Papa Was a Rollin' Stone

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"Papa Was a Rollin' Stone"
Single by The Temptations
from the album All Directions
Released September 28, 1972
Format 7" single
Recorded Detroit, Michigan
Hitsville USA (Studio A); May 15, June 14, June 22, & June 28, 1972
Genre Psychedelic soul[1][2]
Length 6:54 (single edit)
12:02 (album mix)
Label Gordy Records
G 7121
Writer(s) Norman Whitfield
Barrett Strong
Producer(s) Norman Whitfield
The Temptations singles chronology
"Mother Nature"
"Papa Was a Rollin' Stone"
"Papa Was a Rollin' Stone '87"
Single by Temptations
A-side "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone '87"
Released 1987
Format 7" single/12" single/CD
Genre Soul
Label Motown

"Papa Was a Rollin' Stone" is a psychedelic soul song, written by Motown songwriters Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong as a single for Motown act The Undisputed Truth in 1971. This version of "Papa" was released as a single in early 1972, and peaked at number 63 on the pop charts and number 24 on the R&B charts.

Later in 1972, Whitfield, who also produced the song, took "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone" and remade it as a 12-minute record for The Temptations, which was a number-one hit on the Billboard Hot 100 and won three Grammy Awards in 1973. While the original Undisputed Truth version of the song has been largely forgotten, The Temptations' version of the song has been an enduring and influential soul classic. It was ranked #168 on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, one of the group's three songs on the list. In retrospect, The Temptations' Otis Williams considers "Papa" to be the last real classic the group recorded.


Beginning with an extended instrumental introduction (3:53 in length), each of the song's three verses is separated by extended musical passages, in which Whitfield brings various instrumental textures in and out of the mix. A solo plucked bass guitar part, backed by hi-hat cymbals drumming, establishes the musical theme, a simple three-note figure; the bass is gradually joined by other instruments, including a blues guitar, wah-wah guitar, Wurlitzer Electric Piano notes, handclaps, horns, and strings; all are tied together by the ever-present bass guitar line and repeating hi-hat rhythm. A very unusual thing about this song is that it uses only one chord throughout the entire song -- B-flat minor.

Vocal jobs are performed in a true ensemble style: Temptations singers Dennis Edwards, Melvin Franklin, Richard Street (who was a frequent fill-in for Paul Williams and his eventual replacement) and Damon Harris (who had replaced Eddie Kendricks as the group's falsetto singer the previous year) alternate vocal lines, taking the role of siblings questioning their mother about their now-deceased father; their increasingly pointed questions, and the mother's repeated response ("Papa was a rollin' stone/wherever he laid his hat was his home/and when he died, all he left us was alone") paint a sombre picture for the children who have never seen their father and have "never heard nothing but bad things about him."

Friction arose during the recording of "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone" for a number of reasons. The Temptations did not like the fact that Whitfield's instrumentation had been getting more emphasis than their vocals on their songs at the time, and that they had to press Whitfield to get him to produce ballads for the group. In addition, Dennis Edwards was angered by the song's first verse: "It was the third of September/That day I'll always remember/'cause that was the day/that my daddy died". While legend has it that, coincidentally, Edwards' father had died on that date, making him apprehensive of recording the song, Edwards' father actually died on the third of October, not September;[3] the other half of the legend — that Norman Whitfield forced Edwards to rerecord his parts dozens of times until he finally got the angered, bitter grumble he desired out of the usually fiery-toned Edwards — was true.[3] Whitfield's treatment of the group eventually led to his dismissal as their producer.[3] The guitar parts were played by a young Paul Warren [4] and Melvin Watson Melvin "Wah-Wah Watson" Ragin [5] The Temptations' version of "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone" followed in the extended-length "cinematic soul" tradition of the work of Isaac Hayes and others, and future songs like Donna Summer's fourteen-minute "Love to Love You Baby" and the instrumentals of MFSB expanded upon the concept in the mid-1970s.

