Jimmy Ruffin’s confection of choice was the Eccles cake. The soul singer who definitively diagnosed the emotional condition of broken heartedness on one of Motown’s all-time classic singles was especially partial to those small discs of flaky pastry stuffed with currants and topped with a sugary crust that hail from England’s industrial North West.
For 40 years, the man who convinced us that happiness was just an illusion filled with sadness and confusion, kept his own personal darkness at bay by ordering regular shipments of the northern delicacy direct from a baker in Warrington, Lancashire.
Jimmy’s recent periods in a Las Vegas hospital were made the more trying by his inability to receive Eccles cakes while undergoing medical treatment. Reluctantly he was forced to settle for the closest American equivalent, the blueberry muffin, which he deemed a fundamentally unsatisfactory substitute for his beloved English sweet.
Jimmy was introduced to the Eccles cake by Northern Soul fans in 1972 while headlining at Wigan Casino. He’d moved to England in 1970 and was by now a regular at such venues. “I just came to England because there was work,” he said. “I was very popular in England.” Indeed he was. He’d just enjoyed a run of three top-ten UK singles while his US releases had gone nowhere, leading him to part company with Motown and Berry Gordy’s autocratic direction.
He’d never felt particularly comfortable there. “I was too aware of the game and sometimes I didn’t agree and I would say no, so we didn’t always see eye to eye,” he recalled of his erstwhile boss. He’d had to fight the Motown hierarchy to get his hands on What Becomes of the Brokenhearted, which was written for the Spinners. Even then, they’d removed the emotive spoken monologue with which Ruffin had introduced the original recording of the song. He explained:
The company felt that would have been too ‘black’ for me. They had this image of me which put me more towards the pop market. They never saw me as a funky, nitty-gritty singer.
But English soul fans did. They established Ruffin as a colossus of the Northern Soul nightclub scene. At the same time, perhaps incongruously, Jimmy also insinuated himself into the British cabaret circuit, though there’s no record of him succumbing to the allure of chicken-in-a-basket and a glass of Mateus Rosé in the same way he fell for the Eccles cake.
Ruffin was back in Britain on a more permanent basis in 1980. Again, the move was designed to capitalise on popularity and acceptance that eluded him in his homeland. In London, Jimmy worked with the Bee Gees’ Robin Gibb, just then riding a wave of disco omnipotence on the back of Saturday Night Fever. But as before, he was drawn back to England’s industrial north by the intercession of passionate UK soul fans who had made the music of black America integral to their own subcultural identity.
Paul Weller, then deep into his blue-eyed soul period with The Style Council, and Martyn Ware, the Sheffield musician who had fused soul and electronica to denounce Reagan and Thatcher in the Heaven 17 song (We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang recruited Ruffin to contribute to a benefit single for striking miners.
When Jimmy joined Weller, Ware and a selection of British R&B and Hip Hop stars to record Soul Deep in December 1984 under the name The Council Collective, the miners had been on strike for ten months, resisting the Thatcher government’s plan for pit closures that would destroy their communities. The record would raise funds for families who had been without an income for almost a year. Jimmy accompanied Weller in publicising the single on radio and TV. “I understand the miners’ suffering,” he said, explaining that his father had worked the mines in Mississippi, where Jimmy grew up.
Thanks to YouTube it’s still possible to see Jimmy raising a defiant fist in an extended performance of Soul Deep filmed in Newcastle for The Tube. He gives us a stirring history lesson about the importance of trade unions, working-class sacrifice and solidarity. “Not to support the miners betrays that legacy,” he instructs us, that voice exhorting listeners to “be one with the working man” and “join the fight”. Soul Deep is an important record, and Jimmy’s presence on it both incongruous and fitting.
But as a benefit single its lessons in history, politics and working-class struggle were drowned out by the success of Band Aid’s baleful Do They Know It’s Christmas, released at virtually the same time. Here was a charity record Margaret Thatcher could approve of. As she told Smash Hits, she liked the Band Aid campaign because “It was not ‘why doesn’t the government give more?’ but ‘what can I do as a person?’” — although she still refused to waive VAT on the record. The British public, too, bought Geldof’s condescending, pitying, privatised (and all-white) approach to poverty relief, aimed at passive black “victims” who were a convenient continent’s distance away.
So when I next have an Eccles cake I’ll dedicate it to Jimmy Ruffin. And I’ll remember his curious culinary and political connections with England’s industrial, class-conscious north. And while everyone else is lauding What Becomes of the Brokenhearted, I might even spin Soul Deep a time or two and raise my fist in a spirit of middle-aged anti-capitalist defiance. Just like Jimmy did in 1984.