Ruffin spent time in Louisiana at a horse farm, in Memphis (where it was alleged he was in a talent contest with Elvis Presley), and in Arkansas. In the mid 1950s, Ruffin sang with The Dixie Nightingales. He eventually made his way to Detroit, Michigan, where his older brother Jimmy Ruffin was pursuing a career in music while working at the Ford Motor Company. Jimmy landed a deal with Miracle Records, one of several labels owned by Berry Gordy's Tamla (later Motown) Records. David performed at shows around Detroit, and even lived with Berry Gordy's parents for a brief period.
In the late 1950s, Ruffin sang with The Voice Masters, which included future Motown producer Lamont Dozier and members of the singing group The Originals. The act was featured on the Anna label, run by Berry Gordy's sister, Gwen Gordy Fuqua, and Ruffin sang lead on two songs: "I'm In Love" and "Action Speaks Louder Than Words". Though Ruffin's name is on the label, the Voice Masters provide backup. The Anna label was absorbed by Motown Records in 1961. After the Voice Masters broke up, Ruffin signed with Billy Davis' Checkmate Records in 1963. On Checkmate, Ruffin recorded the single "Mr. Bus Driver, Hurry", a minor local hit. During this period, he was also doing side gigs as a drummer for the Temptations. In January 1964, Ruffin became a member of The Temptations after founding member Elbridge "Al" Bryant was fired from the group. Jimmy Ruffin was initially offered the opportunity to sing with the group, but Jimmy politely declined in favor of David.
The follow-ups to "My Girl" were also extremely successful singles, including "Since I Lost My Baby" (1965), "Ain't Too Proud to Beg" (1966), "All I Need" (1967), and "I Wish It Would Rain" (1967). The lanky, 6'3" Ruffin's passionate and dramatic performances endeared him to the Temptations' audiences and fans. According to Otis Williams, Ruffin (playfully nicknamed "Ruff" by the group) was initially a natural comedian and a hard-working singer when he first joined the group. Ruffin's most notable non-vocal contribution to the Temptations was the masterminding of their trademark four-headed microphone stand.
By 1967, however, ego problems with Ruffin became an issue for the group. He became addicted to cocaine, and began missing rehearsals and performances. Refusing to travel with the other Temptations, Ruffin and his then-girlfriend Tammi Terrell traveled in a custom limo (with the image of his trademark black rimmed glasses painted on the door). After The Supremes had their name changed to Diana Ross & the Supremes in early 1967, Ruffin felt that he should become the focal point of the Temptations, just as Diana Ross was for her group, and began demanding that the group name be changed to David Ruffin & the Temptations. This led to a number of fights between Ruffin and the group's leader, Otis Williams. In addition to the group's problems with his ego, Ruffin began inquiring into the Temptations' financial records, demanding an accounting of the group's money. This caused friction between Ruffin and Gordy.
In mid-1968, the Temptations agreed that Ruffin finally crossed the line when he missed a 1968 concert to attend a concert being performed by his new girlfriend, Barbara Martin (daughter of Dean Martin) instead. Ruffin was replaced with former Contour Dennis Edwards, who had been a friend of Ruffin and the group as a whole beforehand. Despondent that he had been fired from the group that he felt he had single-handedly brought to success, Ruffin began turning up at and crashing Temptations' concerts. When the group started to perform a Ruffin-era song such as "My Girl" or "Ain't Too Proud to Beg", Ruffin himself would appear on the stage, grab the microphone from Dennis Edwards and steal the show, embarrassing the band but delighting the fans. The Temptations resorted to hiring extra security to prevent Ruffin from attending their shows.
Meanwhile, Ruffin filed suit against Motown Records, seeking a release from the label and an accounting of his money. Motown countersued to keep the singer from leaving the label and eventually the case was settled. The settlement required Ruffin to remain with Motown to finish out his initial contract (Ruffin joined Motown as a solo artist, and always had a separate contract from the other Temptations, which some felt caused a lot of the in-fighting within the group).
In 1985, longtime Temptations fans Hall & Oates teamed up with Ruffin and Kendrick to perform at the re-opening of the Apollo Theater in New York. Their performance was released as a relatively successful live album and single. The four singers also sang a medley of Temptations hits at Live Aid on July 13, 1985. John Oates later wrote a minor hit single for Ruffin and Kendrick, but the two duos fell out, allegedly due to Daryl Hall's objections to Ruffin's heavy drug use. After being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989 with the other Temptations, Ruffin, Kendrick, and Dennis Edwards began touring and recording as "Ruffin/Kendrick/Edwards: Former Leads of The Temptations". The project was cut short, however, when David Ruffin died of a drug overdose on June 1, 1991, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, at the age of 50, having just recorded the single "Hurt the One You Love" for Motorcity Records.
Contrary to what was later depicted in The Temptations television miniseries, Ruffin's body was not randomly found in the middle of the street, nor did it lie unclaimed in a morgue for over a week. Instead, Ruffin's chauffeur drove him to the hospital, identifying him as "David Ruffin of the Temptations". A few days later, Ruffin's children claimed his body. To this day it is said that Ruffin's overdose was planned, as he carried a briefcase containing $45,000. It has been said that it was not a chauffeur but a friend who took him to a crack house in Philadelphia. After polishing off ten vials of cocaine, David passed out, and his friend threw him in the back of the limo and drove him to the hospital at 2:55 AM. His friend only stated, "This is David Ruffin", and sped off as the nurses and doctors carried him into the hospital. Ruffin was pronounced dead on June 1, 1991, at 3:55 AM in Philadelphia. The case is considered to be an accidental overdose, although there are some questions surrounding the circumstances.
Ruffin was portrayed by actor Leon Robinson in the 1998 television miniseries The Temptations. Leon won high praise for his portrayal of Ruffin, but Ruffin's family was upset by the way the miniseries portrayed Ruffin, and filed a lawsuit against the producers of the miniseries and also Otis Williams, whose memoirs had been the source material for the miniseries. The case was dismissed in favor of the defendants, with Williams later claiming that he had no real control over the presentation of the material.
The Ruffin Brothers
Ruffin & Kendrick
On the Motorcity label (UK)