Sunday, September 9, 2012

September 9: Jimmy Ruffin, "What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted"

Artist: Jimmy Ruffin
Song: "What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted"
Album: What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted (single)
Year: 1966

Though they are few and far between, there are certain songs across the course of music history that have become so deeply engrained in culture across the globe that the song itself manages to completely ellipse the performer, as well as the time period from which it emerged.  That is to say, in the case of these few extraordinary recordings, even as the decades pass by, they remain just as fresh, relevant, and in the end powerful as they were when first released.  While one can find such recordings throughout the generations, there is no question that the great Motown Records seemed to produce far more of these iconic tunes than one might have expected; and many of them came from slightly lesser-known artists on that label.  This was perhaps due to the rather close-knit nature of the label's performers, as the chemistry between the singers and the legendary Funk Brothers was far beyond that of any other combination in history.  But at the same time, these "family" ties run even deeper, and it was perhaps never more apparent than in the case of the Ruffin brothers.  While David Ruffin made his name as part of The Temptations, as well as with a successful solo career; it was his brother Jimmy that was responsible for one of the most iconic songs ever recorded: 1966's "What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted."

From the very moment that "What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted" begins, it is clear that this will not be a "standard" Motown ballad, as the pace and overall feel are a far beyond almost anything the label had previous released in terms of emotion.  It is the way that the song seems to sway in a completely unique, sorrowful manner that instantly captivates the listener, and yet there is a strange, upbeat feeling that one cannot deny.  This juxtaposition in moods has rarely been so perfectly achieved, as in almost every other case, a song so mournful is completely absent of such a swing.  It is the way that the string section swells in the background that gives "What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted" a sense of the dramatic, and one is quickly filled with vivid images of a dark city street in a rainstorm.  The sense of loneliness found here has never been equaled, as the bassline and horns work in a manner unlike anything else in music history.  Truth be told, the connection between the mood of the words and the music over which they are placed has rarely been as perfectly connected as on "What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted," and it is much the reason that it remains one of the most memorable tracks that The Funk Brothers ever created.  Proving here that they were capable of bringing a danceable swing and sting to any style, it is this song that forever silenced anyone questioning their endless talents as musicians.

However, while one cannot deny the phenomenal display put on by the musicians, it is the way that Jimmy Ruffin so perfectly captures and emotes these words that have vaulted "What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted" to such a special place in music history.  It all begins with the fact that he clearly understood his vocal range quite well, and can push his voice all around the spectrum without sacrificing any power or overall quality.  Along with this, he clearly understands the unique intensity within the words penned by the team of William Witherspoon, James Dean, and Paul Riser, and it is his ability to make these words his own that add further intrigue to the track.  Unlike similar ballads of lost love, one cannot deny the "silver lining" feeling that runs throughout "What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted," and it is this element that keeps drawing people to the song even after all these years.  Yet strangely enough, the final release of the song was actually edited from its original form.  In the original, Ruffin provided a spoken introduction to the track, much in the way that Lou Rawls did his recordings; and with it removed, "What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted" was left with the strangely long instrumental opening.  Yet the fact remains that even with this rather odd change, the track hits just as hard as ever, and few singers have been able to capture emotion quite like Jimmy Ruffin.

Almost instantly upon its release, "What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted"shot to the top of the charts on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, breaking the top ten in the US and the UK.  This would stand as the most successful song of Ruffin's career, and to this day it remains one of the most iconic songs not only in the history of Motown Records, but in the entire history of recorded music.  Over the more that four decades since its release, artists ranging from The Supremes to The Gaslight Anthem to Joe Cocker to a wide range of other performers have put their own spin on the song, and yet none have been able to achieve the sheer musical perfection found on the original.  Oddly enough, only a few months after the Ruffin version was released, the duo known as Robson and Jerome covered it, topping the UK charts with their take on the track.  It is the way that the sounds swell so beautifully and emotionally behind the almost somber, "walking" bassline that make the track so powerful, and the way that Jimmy Ruffin holds absolutely nothing back sets him far beyond a majority of the other performers in the history of Motown Records.  While he would have a handful of other successful singles and albums in his career, there is no question that Jimmy Ruffin forever left his mark on the culture of music with his magnificent 1966 single, "What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted."

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