When David Ruffin sings at the beginning of “I know I’m losing you” he starts off on point. His coo-ing, woo-ing, ooh slinks promiscuously across the intro, but he slips back behind the beat straight after. By the time he hits “I can feel your love fading,” he’s already late.
The story of his life.
It is the sound of a young man at his peak. In full control of his instrument, before the rancour from within and without would overwhelm him.
Like Frank Sinatra not long before and Kool Keith long after him, Ruffin’s lacksadaisical delivery is intended. His held-back intonation makes a great record better. His lack of punctuality and the way he can make it punch through the weightiest and most tick-tock certain of rhythm tracks is symbolic of his genius.
He’s striving, pleading for someone already going. But there’s also a sense he is delivering his own eulogy. “I know I’m losing you” was a fine piece of prophesy.
It’s impossible to think that Norman Whitfield and Eddie Holland didn’t know what they were doing – and who was going to sing it – when they wrote the song. It’s about jealousy, self-importance. And impotence in the face of the fact you’ve burned one bridge too many.
For who needs to be humble when you’re the prettiest, best singer on God’s green earth? He’d tell you so much with just a flash of his smile. His fragility, playing effortlessly across endless dark eyes that could draw you in like quicksand, had become just another move.
He’d already been hassling Berry Gordy to change the name of the group to “David Ruffin and the Temptations,” just like Diana Ross had done with the Supremes. His plan was to ascend to superstardom, to immortality, to put his beautiful self at the vanguard.
But as Mike Tyson once said:
Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.
“I know I’m losing you’s” belligerent guitar stabs, and clashing, contradictory horns and strings are the warm front behind a mordant storm brewing.
And out front Ruffin holds back somehow, just off the beat, just behind those epochal tambourines that sound like they were recorded in an empty meat packing fridge. Or on the assembly line. They clang off the walls. They rattle your bones.
This was before the fall of Motown, of Detroit, and of the pretence that a civilised country could somehow rear up out of the post-war capital of the world. And the fall of Ruffin, himself.
He’d soon be kicked out of the Temptations.
The sweetness in his voice would be undermined by the fattened pipes in his throat from all the coke. That inimitable understanding of timing he had, the one that had been honed in churches as a kid, and polished by the likes of Smokey Robinson – who understood the lines that criss-crossed chaotically between gospel and pop and jazz like those that came out of those weird experiments in the eighties when spiders were given small amounts of LSD – was tragically lost.
My favourite story about him is that after his sacking he would turn up at Temptations shows and climb up onto the stage mid-set, like he was still in the band. Like he did when this was fun.
It’s probably apocryphal, but it’s a good story and, all the same, the image is a compelling one.
The image of the remaining Temptations, looking at him like he was insane, hoping that he’d just slope off again the way he had sloped on. Leaving just a hint of fag smoke in the air, the glitter flash of a well cut suit turning away, and the lingering memory in the eyes of the confused crowd watching ecstatically, of a man who really was, for a time, the greatest singer on God’s green earth.
They might not have even noticed anything being wrong, anyway. For even when at his best, he was always late.