Release and awards[edit]

A seven-minute edited version of "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone" was released as a single in September 1972. For this mix, congas were added to bolster the song's sparse percussion; this version appeared on the 1973 Anthology triple LP. The Temptations' box set Emperors of Soul has the edited version in stereo, but without the congas. The b-side was the instrumental backing by The Funk Brothers without the Temptations' vocals (except for a single "Unngh!" at the end of the second verse). "Papa" rose to number one on the U.S. pop charts and number five on the U.S. R&B charts, becoming the Temptations' final pop number-one hit. The song, the anchor of the 1972 Temptations album All Directions, won three 1973 Grammys: its a-side won for Best R&B Vocal Performance by a Group; its b-side won for Best R&B Instrumental (awarded to Whitfield and arranger/conductor Paul Riser); and Whitfield and Barrett Strong won for Best R&B Song as the song's composers.

Notable covers and remixes[edit]

A number of notable covers of "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone" have been recorded:

  • The Pioneers made a rocksteady cover of this song[6] on a 1973 single produced by Joe Gibbs.
  • The producer & remixer Dr Heinz Funkenpumpe released a remix of The Pioneers version in 2009.
  • Bill "Wolf" Wolfer created an electronic cover of the number for his 1982 debut album, Wolf. Michael Jackson provided backing vocals.[7]
  • Luis Miguel recorded a Spanish-language version during the recording sessions of Soy como quiero ser in 1987. It remains unreleased.
  • The group Was (Not Was) covered the song on their 1990 album Are You Okay?, and their version reached number 12 in the UK.[8]
  • A 1993 version by George Michael was released on the EP Five Live where it was blended with the Adamski hit "Killer". This arrangement was also performed by Seal.
  • In the "Battle of the Groups" segment of the TV special Motown Returns to the Apollo in 1985 the Four Tops sang the coda, much to the (feigned) outrage of the Temptations. Levi Stubbs, leader of the Tops, responded, "I know this is your song, Temps, but get on out the way because we're going to sing it. So get on out the way." As soon as they finished, the Temptations responded by singing the Tops' hit, "Baby I Need Your Loving"
  • The rap group Run-D.M.C. re-worked and sampled "Papa Was A Rollin' Stone" for their song "Papa Crazy," off their 1988 album Tougher Than Leather.
  • David Lindley and his band El Rayo-X covered the song on their 1988 album Very Greasy.
  • The song was parodied by comedian Bob Rivers in 1994 on Twisted Tunes: 1994 The Year in Review as "Grandpa Loved the Rolling Stones".
  • The song was covered by Los Lobos in 1999 on DET Live! Vol. 1 Exclusive Live Performances from the Studios of WDET-FM.
  • Lisa Fischer recorded the song and the version was featured on A Twist of Motown in 2003.
  • Rockapella performed the song on their concert album Live in Japan (2004); it is a staple at their live shows. George Baldi III, the current bass for Rockapella, sings lead.
  • Lee Ritenour, Chris Botti, Kenya Hathaway, Grady Harrell, and Taylor Dayne recorded the song and the version on the album Overtime in 2005.[9][10]
  • This song was covered in Episode 33 of Live from Daryl's House, featuring Daryl Hall and the group Train, on August 15, 2010
  • Phil Collins' 2010 Motown-covers album Going Back includes a cover of the song.[11]
  • Craig David recorded a version on his 2010 cover album Signed Sealed Delivered.[12]
  • The song was covered by David Hernandez on American Idol (2008) during the Top 10 males week and by Allison Iraheta in 2009 during Motown week.
  • Sublime's song "Same in the End" references the song: "Daddy was a rolling rolling stone, he rolled away one day and he never came home."



