Thursday, April 6, 2017

Searching For Light: Jimmy Ruffin: "What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted"

"I'm outspoken, I wasn't part of the clique." - Jimmy Ruffin

You may well be wondering what a Motown song from 1966 is doing in the 1974 chart, but as it stands, British radio has had its struggles with Motown for some time. 

In 1966, "What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted" got to #10, at the point late in the year where the tide for new, interesting music was turning from the UK and back to the US; just months before the pirate stations were to close, and Radio One was to begin.  In the late 60s a reissue series of Motown singles that were never big hits when they were first issued began via Dave Godin*, who worked for the distribution arm for Motown in the UK; and Tony Blackburn and Alan Freeman were only too happy to play these alongside the fresh Motown songs, in a belief that these songs deserved more airplay, sales and general respect.**

This song was rereleased (possibly by Godin; I am not sure of this) and got to #2 on the Luxembourg chart, #4 on the UK chart.  Which is only right for such a (and I don't use this word loosely) majestic song

And yet it has, as I keep thinking, something a bit rough about it too.  Ruffin grew up poor, singing in the church alongside his brother David, and went into the army for a time, then worked in a factory, and after an injury took up work at Motown, singing for sessions, doing singles that were on the Motown subsidiary Miracle, while his brother joined The Temptations (a job he had turned down).  He heard this song, written by William Witherspoon, Paul Riser and James Dean, and heard The Spinners were to record it - the song resonated with him, and he managed to convince them that he should record it instead. 

Though not on the single version, there is a spoken introduction:

A world filled with love is a wonderful sight.
Being in love is one's heart's delight.
But that look of love isn't on my face.
That enchanted feeling has been replaced.
The song was produced by Smokey Robinson, and Ruffin's voice is dignified, direct, unironic.  And the Andantes and Originals are there too, because this is one man's witness to a crowd, a congregation; though it is not a protest song explicitly, there is an inescapable sense that what he has suffered has been suffered by others, due to the many voices, voices who have growing needs but only experience is of an "unhappy ending."  Ruffin didn't want to be part of a group, and his tenor voice is too distinctive to blend in happily.  It is a voice of a man who is average, but outspoken; a man who went to the UK and Europe to work when things dried up in the US. 

The misery in this song is absolute - he is "cold and alone" and while he sees love growing everywhere for others, it does not exist for him.  There are The Andantes and The Originals testifying to this, and there they are encouraging him to keep going, to keep searching in the darkness for light;  the song's title, which is something of a question, is that the brokenhearted either give up to the bleakness or they have the faith (have to have it) to find a way out, to find someone who will care.  He is a seer; he has visions; and at first these are troubling, but he also walks towards something positive, even if he can't see it, he knows it's there.

Was this a hit in the UK of 1974 as people wanted to feel acknowledged in their hapless sense of "always moving but going nowhere"? Well, we are in the time of The Fog and the bewilderment many must have felt is echoed in this song. But the narrator is not going to "make do and mend" or "keep calm and carry on" or anything like that; he is restless, he is in pain, and passive suffering is of no use to him.  Though he may be anguished, he is active; as active as the opposite Motown song of the time, "Reach Out I'll Be There."

That this song would be covered by Dave Stewart and Colin Blunstone*** in 1981 as an anti-Thatcher protest and be a hit (I like to think Ruffin appreciated this; it was his favorite cover version) is one thing to note; that Ruffin did a version of it in Italian called "Se Decidi Cosi"**** is another.  It was made a hit all over again for Paul Young in 1991, and memorably performed in the 2002 Motown doc Standing In The Shadows Of Motown by Joan Osborne. 

But what of Motown on British radio now?  (By this I mean 60s Motown, of course.)  Tony Blackburn does a "soul and Motown" show on digital radio and it is mixed up with random 80s soul and he no doubt plays some on his other shows (he has so many now and Motown is always a part of them).  But where else does it get played?  Is it doomed simply to be comfort food radio for those who remember being young at the time?  (Always with the idea, looming in the background, that everything has gotten worse since, including the music?) 

As the 60s disappear from the radio*****, Motown persists, but it is only as a sound, not as a meaning or as anything other than "the hits."  Northern Soul still gets played, I suppose, but what of Deep Soul, that of which Dave Godin was most proud?  That is perhaps too much for UK radio, and as so much US music tends to be, left to specialist broadcasters, while regular radio clings for dear life to the chart, as if to keep utter chaos from breaking out.  So much fine music being missed out, yet again; and what will become of it?

As for Jimmy Ruffin, he sang on miner's strike benefit single "Soul Deep" by the Council Collective as he knew about the struggles of the working man; and he would have had another hit with Stock, Aitken & Waterman's "Roadblock" but his vocal was left off to make it more mysterious.  But this is the song that has persisted; and whatever the cause, I am glad it got a second chance in the UK, much as Ruffin did.

Next up:  back to Canada.

*Dave Godin also coined the terms Northern Soul and Deep Soul, more on which anon.

**"Dancing In The Street" originally got to #28 in the UK in 1964 (when "Little Red Rooster" by The Rolling Stones was #1 - Dave Godin didn't think much of that, I bet); but with the push of Godin et. al., it got to #4 in 1969, for example.

***It was originally supposed to be Robert Wyatt, but he was busy working with Scritti Politti at the time. 

****"So If You Decide"

*****Radio Two's Sounds of the 60s now comes on at 6am on Saturday and is determinedly upbeat cheery stuff, as presented by Tony Blackburn.  The previous host, Brian Matthew, was dismissed only a few weeks ago and recently was taken to hospital, and mistakenly reported as dead by the BBC.  As of this writing he is still alive.