It's well known that Motown recorded more material than it could release, but its reasons for shelving material remain a mystery to this day. Ever since the CD reissue boom of the late '80s, this unreleased material has begun to trickle out of the vaults, and when it does surface in such forms as the dynamite double-disc set A Cellarful of Motown!, the music is so good it's hard to believe that it never was released at the time. Knowing this, it should not come as a complete surprise that former Temptations lead singer David Ruffin had a full, completed album shelved in 1971, but hearing Hip-O Select's excavation of that album on the 2004 release David: The Unreleased Album, it's still a wonder that this record sat in the vaults for over three decades, with very few of the songs recorded during the sessions appearing on other records and compilations over the years. Far from being unreleasable, David (titled as such because the album was never given a proper title -- it was given a catalog number and track sequencing, with David Ruffin penciled in as its name, but that was used as the title for his 1973 album) finds Ruffin at a solo peak, not just a singer but in terms of material. He cut the 12 songs that comprised the album, along with the seven bonus tracks from the same sessions that fill out this CD reissue, in late 1969 and 1970, after he had a big solo hit with "My Whole World Ended (The Moment You Left Me)," with the intent of releasing the album in 1971. There were a pair of covers of recent hits -- an appropriately heartbroken and seductive "Rainy Night in Georgia" and a rather revelatory "I Want You Back," which added real grit to the Jackson 5's effervescent smash -- but most of this was material written for Ruffin and it played to his strengths. While this music was rooted in Motown's signature sound and performed by the Funk Brothers, it also looked beyond Detroit, adding heavy doses of funk, psychedelia, and smooth soul, filled with galvanizing horns, driving guitars, down-n-dirty clavinets, flourishes of electric sitar, fuzz tones, and wah-wah guitars, all grounded by Ruffin's earthy testifying and tied together by top-notch songwriting. All these elements wound up sounding much hipper than much of the music officially released by Motown in the early 1970, when Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye were just beginning to break free of the studio's formula, and while David and its accompanying bonus tracks are not a masterpiece along the lines of Talking Book or What's Going On (or even Where I'm Coming From, for that matter), it's vibrant, exciting music that still sounds fresh -- arguably fresher than full-length Temptations albums of the late '60s -- which qualifies it as a lost classic of sorts. Why was it lost, consigned to the vaults for nearly three and a half decades? According to the liner notes, nobody really knows. Ruffin wasn't popular among the executives at Motown in the early '70s, and he was also going through a number of well-documented personal problems, so it's possible that Motown simply didn't want to promote him at the time, but it's also true that the label had a number of great records, including Marvin's What's Going On, to release in 1971, and Ruffin had two LPs out in 1970, including a duet album with his brother Jimmy, so the market may have been saturated. We'll likely never know the reason why David was buried, but fortunately it has been unearthed, and it's a reason for hardcore soul and Motown fans to celebrate.
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AllMusic Review by Stephen Thomas Erlewine