This one hurts tremendously.
My love of David Ruffin is well documented, but Jimmy was never too far behind for me. The laid back older brother, Jimmy was the perpetual cooler head. He was no less bad a cat with a healthy ego. His biggest hit was easily What Becomes Of The Broken Hearted, a tune originally intended for The Spinners that he snagged by strolling into the studio and nonchalantly telling songwriter James Deen that he figured he could sing it much better. It’s hard to imagine that he was incorrect. He later said that he brought his own gravitas to the tune as he saw it as the plea of “someone lost…looking for someone -or something– to believe in.”
Jimmy was possessed of a certain acerbic intelligence, a deeply expressive maturity that meant that his interpretations of songs written by others held his stamp so heavily that went well beyond any mere reading. What Becomes Of The Broken Hearted is a song that will last forever, and it’s not just because the words are brilliant- it’s because Jimmy Ruffin sang the holy hell out of it. It’s one I will always reverently stop and pay attention to whenever I hear it, deliberately or anywhere it might come on. It’s every bit as moving when it comes on at the grocery store as it was just now when I listened twice all the way through on my headphones.
Another fantastic song of his, and one that I spent a lot of time with after my first devastating loss as a lad of about 18, was I’ve Passed This Way Before. Trying to put into words what this song meant to me then and still means today feels futile, but I will try. It was as if Jimmy wasn’t just David’s older brother, but my own. At a time when I felt more alone than I had ever felt before inside the locked cell of my busted psyche, it was as if I had a road map out of the state I was in. Some would find the Sisyphean message that heartache would come for me again and again to be more than they would care to bare recreationally, but to me it just meant I wasn’t alone in it. Jimmy kept a bullet out of his brain, so could I.
Big hits eluded Jimmy as the years ticked by. A criminally underrated record with the Gibb brothers (That’s the Bee Gees, in case you’re somehow unaware) was recorded and released. Hold On To My Love should’ve lit up the world. It did not.
Jimmy would eventually decide that he was the lucky one, and equated the mammoth success that eluded him over the years with danger of an ugly, early death. He would talk unequivocably on the subject in relation to his brother, most frequently on the BBC show he he hosted for years. He came to see his relatively obscure personal status as more of a blessing than a hindrance, especially considering his tendency towards the depressive. He would in later years add a flourish of his own devising at the beginning of What Becomes Of The Broken Hearted when he would perform the song live. Doing the number thousands of times led to freewheeling takes, the mark of a truly great Soul Man.
I hope he found what he needed. Whatever, wherever, whenever.