruffin never had the career his talent, ego, or even his fellow artists expected of him. Yes, he was often a victim of his own bad habits, but there may be another reason this incredible artist never got his due: The best music David Ruffin ever made was never released in his lifetime. He had a few hits—from the perfectly painful “My Whole World Ended (The Moment You Left Me)” to the sublime self-sabatoge of “Walk Away From Love,”—but it turns out the David Ruffin records we heard are nothing compared to the ones we didn’t.

Ruffin’s grown-ass rip through “I Want You Back” makes Michael Jackson sound like the boy he was

In 2005, more than a decade after Ruffin’s death, Motown released David, an album recorded in 1970 that is, song-for-song, the best album the label had made up to that point (Stevie Wonder’s Signed, Sealed And Delivered being the only possible contender). Ruffin is at his absolute peak as a singer, and the songs and arrangements are perfectly matched to his powers. “Let Somebody Love Me” is crushingly sad, with toy pianos battling fuzz guitars behind what I’ll go to my grave calling the best singing ever recorded. Ruffin’s grown-ass rip through “I Want You Back” makes Michael Jackson sound like the inexperienced little boy he was and will ruin you for the Jackson 5 original.

“Anything That You Ask For” is cinematic soul: giant, joyous, and just begging for a soundtrack slot in a film big, romantic, and sincere enough to carry its weight. Even the bonus tracks slapped on to the end of the album are revelatory: “Mountain Of Memories,” an unfinished demo from the sessions, is a twisted trip though obsession that’s only made more harrowing by the unrehearsed fumbling of a band still searching for the song’s groove, and “Heaven Help Us All,” a sermon that resonates even more powerfully in the age of #blacklivesmatter than it did at the time, is taken to church, up to heaven, and back down to earth through the sheer power of Ruffin’s preaching — soaring beyond the versions of the song cut by the geniuses Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles.

It’s impossible to say if David would have been a hit if it was released in 1971 — soul music was changing quickly and while it sounds timeless in 2105, the album may have felt dated in the immediate aftermath of game-changing records like Marvin’s What’s Going On and Stevie’s Music Of My Mind (Motown did test the waters by releasing a couple of oddly chosen singles from the album that, unsurprisingly, went nowhere). In hindsight, though, David chews up and spits out most of what was on R&B radio at the time and damn sure argues Ruffin’s case better than any of the solo records released in his lifetime.

A few years after David was finally released, a dozen more unreleased Ruffin recordings were revealed in a 2-volume, 4-CD collection of his Motown solo albums. And there, buried deep in the track list, with a too-long, too-weird title and no mention of its provenance or producer, sat the song. The song he made with the genius Stevie Wonder. The song that explodes out of the speakers and lays waste to everything else on that exhaustive and essential anthology. The song that just might have changed it all for David Ruffin . . . if anyone got the chance to hear it.

There’s no doubt that of all the serious talent that came out of Motown, Stevie Wonder emerged as its unchallenged genius. No disrespect to Marvin, Smokey, or Michael, but it’s hard to argue with the unbroken string of masterpiece albums in the ’70s that Stevie wrote, produced, and performed almost entirely by himself that remain unassailable commercial, critical and artistic triumphs.

Ruffin tore in to Stevie Wonder’s song with the fury of a man fighting for his life

It was during that first, dizzying phase of Stevie’s ’70s peak, sometime between cutting “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours” and “Superstition,” that he cooked up a track that explosively combined the contagious joy of the former and the churning funk of the latter. Playing nearly every instrument on the track, Stevie can also be heard yelping in the background, unable to contain his own glee as the song pounds on. And Ruffin tears in to it with the unleashed fury of a man fighting for his life—or certainly his pride. And his pride was no doubt broken: The Temptations, who he swore couldn’t survive his departure, continued to live in the Top Ten while Ruffin struggled to follow up his lone hit without them. Stevie, meanwhile, was maturing rapidly and exploding creatively, having written and produced three R&B hits that dominated 1970: “Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours)” for himself, “It’s A Shame” for the Spinners, and “The Tears Of A Clown” for Smokey Robinson & The Miracles. David had to know this was his chance to get back on top and he wasn’t gonna phone this one in.

