Friday, May 20, 2005

The soul music of yesterday. Today!

Traditional Rhythm & Blues is perhaps one of the most underappreciated musical genres in today's media environment. Maybe it's because of some ingrained racial issues still simmering in the collective consciousness of Western audiences. Maybe younger listeners don't really give a pig's ear about the past. Or maybe we've just had enough of the musical blight that is modern day Stevie Wonder, and are determined to punish any other musicians who have ever associated with him.

Sure, any number of musicians or music fans can casually name-check Otis Redding or Marvin Gaye, or sing the chorus of "Soul Man." But I would be genuinely surprised if more than, say, five people in 100, could name a tune sung by Sam Cooke, or who knew that "Cruisin" is not a song by D'Angelo or Canadian Idol tart Teresa Sokyrka (as the CTV commercials might have us believe). Incidentally, D'Angelo remains very good, and desperately need to release new material ASAP.

Anyway, for several months now, I've been absolutely enthralled with what may be the very best R&B or Soul record never released. The album is David Ruffin's David: The Unreleased Album, which was laid down in 1971 by the former Temptations firebrand, by mysteriously shelved by Motown executives. It was finally released in a limited edition late last year, and is basically one of the greatest albums I have ever had the pleasure of paying $35 to own.


David Ruffin is the greatest soul singer you've never heard of, and David is certainly one of the best Motown albums never released – a thrilling and cohesive collection of music incorporating the sounds of Detroit, Memphis and Philly soul, all for the benefit Ruffin's incredible vocal abilities.

Recorded in 1969 and 1970, David was to have been Ruffin's third solo album after his inimical departure from The Temptations, with whom he sang lead on classics such as "My Girl," and "Ain't Too Proud To Beg."

Yet, for reasons unclear (although Ruffin's drug problems may have been a factor), executives at Motown refused to release the material, even after spending time, money and talent to complete the album. It has only now been liberated from the record company's massive vaults and issued in a remastered edition by boutique label Hip-O Select.

We are lucky for this. There has not been a truly great, traditional American R&B recording in perhaps two decades, and the jubilant material on David probably sounds fresher now than if it had been released as intended, alongside Marvin Gaye's masterpiece What's Going On and Stevie Wonder's Talking Book.

Although lacking the incisive social commentary of these indisputable classics, Ruffin's album is no less enjoyable. The 12 original cuts (plus 11 accompanying bonus tracks) are uniformly excellent in terms of production, songwriting, musicianship – the latter due to the sure and steady instrumental foundation laid down by Motown studio staples The Funk Brothers.

Most of the songs were and are quality originals, which play to Ruffin's strengths as a powerful vocalist and incomparable showman.

True to traditional Motown practice, the album does include a couple reinterpretations of (at the time of recording) contemporary hits, and it's a credit to all involved that, rather than being filler, these tracks are two of David's strongest. The Jackson 5 hit "I Want You Back" is here turned into a muscular, sexed-up anthem akin to Wilson Pickett's "In the Midnight Hour," and Ruffin's cover of "Rainy Night in Georgia" is a surprisingly successful vehicle for the singer to demonstrate his interpretive subtlety. On this song, Ruffin's stirring baritone has so much depth, it as though he's giving voice to a thousand breaking hearts.

However, standard practice at Motown also emphasized an adherence to the somewhat static pop tendencies of the era. Specifically, the reverence paid toward wall of sound-style production values weighs a little too heavily at times. Very few of the songs on David are untouched by orchestral flourishes, which, although never comically bombastic, do occasionally become too obtrusive.

Additionally, tracks such as "Each Day is a Lifetime" and "I Can't Be Hurt Anymore" are somewhat marred by thoroughly average backup singers. Their faults are hardly egregious, but Ruffin has a such phenomenal presence on this album that his backup vocalists are simply outclassed.

But these are petty gripes. The afflicted tunes are strong enough to overcome the intermittent bout of heavy-handedness, and the songs that manage to steer clear of the more maudlin production elements altogether are absolutely sublime.

The record's standout track, "Let Somebody Love Me," is an astonishing showcase for Ruffin's powerful and wide-ranging vocals. The singer sells this song from its very first syllables, and the strength of the lyrics about the hope of finding earthly and heavenly love serve to highlight the conviction of Ruffin's performance. The arrangement is just the right mix of graceful and grandiose, alternating between verses framed only by bass and a delicate vibraphone line, and choruses so heavy that they threaten to blow one's stereo speakers.

This track rivals anything ever recorded by just about anyone in the R&B and soul music business, and is characteristic of the album as a whole. Ruffin is a performer of undeniable passion, and almost every aspect of David stands as a testament to his enduring talent.

Cross the bridge to read the full review.


Blogger The Fresh Young MikeyD said...

God Damn it Punk is Dead you and I are sharing some sort of physic link and it’s almost scary. I was just listening to that masterpiece yesterday in my various errand runs and jaunts about town in the car and now I cannot stop.

Everything you wrote was bang on. That album is a stormer with not a single weak track.

I too miss the trad. R&B or Soul music ‘cause as you pointed out today’s incarnation just doesn’t even have a shred semblance of its namesake. Plus man alive does trad. R&B or Soul make for some good dancin’ music.

P.S. Somebody give this man a job writing music reviews ‘cause I’ve never read a better review.

5/20/2005 1:13 p.m.  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Isn't Cruisin' that great song that Gwyneth Paltrow sang??
Was that NOT the original version!?

5/22/2005 8:29 p.m.  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just recently purchased David Ruffin's unreleased album. "Wow" is all I have to say. I've listened to Brook Benton's version of "Rainy Night in Georgia" and followed it with David's. With all due respect to Benton, David's version is better, hands down. Especially near the end where David hits his famous high note. Also, David's cover of "I want you back" is amazing. Although David wasn't as cute as MJ, musically, David's version is better. I haven't even listened to the other songs on the album yet, but can't wait to see what else he brought to the table!

On a personal note, I am really upset Motown didn't release this album because David's version of Rainy Night in Georgia would have sealed his fate has a successful solo singer (since his recording was the same year as Benton's). There will never be another D Ruffin!

9/02/2007 10:37 a.m.  

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