It was nearly 3 a.m. when the gray stretch limousine pulled up to the emergency-room entrance at Philadelphia's University of Pennsylvania Hospital. When attendants looked inside they saw a tall, gaunt black man slumped unconscious in the back seat with no identification and $53 in his pockets. He died an hour later. An FBI check of fingerprints confirmed the name--and an inglorious end for one of the fabled voices in pop music. David Ruffin's anguished, gospel-bred baritone propelled The Temptations to the top of the charts in the 1960s. Police say he passed out early on the morning of June 1 after smoking crack at a house in West Philadelphia.
Investigators are still trying to piece together the 50-year-old Ruffin's last hours. An estimated $40,000 he was carrying when he was stricken has disappeared. Linster (Butch) Murrell, a friend who lent Ruffin the limousine on the evening of May 31, says Ruffin drove off with a man named Donald Brown. Police believe Ruffin purchased cocaine somewhere and took it to the West Philadelphia house to smoke. Ruffin and another occupant of the house reportedly shared 10 vials of crack in less than a half hour, an enormous intake, experts say. Brown drove Ruffin to the hospital and returned the limo to Murrell. Police questioned Brown twice but have not charged him with a crime. Ruffin's death is listed as accidental.
It was the end of a long slide for the son of a Mississippi preacher. Ruffin helped The Temptations become one of the first R&B acts to achieve "crossover" success with white baby-boomer teens. "My Girl," their early 1965 breakthrough, was followed by a string of hits over the next four years. The group's enduring appeal was enshrined in the 1983 movie "The Big Chill," when the cast danced to "Ain't Too Proud To Beg," one of Ruffin's best vocal turns. "Nobody could sing like David Ruffin," says Martha Reeves of Martha and the Vandellas, one of Motown's top groups.
But Ruffin grew restless as part of the group. He also developed a cocaine habit, first entering treatment in 1967. A year later, he and The Temptations parted company. He had modest solo success but never freed himself from drugs. He was working regularly at the end--a British concert tour with ex-Tempts Eddie Kendricks and Dennis Edwards had just wound up--but he was still hooked. Since 1989, he lived off and on in Philadelphia with Diane Showers, who met him as a 14-year-old fan. "I told him he needed to go back to Mississippi where he could have solitude," she says. Last week radio playlists were peppered with Ruffin's old tunes. Michael Jackson volunteered to pay for his funeral in Detroit this week, which was expected to draw a galaxy of stars from Motown's heyday. Reeves wishes the tributes had come earlier. "Before he died he should have been aware of how many people loved him."