Undisputed Truth version[edit]

  • Lead and background vocals by Joe Harris, Billie Rae Calvin, and Brenda Joyce

Temptations version[edit]


Released in 1972 as a single from Law of the Land

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  1. ^ Robert Dimery (2011). Hachette UK, ed. 1001 Songs: You Must Hear Before You Die.  "this seven-minute single (a U.S. No. 1) and its near-twelve-minute album version remain the apex of the psychedelic soul era."
  2. ^ Tyler Clifford. "Local legendary Motown Sound trumpeter Maurice Davis dies at the age of 71". The E.W. Scripps Co. Retrieved 16 July 2013.  "Maurice Davis was involved in producer Norman Whitfield's transition of the Motown Sound into a psychedelic soul label. Whitfield placed much emphasize on instrumentation over vocals, which allowed Davis and the Funk Brothers to shine. The Temptations were a major element in this endeavor, including the production of "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone.""
  3. ^ a b c Ribowsky, Mark (2010). Ain't Too Proud to Beg: The Troubled Lives and Enduring Soul of the Temptations. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 978-0-470-26117-0. p. 232
  4. ^
  5. ^ "A brief history of Wah Wah Watson". Wah Wah Watson Music. Retrieved 17 July 2013. 
  6. ^ "The Pioneers's Papa Was a Rolling Stone cover of The Temptations's Papa Was a Rollin' Stone". Retrieved 17 July 2013. 
  7. ^ Halstead, Craig; Chris Cadman (2003). Michael Jackson: The Solo Years. Authors OnLine. ISBN 075520091-8. 
  8. ^ a b "1990 Top 40 Official UK Singles Archive - 9th June 1990". Official Charts Company. Retrieved 16 June 2013. 
  9. ^ "Overtime overview". Rovi Corporation. Retrieved 17 July 2013. 
  10. ^ Lucy Tauss (July–August 2005). "Overtime Lee Ritenour". JazzTimes, Inc. Retrieved 16 July 2013. 
  11. ^ Stephen Thomas Erlewine. "Going Back review on Allmusic". Allmusic. Rovi Corporation. Retrieved 17 July 2013. 
  12. ^ "Craig David's Papa Was a Rolling Stone cover of The Temptations's Papa Was a Rollin' Stone". Retrieved 17 July 2013. 
  13. ^ " – The Temptations – Papa Was A Rollin' Stone" (in Dutch). Ultratop 50.
  14. ^ "Papa was a rollin' stone in Canadian Top Singles Chart". Library and Archives Canada. Retrieved 16 June 2013. 
  15. ^ "Papa was a rollin' stone in French Chart". Dominic DURAND / InfoDisc. Retrieved 16 June 2013.  You have to use the index at the top of the page and search "Temptations"
  16. ^ " – The Temptations – Papa Was A Rollin' Stone". GfK Entertainment.
  17. ^ "The best-selling singles of 1973 in Italy". HitParadeItalia (it). Retrieved 5 June 2013. 
    62. Papa was a rolling stone - The Temptations [#12]
  18. ^ "Nederlandse Top 40 – The Temptations search results" (in Dutch) Dutch Top 40.
  19. ^ " – The Temptations – Papa Was A Rollin' Stone" (in Dutch). Single Top 100.
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  23. ^ "50 Back Catalogue Singles – 7 February 2009". Ultratop 50. Hung Medien. Retrieved 17 July 2013. 
  24. ^ " – Was (Not Was) – Papa Was A Rolling Stone" (in German). Ö3 Austria Top 40.
  25. ^ " – Was (Not Was) – Papa Was A Rolling Stone" (in Dutch). Ultratop 50.
  26. ^ "Papa was a rolling stone in Canadian Top Singles Chart". Library and Archives Canada. Retrieved 16 June 2013. 
  27. ^ "Papa was a rolling stone in Irish Chart". IRMA. Retrieved 16 June 2013.  Only one result when searching "Papa was a rolling stone"
  28. ^ "Nederlandse Top 40 – Was Not Was search results" (in Dutch) Dutch Top 40.
  29. ^ " – Was (Not Was) – Papa Was A Rolling Stone" (in Dutch). Single Top 100.
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  31. ^ " – Was (Not Was) – Papa Was A Rolling Stone". Swiss Singles Chart.
  32. ^ a b c "Are You Okay? awards on Allmusic". Allmusic. Retrieved 16 June 2013. 
Preceded by
"I Can See Clearly Now" by Johnny Nash
Billboard Hot 100 number one single (The Temptations version)
December 2, 1972 (one week)
Succeeded by
"I Am Woman" by Helen Reddy