Monday afternoon I was driving down I-5 South towards Bakersfield. Just me, the hills, the fields, the cattle, the tundra and desert…I was gonna stay there the night and then head down to LA on Tuesday for 2016 NLCS Game 3. Dodgers vs. Cubs. #FlytheW.
On the way down I was listening to David Ruffin’s second solo album, Feelin’ Good. It was next on my list list.
I’ll admit I started to get a little bored listening to the album. The music was alright. And, yeah, he did the best cover I’ve heard of Put a Little Live in Your Heart, but the album sounded more Rat Pack Vegas-y than it did Motown Soul. It was almost like they were trying to position Ruffin for return trips to the Copa Cabana. Or, they were having enough trouble trying to get the most out of his performances and they were getting what they could get. I found myself envisioning what it must have been like in the recording studios at Hitsville USA, trying to direct Ruffin.
“David. We understand. We do. You’re right. You’re right. Absolutely, you’re right. We’re sorry. We’re really, really sorry. It’s our fault. Could we, please, one more time…yes, sure, David. We can take a break so you can powder your nose.”
I know. That was mean. I’m sorry. I truly am. It must have been heartbreaking to deal with him when he was losing to his demons. I was trying to imagine their coping mechanisms.
Anyway. Back on point…
But then the piano (& bass) and conga drum intro to his version of Feelin’ Alright? kicked in. Damn.
David’s cover of this classic is titled, Feeling Alright. The opening to the song was the perfect blend of jazz and soul. The piano & bass intro was full of life and vibrance. They even threw in a little tambourine for good measure.
Then the chorus exploded
The Funk Brothers got to be, well, funky. No violin orchestration. ‘Just straight funk. They even brought in the muted electric guitar rhythm.
As for David Ruffin’s vocals? Holy shit. It sounded like he took full advantage of belting out what he was truly feeling. He went to confession while taking everyone to church.
It’s also the first time in the album he sounded invested in a song. ‘Just an incredible convergence of forces convening in this cover.
Another tears-of-a-clown moment on a Motown song. It was powerful, touching, and poetic. It both kicked your ass and blew your hair back.
Switch out the choral singers singing “Feelin’ Alirght?” for soul sisters singing, “Whoa-whoooa,” strip out a little of the funk, and the arrangements between David Ruffin and Joe Cocker’s version are nearly identical.
I threw David Ruffin’s cover, Joe Cocker’s cover, Jackson 5’s cover, Grand Funk Railroad’s cover, and Traffic’s slightly under-appreciated original together into a Spotify playlist, and spent my last hour on the road comparing and contrasting the versions while I hustled over to Temblor Brewing to ask Lahti if he’d heard this version. Lahti is a Steve Winwood fanatic, so I was looking forward to what he said.
Once I got there and we made sure we had full glasses, I started playing him the versions. It blew his hair back as well. We both jammed out to Ruffin’s version.
Quick takes on the 5 versions, from strongest to weakest, in my opinion
5. Grand Funk Railroad’s
It wasn’t a bad version. None of the 5 are. But, to me, what makes Feelin’ Alright? so iconic is in the slow build up in the verse leading into the explosion into the chorus, waterfalling into an overflowing burst of cathartic emotion. GFR’s version never really broke in tempo between the verse and chorus. It just became a chance to rock out. They did a good job of rocking out, but they could have done it that way for 234,345,345,343 other songs.
4. Jackson 5
I was listening to the live version, which sounds a lot like Three Dog Night’s version, complete with the drum and bass primaries, allowing for the freedom to use multiple singers. This is just one of those rare songs where Michael Jackson should not have had a solo line. The song was just too adult, and it was gimmicking when they had his kid voice singing he was, “about to scream.” Even more fluffy when Michael dedicates the songs to his grandparents, who were sitting in the front row. Gag.
The original. Written by Dave Mason. Recorded in 1968 by Traffic. Lead singer was Steve Winwood. It’s the one that gave birth to the song.
It’s a great rendition. The saxophonist in the chorus could have been given a little more cash to give the solo one more go around, and the jam session in the bridge is a little left to be desired. Those two bits probably allowed for the room for improvement. Otherwise, it’s an under-appreciated jam.
2. Joe Cocker
Helluva jam to have on your first solo album, With a Little Help from My Friends. Steve Winwood even played on the album, but not on the Traffic cover.
It’s an iconic jam. It’s an iconic version. The only way anyone could beat it would be if you had David Ruffin at his peak playing with the Funk Brothers. Oh, wait.
1. David Ruffin
Second solo album. Second album in 1969. Hell, it even made it as part of a bank commercial (What the Fuck?).