The result of Stevie’s groove and Ruffin’s attack is wonderfunk to wake the dead. You feel it. You move. You turn it up to 11 and wish it went to 12. It’s a marvel. And it should have been blowing out car speakers across the country when it was finally completed in 1972. But it didn’t. It just got tucked away in a tape vault for 34 years until it would unceremoniously surface as a deep-cut bonus track on a collection intended only for Ruffin’s deepest fans.

Maybe things would have been different for Ruff if this music came out when it was supposed to. Or maybe this music was meant to come out exactly when it did

Pop culture is far too unpredictable and volatile for “what if” predictions. I have no idea if “Loving You Has Been So Wonderful” would have been a Number One hit or just another unjustly ignored single by a towering talent. And I can’t say that the release of the David album would have put him on a path that transcended the demons and addictions that battered his career and destroyed his body. But I’ll always wonder. David Ruffin was a singer whose voice was a part of my own story for as long as I’ve loved music. I found something in the paper-thin veneer of swagger that covered the bottomless hurt in his voice and clung to it for dear life. Having such powerful music come out long after he’d gone and long after I thought I’d heard and absorbed everything he had to offer was a gift, and whoever heard this new music seemed to respond powerfully. When I slid a smuggled CD-R of David to fellow Trunkworthy contributor Thane Tierney, he immediately pushed for its official release on his Hip-O Select label, where it quickly sold out of its first pressing, with original copies still selling for hundreds on eBay. The first time I blasted “Loving You Has Been So Wonderful” through my office, it instantly found a spot on a co-worker’s meticulously curated wedding playlist. So maybe things would have been different for David Ruffin if this music came out when it was supposed to. Or maybe this music was meant to come out exactly when it did. The important thing is that it’s out. And David Ruffin can finally be heard at his best.

Bonus Cut: How David broke out of Motown’s vaults (as told by the man who orchestrated its escape)

Right around the time I co-founded the Hip-O Select label with my late, beloved boss Pat Lawrence, Trunkworthy’s David Gorman pulled me aside and thrust a CD-R into my hand. “You gotta hear this,” he said. “You gotta put it out. And when you do, you gotta let me design the cover.” Well, first things first; quite often unreleased solo albums languish in the vaults for a reason, so I somewhat cautiously told him I’d give it a listen and see. So I did. Mind. Effing. Blown. If the J5 version of “I Want You Back” could top the charts for a week (which it did), Ruffin’s version could have topped them for a month. Tesla-coil power; a deep, fat groove; songwriting, production, and performance right in the pocket. This album had to come out now. I immediately called the A&R overseer of “classic” Motown, Harry Weinger, and said “This has got to go on the schedule, and I have the perfect guy to design the album. Not only has he won a Grammy, but he gave me the CD-R in the first place, and he wants to do it, no matter the budget.”

Game, set, match. Or perhaps more appropriately, signed, sealed, and delivered. The record connected with the soul-stirrers and cratediggers big-time, due in no small part to the fact that David’s cover looked like it had been trapped in the vaults right along with the masters, plucked intact from Hitsville USA’s Phantom Zone. But here’s the big takeaway for me: one guy’s passion overcame 30-some years of corporate negligence, rectified one of Motown’s biggest mistakes (and a cosmic wrong), and gave the inimitable Mr. Ruffin voice once again. It also provided me with my first true Trunkworthy moment, years before Trunkworthy was even a gleam in its founders’ eyes. Can I get an “Amen!”

—Thane Tierney, Inglewood, California

The Hidden Soul Of David Ruffin: The Best Of His Unreleased Recordings

Listen now on: