Papa Was A Rolling Stone (1972)

The Temptations

Written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong
What are DNA Source Songs™? Suggest a source song for inclusion via Rock Populi.
Ppapa was a Temptations

Papa takes a beating

“Papa Was A Rolling Stone” was first released in 1971, performed by The Undisputed Truth, a Motown “experimental” group that was delving into Psychedelic Soul.

They were produced by Norman Whitfield who also produced The Temptations. The Undisputed’s version reached #63 on Billboard charts and disappeared.

Later, Undisputed Truth would chart with songs that sprang from the same distinctive sounds, namely “Ball Of Confusion,” and the portentous, even scary, “Smiling Faces Sometimes.” (These songs, too, were covered by The Temptations and inevitably became bigger hits for the bigger brand-name group.)

There is a fine line between pure Funk and Psychedelic Soul, so tracing some roots and branches will bear fruit that help put The Temptations’ version of “Papa” into perspective.

“Papa Was A Rolling Stone”

Sly & The Family Stone’s “Everyday People” (1968) and especially “I Want To Take You Higher” (1969) are foundational songs of the genre. So is The Chambers Brothers’ frat-party classic, “Time Has Come Today,” (recorded in ’66 but charting only in 1968) with its deep-grooved bottom, tempo changes and distortion effects, not to mention some downright weirdness in the vocals.

The songs also trade on the merging that took place between primarily white Hippiedom and its passion for LSD and the grit of inner city black street culture, its sorrow and its pity. The lyrics of “Time Has Come Today” rough out the feeling of the day perfectly:

I might get burned up by the sun (Time) 
But I had my fun (Time) 
I’ve been loved and put aside (Time) 
I’ve been crushed by the tumbling tide (Time) 
And my soul has been psychedelicized (Time)

A party song with a big message: “Time Has Come Today”

Other manifestations of Psychedelic Soul scream out of Edwin Starr’s “War (What Is It Good For?)” from 1971; “What’s Going On?” the 1971 masterpiece by Marvin Gaye, though a mellower expression of the genre; and much of the work by Funkadelic and Parliament, both groups cross-pollinating with Detroit radical rockers MC5 and The Stooges.

A message song with a big party vibe: “War (What Is It Good For)”

Regarding sentiment, Psychedelic Soul was generally socially aware, personally cynical, yet with a sly sense of humor all in the same song.

"Papa" came from the All Directions album

Along came The Temptations, a mega-group that often delivered perfectly honed love songs and tight harmonies (the eternal “My Girl”) yet… yet… they could get down and deliver the funk. 1966’s “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg,” “Get Ready,” and “(I Know) I’m Losing You” were early indicators of this ability. In 1969, The Temptations hurled up “Psychedelic Shack,” a mad grab bag of rhythms, soul vocals and Hippie images:

It’s got a neon sign outside that says
Come in and take a look at your mind

“Papa Was A Rolling Stone” is one of the greatest Rock songs of all time and the most insistently disturbing #1 single to ever roost on top of Billboard’s Hot 100. It’s not violent. It’s not misogynistic. It doesn’t speak of war. It speaks of one of the greatest, most persistent social ills in modern America.

Fate would have its say: it was The Temptations last chart topper and their last great classic work, a fact made more ironic by the group’s not wanting to cut the record at all. They soon after fired producer Whitfield. The working tension between The Tempts and Whitfield, a further scrap of irony, served to elevate the song to the enormously lofty status it enjoys decades after its release.

Even though a relaxed groove opens the 7-minute Temptations model, a foreboding infects the song as soon as the vocals enter the mix. We are about to explore the exploding dysfunction of the inner city, African American family of the late 1960s.

Detroit youth 1971

“Papa Was A Rolling Stone” is completely rough and unvarnished in its approach to the issue. The no-good African American father is shown no mercy. He is a philanderer, a thief, a preacher who deals drugs, and a drunk. He brings nothing to the family table. He only takes away. The brutal honesty may make some queasy in this more politically correct time, but the horror of the breakdown of the black American family was just beginning to dawn publicly on members of the concerned African American community. In that respect, “Papa” is like the testifying done in black churches – a vehicle to get at some larger “sin.”

This indictment and conviction is accomplished through a series of “sons” questioning “mama.” What was papa? Who was he? Where was he? What the fuck was this person – whose genes we share – up to? Mama’s melancholy response comes by way of a pun:

Papa was a rollin’ stone
Wherever he laid his head was his home
And when he died, all he left us was alone (a loan)

The complex vocals are handled admirably by Dennis Edwards; Melvin Franklin; Richard Street; Damon Harris and Otis Williams. Each brings a different emotion to the sorry party.

Anger, resentment, dismay, apathy, and, perhaps most poignantly, when they explain what “mama” had to say, the vocals explore the depressing guilt a mother feels toward her children for choosing such a villain as a “mate.” Neither parent gets out of the song with a gold star and a pat on the head.

The Funk Brothers, Motown’s house band, do a killer job in maintaining a long riff-laden groove. A smoking high-hat keeps the beat shatteringly alive throughout. Fast handclaps peek in and out, reviving the groove just when it feels as if it’s faltering.

A heavy-stringed bass creeps about this house of pain, seeming to embody the spirit of the lowdown dead daddy, a poltergeist rat. A horn section brings a free forming, jazzy element and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra strings bring a sharp, dramatic flair that reminds the listener of how powerful violins can be in an all-out tragedy.

For the troubled black family of 1971, Motown's Hitsville was a million miles away

However, the guitar of Melvin Ragin, nicknamed “Wah-Wah Watson,” carries the song into the wilds of raw illustriousness. Instead of the inherent cheerfulness in the wah-wah pedal sound, Ragin brings a nattering, finger-pointing anger to “Papa Was A Rolling Stone.”

For 20 years The Temptations were remembered for “I’m Losing You,” “Get Ready,” and other up-tempo soul blazers. For over 50 years and more they have been known for the elegant, candlelight-and-roses crowd-pleaser “My Girl.” When 100 years pass, they will be remembered for the brutally honest psychedelic grooving of “Papa Was A Rolling Stone” and its presentation of a bleak urban drama that has taken a piece of all of us.

The song reminds us one more time of the bitter fruit still falling from the slaveholders’ tree.

  • “Papa Was A Rolling Stone” was the last smash recorded in Motown’s legendary Studio A, located in a two-story house at 2648 West Grand Boulevard in Detroit. It now houses the Motown Museum.
  • Virtually all of Motown’s studio work had moved to L.A. by then, but The Temptations insisted on recording in Detroit.