Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone
Writer(s): Barrett Strong, Norman Whitfield (see lyrics here)
Released: September 28, 1972
First Charted: October 13, 1972
Peak: 11 US, 11 CB, 3 GR, 3 HR, 5 RB, 14 UK, 12 CN, 69 AU, 6 DF (Click for codes to charts.)
Sales (in millions): 2.0 US, 0.2 UK
Airplay/Streaming (in millions): -- radio, 66.7 video, 130.49 streaming
Click on award for more details.
About the Song:
“By 1972, the classic Motown sound — that gorgeous, efficient pop-soul assembly line — was just about dead. Instead, the music had turned lush and psychedelic and orchestral.” SG However, within Motown artists like Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder had fought for more artistic control and it had a positive impact on other artists on the roster. The Temptations, who had major Motown hits with songs like “My Girl” and “”Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” were transforming as well. By the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, their sound evolved into that of psychedelic soul, due in large part to the songwriting of Barrett Strong and Norman Whitfield.
Perhaps the peak of Strong and Whitfield’s output was “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone,” “an all-time monster of a hit, a masterful orchestral howl that would anticipate so many of the changes to come.” SG It was first given to Motown act The Undisputed Truth, Whitfield’s pet project which he’d assembled in 1970. SG That “fuzzed-out, horn-drenched” SG version stalled at #63 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #24 on the R&B chart. When the Temptations covered it, it swelled into “a dazed, world-swallowing 12-minute symphony.” SG Even the edited single version ran seven minutes.
Amidst the undeniably funky groove, however, lurked the dark story of siblings (as voiced by four of the Temptations trading verses throughout the song) WK discussing the now-deceased father who he never met – and apparently wasn’t worth meeting. Dad was a drunk bum who slept around and even had another whole family.
Despite the success of the song – which included three Grammys – the Temptations were frustrated with what “was more of a Norman Whitfield record than a Temptations record.” SG They weren’t happy about their songs becoming increasingly focused on instrumentation instead of vocals and complained to Motown chief Berry Gordy. Member Dennis Edwards said he hated the song when he first heard it. FB Whitfield soon left to start his own label and the Temptations returned to the kinds of songs they wanted to sing, which led to them drifting into “artistic and commercial irrelevance.” SG
First posted 2/4/2023.