The Temptations – “Papa Was a Rolling Stone”

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The Temptations have always been one of my favorites.  Known for their soulful, harmonic voices and elegant precision when they danced. They were also known for having some of the sharpest wardrobes in the business. This song is a little sad but was written in a way that you can envision a mother answering her child’s questions as best as she can as to not portray the daddy in a bad light to their son. 

A rolling stone may gather no moss, but it does not handle responsibility well. In this song, the father is an itinerant, disreputable philanderer. When he dies, the mother open’s up about him, telling the kids all about his laziness and womanizing.

This was written by the Motown songwriters Barrett Strong and Norman Whitfield and produced by Whitfield. It was first recorded by The Undisputed Truth, but Whitfield also had The Temptations record it, with much greater success.

A story that is often circulated and is recounted in the 2001 miniseries The Temptations deals with the lines of this song:

It was the 3rd of September
That day I’ll always remember
’cause that was the day
That my daddy died

The story goes that lead singer Dennis Edwards hated the song and was incensed when he heard this line since his father died on that date and he thought Norman Whitfield put that in to goad him. This tale made for good drama but was considerably overblown. Edwards’ father died on October third, and he was anything but a rolling stone. The elder Edwards was a minister who gave his son a good upbringing. Whitfield chose the date simply because it fits well in the song; he had no idea when Edwards’ father had died.

The album version of this song runs 11:46. The single was released with the song split into two parts: the A-side was the “vocal” version and runs 6:58; the B-side is the “instrumental” and goes like 4:49.

Even truncated for a single release, the A-side was exceptionally long and remains one of the longest chart-toppers in Hot 100 history. It was not, however, the longest #1 of 1972 – that was Don McLean’s “American Pie,” which clocked in at 8:33.

Both sides of the single were Grammy awards. The A-side won for Best R&B Vocal Performance by A Duo, Group, or Chorus, and the B-side took the award for Best R&B Instrumental Performance.

Speaking about this song’s writer/producer Norman Whitfield in a 1995 interview with Goldmine, Motown head Berry Gordy said: “He could take one chord, like on ‘Papa Was A Rolling Stone,’ and play the same chord and do all these different beautiful melodies and stuff that many people could not really imagine this guy doin’. And I would watch him, and he did it all by himself as a producer. He would work with five guys in the Temps and he would change leads on each one. He would pick the right lead for the right song, ya know, and he would utilize all five of those leads in a song that was just incredible. When I listen to ’em today, now that I have time to listen to ’em, I am saying, “Wow! This guy was probably the most underrated producer we had.”

This was the last big hit recorded in Motown’s famous Studio A, located in a two-story house in Detroit. Most of Motown’s studio work had moved to Los Angeles by then, but The Temptations still recorded in Detroit.

Credit: YouTube.com

Song Lyrics –

It was the third of September
That day I’ll always remember, yes I will
‘Cause that was the day that my daddy died
I never got a chance to see him
Never heard nothin’ but bad things about him
Momma I’m depending on you to tell me the truth
Momma just hung her head and said, son

Papa was a rolling stone
Wherever he laid his hat was his home
And when he died, all he left us was alone
Papa was a rolling stone (my son, yeah)
Wherever he laid his hat was his home
And when he died, all he left us was alone

Hey Momma!
Is it true what they say that Papa never worked a day in his life
And Momma, some bad talk goin’ round town sayin’ that
Papa had three outside children
And another wife, and that ain’t right
Heard some talk Papa doing some storefront preachin’
Talking about saving souls and all the time leechin’
Dealing in dirt, and stealing in the name of the Lord
Momma just hung her head and said

Papa was a rolling stone (my son)
Wherever he laid his hat was his home
And when he died, all he left us was alone
Hey Papa was a rolling stone (dad gumma it)
Where ever he laid his hat was his home
And when he died, all he left us was alone

Hey Momma
I heard Papa called himself a jack-of-all-trades
Tell me is that what sent Papa to an early grave
Folks say Papa would beg, borrow, steal
To pay his bills
Hey Momma
Folks say Papa never was much on thinking
Spent most of his time chasing women and drinking
Momma I’m depending on you to tell me the truth
Momma looked up with a tear in her eye and said, son

Papa was a rolling stone (well, well, well, well)
Wherever he laid his hat was his home
And when he died, all he left us was alone (lone, lone, lone, alone)
Papa was a rolling stone
Wherever he laid his hat was his home
And when he died, all he left us was alone

(I said) Papa was a rolling stone (yes he was, my son)
Wherever he laid his hat was his home
And when he died, all he left us was alone
My daddy was
Papa was a rolling stone (yes he was, yeah)
Wherever he laid his hat was his home)

Writer/s: Barrett Strong, Norman Whitfield

Credit: Songfacts.com

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