[23 August 2010]
Brothers Jimmy and David Ruffin had two of the most soulful voices of the ‘60s. Don’t take my word for it; ask their Motown stable mate Marvin Gaye. He called David the most virile singer he knew and envied David’s strong masculine charm. David was lead singer of the Temptations during the band’s most vital period. That’s him out in front on “My Girl”, “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg”, “I Wish It Would Rain”, and other classics from the 1964-1968 Temptations era. And David wasn’t even the group’s first choice of the two brothers to join the band. That honor goes to Jimmy, who reportedly decided to launch a solo career instead. Jimmy’s biggest hit from that time was the deeply emotive “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted”.
By 1970, David parted ways with the Temptations and had a hit with the single “My Whole World Ended”. The idea of the two siblings joining together and putting out a brothers-type concept album seems a no brainer. I Am My Brother’s Keeper was only moderately successful at the time, with no big hits. There are many reasons for this. David allegedly had a serious cocaine addiction. Times and tastes had changed, and the album was a throwback to the sounds of the past. The album lacked a catchy single. While there are many possible explanations, Hip-O Select has reissued the album with bonus cuts, and because of the talent of the musicians involved, it’s time for a serious re-evaluation of the record.
The most notable feature of the album is just how damn good Jimmy and David sound. Not only do they never hit a false note, the two voices combine well without ever losing their individual identities. Jimmy has a smooth voice, while David’s is rough and gritty. The brothers play off of each other for full effect, especially on the most “brotherly” songs, such as “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” and “Stand by Me”. They turn the old Ben E. King tune into an anthem of filial affection. They do two versions of “Stand by Me” here, one a faux live rendition and the other undubbed, but in terms of vocal harmonies there are no great differences between the two tracks. Both effectively work as testaments of fraternal solidarity.
A stranger, but more compelling family narrative is the melodramatic “Got to See If I Can’t Get Mommy (To Come Back Home)” in which the father tells his young children to hold on while he goes to fetch his wife, only to learn she has had an automobile accident and drowned in the nearby waterway. The weeper rivals Elvis Presley’s “Don’t Cry Daddy” in its tug at the heartstrings with lyrics such as, “How do you make a little boy a man / When he’s only three”. Whew. Jimmy and David dramatically sing over each other as the song climaxes then fades away.
The confused sexual politics of the era can be found in the mixed messages of the 1970 release. There’s everything from the patient and respectful “Your Love Was Worth Waiting For” and “True Love Can Be Beautiful” to the down and dirty “Set ‘Em Up (Move in for the Thrill)” and the previously unreleased “You’re What I Need (Not What I Want)”, with sleazy lines like “I don’t even like you / But girl you love me so right”. Love and sex seem to operate in two different arenas here. The brothers share dual perspectives on life, which befits their early careers in gospel music before going secular. This can be seen in their range of covers. The two best ones aren’t the “brothers” songs mentioned earlier, but a spiritual rendition of James Taylor’s “Lo and Behold” and a sultry version of the Delfonics’ orgasmic “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time)”. The duo sings both songs with conviction and flair.
While I Am My Brother’s Keeper comes off as a somewhat patchwork affair, this is what keeps the album consistently interesting. You never know what the two are going to sing about next. As the title of one of the most affecting tracks says, it is all part of “The Things We Have to Do”—belief in a higher power and the glory of sex are just small parts of living and dying. The only sure thing that you can always count on is your brother. The harmonies on this album provide proof of that.