Papa Was a Rollin' Stone

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"Papa Was a Rollin' Stone"
side-A label
US single of the Undisputed Truth recording
Single by the Undisputed Truth
from the album Law of the Land
ReleasedMay 9, 1972
Songwriter(s)Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong
Producer(s)Norman Whitfield
"Papa Was a Rollin' Stone"
side-A label
US single of the Temptations recording
Single by the Temptations
from the album All Directions
B-side"Papa Was a Rollin' Stone" (instrumental)
ReleasedSeptember 28, 1972
RecordedMay 15, June 14, June 22 and 28, 1972
StudioDetroit, Michigan, Hitsville USA (Studio A)
GenrePsychedelic soul,[1][2] funk[3]
LabelGordy G 7121
Producer(s)Norman Whitfield
The Temptations singles chronology
"Mother Nature"
"Papa Was a Rollin' Stone"
Official audio
"Papa Was a Rollin' Stone (11:45 version)" on YouTube
"Papa Was a Rollin' Stone (Remix 1987)"
Papa Was a Rollin' Stone Remix 1987 by The Temptations.jpg
Single by the Temptations

"Papa Was a Rollin' Stone" is a song originally performed by Motown recording act the Undisputed Truth in 1972, though it became much better known after a Grammy-award winning cover by the Temptations was issued later the same year. This latter version of the song became a number-one hit on the Billboard Hot 100.

"Papa Was a Rollin' Stone" was written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong in 1971. Whitfield produced the original Undisputed Truth version, which was released as a single in May 1972. This version of the song peaked at number 63 on the Pop Charts and number 24 on the R&B Charts. The song was included on the Undisputed Truth's album Law of the Land (1973).

Later in 1972, Whitfield cut a different version of the song, turning it into a 12-minute track for the Temptations. This version was included on their 1972 album All Directions. The edited 7-inch single release of this Temptations track was issued in September 1972, and this version 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 regarded as an enduring and influential soul classic. The full-length album version was ranked number 169 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 the song 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, electric piano, handclaps, strings and solo trumpet; all are tied together by the ever-present bass guitar line and repeating hi-hat rhythm.

The official album version of the song is 12:04 not 11:45 as stated on the record label. When All Directions was issued on CD, it was shorter at 11:45.[4] The full LP version is featured on the Temptations' Psychedelic Soul compilation.[5]

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. Whitfield forced 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.[6] Whitfield's treatment of the group eventually led to his dismissal as their producer.[6] 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 the third of September. Edwards's father actually died on the third of October.[6]

The solo trumpet part in the introduction was played by Funk Brothers member Maurice Davis; guitar parts were played by fellow member Melvin "Wah-Wah Watson" Ragin[7] and a young Paul Warren.[8] 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.


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 Was a Rollin' Stone" 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.

Kelefa Sanneh described the song as, "nearly seven glorious minutes long (the album version was twelve) sustained by little more than a perfect bassline and a few artfully placed hand claps".[9]

Stereogum called it, "a monolith. A towering monument out of tense hi-hats and pulsating bass and shivering strings and hard-strutting chicken-scratch guitars and panicked trumpet-blasts. And the merciless four-four stomp-clap beat predicted not just disco but house music, as well."[10]

Covers and remixes[edit]



Region Certification Certified units/sales
United Kingdom (BPI)[41] Silver 200,000double-dagger
United States (RIAA)[42] Platinum 1,000,000^

^ Shipments figures based on certification alone.
double-dagger Sales+streaming figures based on certification alone.


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 October 21, 2012. Retrieved July 16, 2013. Maurice Davis was involved in producer Norman Whitfield's transition of the Motown Sound into a psychedelic soul label. Whitfield placed much emphasize [sic] 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. ^ "100 Greatest Funk Songs". Digital Dream Door. August 7, 2008. Archived from the original on September 25, 2010. Retrieved October 7, 2021.
  4. ^ a b The Temptations - Papa Was a Rollin' Stone (Vinyl) (full version) Retrieved June 19, 2020.
  5. ^ Psychedelic Soul - The Temptations Retrieved June 19, 2020.
  6. ^ 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
  7. ^ a b "A brief history of Wah Wah Watson". Wah Wah Watson Music. Retrieved July 17, 2013.
  8. ^ a b "About". The Paul Warren Project. Retrieved October 7, 2016.
  9. ^ Kelefa Sanneh (2021). Major Labels. Canongate. p. 98. ISBN 9781838855932.
  10. ^ Tom Breihan. "The Number Ones: The Temptations' "Papa Was A Rollin' Stone"". Stereogum.
  11. ^ "Bill Wolfer | Credits". AllMusic.
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  14. ^ Halstead, Craig; Chris Cadman (2003). Michael Jackson: The Solo Years. Authors OnLine. ISBN 075520091-8.
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  16. ^ "Migos Sample The Temptations' "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone" For "Avalanche"". Genius. Retrieved October 20, 2021.
  17. ^ Rapp, Allison. "Black Crowes Revisit Their Roots With '1972' EP: Interview". Ultimate Classic Rock. Retrieved May 6, 2022.
  18. ^ Kent, David (1993). Australian Chart Book 1970-1992. St Ives, N.S.W.: Australian Chart Book. ISBN 0-646-11917-6.
  19. ^ "The Temptations – Papa Was A Rollin' Stone" (in Dutch). Ultratop 50.
  20. ^ "Top RPM Singles: Issue 4234." RPM. Library and Archives Canada. Retrieved 16 June 2013.
  21. ^ "Papa was a rollin' stone in French Chart". Dominic DURAND / InfoDisc. Archived from the original on September 20, 2013. Retrieved June 16, 2013. You have to use the index at the top of the page and search "Temptations"
  22. ^ "The Temptations – Papa Was A Rollin' Stone" (in German). GfK Entertainment charts. To see peak chart position, click "TITEL VON The Temptations"
  23. ^ "Nederlandse Top 40 – The Temptations" (in Dutch). Dutch Top 40.
  24. ^ "The Temptations – Papa Was A Rollin' Stone" (in Dutch). Single Top 100.
  25. ^ Flavour of New Zealand, 12 February 1973
  26. ^ Samson, John. "Papa was a rollin' stone in South African Chart". Retrieved June 6, 2013.
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  33. ^ "Was (Not Was) – Papa Was A Rolling Stone" (in Dutch). Ultratop 50.
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  43. ^ Myers, Marc (2018). "Hopelessness and Hope in 'Papa Was a Rolling Stone'." Wall Street Journal, 18 October 2018.
  44. ^ Johnny Griffith on Tidal Retrieved December 12, 2021.
  45. ^ "Papa was a rollin' stone - Who plays the bassline?" (response from Bob Babbitt himself) 28 August 2008 Bob Babbitt: "Hey Guys.....The Undisputed Truth version was yours truly....I had first been told that the Temptations version was Leroy Taylor but then Eddie Watkins name was also mentioned to me.. Recently Wah Wah Watkins (sic) and I had a discussion about the Papa Was a Rolling Stone session and he told me that Jamerson and myself were both on the session but when producer Norman Whitfield asked Jamerson to just keep reapting (sic) the Bass line that Jamerson got up and walked out of the session...Wah Wah said that Norman ahd (sic) me play the line..." Retrieved December 12, 2021.
  46. ^ Song of the Day: The Temptations - Papa Was a Rollin' Stone (28 August 2021). Retrieved December 12, 2021.
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  48. ^ "01/09/17 Aaron "A-Train" Smith, Drummer with The Temptations", Jackie's Groove (Apple Podcast), 09 January 2017. Retrieved December 12, 2021.

External links[edit]