David Ruffin: who he was
The very first take of ‘Walk Away From Love’
Is there anything more magical than the note which David Ruffin hits and then hauls higher in “Walk Away From Love” – once, twice, three times? Nothing comparable comes immediately to mind, except perhaps Levi Stubbs’ melancholy ascent about two-thirds of the way through the Four Tops’ “Ask The Lonely.”
Both these voices were centrifugal forces at Motown. Worlds revolved around them, including mine. Perhaps yours, too.
Levi was a revelation from the moment he stepped to the microphone for “Baby I Need Your Loving.” But David in “Walk Away From Love” – when he demolishes any notion of calm acceptance of life’s tangles and twists – that was unexpected because by 1975, it seemed as if we’d heard everything he could deliver.
“That version is exactly as he did it on the very first take,” said the songwriter of “Walk Away From Love,” Charles Kipps Jr. “He did it so effortlessly. And – I’ll never forget it – he walked out [of the studio vocal booth] and looked around the room, and he said, ‘Is that OK?’ And everybody was, ‘Oh, my God.’ ”
The studio was Media Sound in New York, and Kipps was in business with Van McCoy, the arranger, conductor and producer of Ruffin’s fifth solo album for Motown, Who I Am. “I feel very fortunate,” Kipps told me 15 years after its release, “being the writer of the song, because of the great performance by David, and also the fact that Van was such a good arranger that he went in knowing in his head, or on paper, every note, from the cabasa to the harmonies and the vocals. He envisioned the entire musical arrangement.”
The cabasa! That hypnotic piece of percussion which, with those dark acoustic piano notes, is part of the pull of “Walk Away From Love” from the very start.
Van McCoy left nothing to chance, according to Kipps, including the choice of session musicians. “We always wanted to use the top guys,” he recalled, “although you have to remember that some of them weren’t necessarily the top guys when we started working with them.” What made the professionals so attractive “was that they were so much faster and quicker.” Among them on the Who I Am sessions were Gordon Edwards on bass, Eric Gale and Hugh McCracken on guitar, Steve Gadd on drums, and Richard Tee, whose fingers it may be (or perhaps even those of McCoy himself) playing that dark piano.
They were not the alchemists of Motown’s basement studio on West Grand, but no one doubted their skill and experience. “These guys,” said Kipps, “could sit down to a complicated arrangement by Van, and read through it the first time perfectly. Even Van himself, who was certainly a great arranger, was mystified by that, because he could not sight read. It really does take a certain kind of musician to be able to sit down in front of a piece of paper and read it exactly.”
McCoy and Kipps had been working together for several years by this time, having become acquainted through a Washington, D.C. vocal group, the Presidents, for which Kipps sought a record deal. For his part, McCoy had during the 1960s become a remarkably successful writer of songs, cut by the likes of Aretha Franklin, Lesley Gore, Jackie Wilson, Jay & the Americans, Betty Everett and Bobby Vinton – and also Florence Ballard, after her exit from the Supremes.
“When Van and I met, he had been producing and arranging for a long time, and he had a great many contacts in the business,” recalled Kipps, a former journalist who was McCoy’s junior by some eight years, and senior by height (he was 6’ 8” tall). With the formation in 1971 of their joint venture, White House Productions, Kipps began renewing those contacts. “Suzanne de Passe was in A&R at Motown,” he noted, “and looking for someone to produce David Ruffin. She knew Van from the past, and we met with her. A deal was made.” The album was recorded at Media Sound in four days during June 1975.
“Walk Away From Love” was not composed for the Motown star; it had been previously been made by a group which McCoy produced, the Choice 4. “I had written it just prior to making the [Motown] deal,” said Kipps. “We played it for David, and he immediately loved it.” The Choice 4 version was slower; with Ruffin, “it got a little bit faster than I had originally intended. [But] it worked out very well. That often happens – tempo is a very changeable thing when you’re in the studio, and songs tend to seek their own level as to what feels good.
“David went into the session and on the first take, did that particular version. Everybody was so knocked out, especially when he went up to the high note. We were all saying, ‘That’s it, that’s it.’ And David was saying, ‘No, I can do better, I can do better.’ He did another seven or eight takes, and he finally came out and said, ‘You’re right, that’s it.’ Which, by the way, used to happen often. The first take was the best.”
Motown released “Walk Away From Love” as a 45 on October 21, 1975, with an advantage beyond the calibre of the record: the return of Barney Ales, the company’s accomplished sales chief (and later, executive VP and general manager) during its 1960s heyday. He and Ruffin had enjoyed a good relationship, despite the singer’s tempestuous times with his former group and with others, including Berry Gordy. “David wouldn’t listen to anybody,” said Ales. “Later on, he would listen to me when I talked to him, because his attorney was a good friend of mine, Henry Baskin.”
The singer and the salesman stayed in touch after the latter left Motown in 1972, when the firm relocated to Los Angeles. Three years on, Gordy rehired Ales, and “Walk Away From Love” became a top priority for the new administration. The result was the biggest-selling single of Ruffin’s solo career – a Top 10 hit on both sides of the Atlantic – and the finest moment of his post-Temptations years. Similarly, Who I Am outsold its predecessors when released soon afterwards. It included five Van McCoy compositions, a second by Kipps (the title track) and Ruffin’s self-immolating performance of “Statue Of A Fool,” an old-school country & western number written by Jan Crutchfield.
Later than anyone had a right to expect, David Ruffin had, with Van McCoy and Charles Kipps, created an album featuring intensely personal songs, defining his rights and wrongs, his ego and his soul. It is a legacy almost as potent as the man’s masterpieces with Paul Williams, Melvin Franklin, Otis Williams and Eddie Kendricks. And there’s that note…