Papa Was a Rollin' Stone

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"Papa Was a Rollin' Stone"
Single by The Undisputed Truth
ReleasedMay 9, 1972
Songwriter(s)Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong
"Papa Was a Rollin' Stone"
Single by The Temptations
from the album All Directions
ReleasedSeptember 28, 1972
Format7" single
GenrePsychedelic soul[1][2]
LabelGordy G 7121
Producer(s)Norman Whitfield
The Temptations singles chronology
"Mother Nature"
"Papa Was a Rollin' Stone"
"Papa Was a Rollin' Stone '87"
Single by The Temptations
A-side"Papa Was a Rollin' Stone '87"

"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 May 1972 and peaked at #63 on the Pop Charts and #24 on the R&B Charts, and was included on The Undisputed Truth's 1973 album Law of the Land.

Later that year, 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 number 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 (it would be the Temptations' last number one hit and would win them their second and final Grammy Award in a competitive category).


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, handclaps, horns, and strings; all are tied together by the ever-present bass guitar line and repeating hi-hat rhythm. An unusual characteristic about this song is that it uses only one chord throughout — B-flat minor.

Vocal duties 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-dead 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 somber 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. Norman Whitfield forced Dennis Edwards to re-record his parts dozens of times until he finally got the angered, bitter grumble he desired out of the usually fiery-toned Edwards.[3] Whitfield's treatment of the group eventually led to his dismissal as their producer.[3] Legend has it that 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", as his father was said to have died on that date. It actually was on the third of October, however.[3]

The guitar parts were played by a young Paul Warren[4] and 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 14-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 (though Damon Harris' final chorus is included after a single "Unngh!" at the end of the second verse), this version appears on the Funk Brothers' 2003 compilation 20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection. "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:

Chart performance[edit]


Undisputed Truth version[edit]

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

Temptations version[edit]



  1. ^ Dimery, Robert (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. ^ Clifford, Tyler. "Local legendary Motown Sound trumpeter Maurice Davis dies at the age of 71". The E.W. Scripps Co. Archived from the original on 21 October 2012. 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.""
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  9. ^ Halstead, Craig; Chris Cadman (2003). Michael Jackson: The Solo Years. Authors OnLine. ISBN 075520091-8.
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External links[edit]