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People Top 5
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- June 17, 1991
- Vol. 35
- No. 23
A Death in the Night
David Ruffin Took the Temptations to the Top, but in the End, Drugs Became His Downfall
AH, THE TEMPTATIONS, GLIDING across the stage in their dazzling mohair suits and spreading the balm of sweet-soul pop over the abrasive '60s. Led by David Ruffin's gorgeous, gospel-trained voice, the Temptations carried the Motown banner on up the music charts with hits like "The Way You Do the Things You Do," "Ain't Too Proud to Beg" and, of course, "My Girl," the classic love song of the Big Chill era.
The heart and soul of that music died early on June 1 after a limousine drove up to a Philadelphia hospital emergency room. The driver reportedly told attendants, "He's in bad shape. He was with the Temptations. His name is David Ruffin," then sped away.
It was indeed Ruffin, 50, who died an hour later. At first friends suspected foul play. A well-known night prowler, Ruffin had apparently collapsed at a crack house several hours earlier with up to $40,000 on him—proceeds from a recent European tour. Though the money was missing when he arrived at the hospital, the coroner found no evidence of injury and ruled his death an accidental drug overdose.
Ruffin's passing surprised no one close to him. His aunt Lillie Ruffin said flatly, "I'm not shocked. I knew he was using too much drugs." Added Lee Marcus, a drummer who toured with Ruffin in the mid-'80s: "He had a big heart; he was a kind man. But he just had something that was eating him up inside."
No one ever quite knew just what that something was. Born Davis Eli Ruffin in Meridian, Miss., Ruffin moved to Detroit in the late '50s. Changing his name to David, he cut a few unsuccessful singles for Anna Records, owned by a sister of Motown godfather Berry Gordy, and met Temptations cofounder Otis Williams. As the legend goes, David jumped onstage with the group one night and brought the house down by flipping the microphone into the air, spinning, catching it, then collapsing in a split.
That trademark routine would be seen thousands of times after Ruffin joined the Temptations in 1963. With his striking, raspy baritone and Eddie Kendrick's lyrical tenor, the Temps rolled out 16 Top 40 singles in four years before the clash of egos began to unravel their exquisitely stitched seams.
Ruffin left in 1968 to go solo. By then he had already served one stint in a drug-rehabilitation center; a sad string of arrests and failed rehab attempts would follow over the next two decades. Still, in 1989 he and former Temps Kendrick and Dennis Edwards mended fences and resumed touring together. At his death, "He was making money and working steady," said his ex-wife, Sandra, of the father of four. "The only downfall he had was the drugs. He was really trying, but after 24 years with the drugs, he just couldn't conquer it." Even so, she added, "he never lost his voice."
November 23, 2015
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