Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone Original
Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone Originally About a Bad Dad
Motown songwriters Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong wrote “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” in 1971. In the words of Stereogum editor, Tom Breihan, “It’s a song about a piece of shit.” The song is a conversation, sung in alternating lines by siblings asking their mother about their dead father. He wasn’t a great man. Motown recording act the Undisputed Truth released the “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” original in May 1973. The Temptation’s more well-known version came out four months later. However, the song is more about its writer, Whitfield, than either of those bands. His psychedelic soul classic was the forerunner to the extended single and to disco and house music.
Ushering in the Psychedelic
In 1972, Motown had significantly changed since its 1960s pop-soul heyday. The label moved most of its operations of Los Angeles. Big stars like Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder fought for and gained greater artistic control. New music with a psychedelic and orchestral flavour replaced the classic Motown sound.
Experimenting with the Undisputed Truth
Whitfield assembled the Undisputed Truth so he could experiment with psychedelic soul production techniques. The band consisted of Joe “Pep” Harris on main lead vocals and Billie Rae Calvin and Brenda Joyce Evans on additional leads and backup vocals. The group’s entire aesthetic was psychedelic soul, complete with large Afros and white makeup.
The Undisputed Truth released a number of minor hits. Many of them were also Temptations songs, including “You Make Your Own Heaven and Hell Right Here on Earth” and the “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” original. Their top-selling single, “Smiling Faces Sometimes” (a Temptations cover) hit number three on the 1971 US pop charts.
Fuzzed-out Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone Original
The “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” original appeared on the Undisputed Truth’s third album, 1973’s Law of the Land. It peaked at number 63 on the pop charts and number 24 on the R&B charts.
The song takes you on a meandering, funky journey, featuring fuzzed-out horns. I thought the bass at the start sounded a bit like “Groove is in the Heart”. Evans, as the female vocalist, added a nice mix which Damon Harris’ falsetto can’t quite replicate in the Temptations’ version. However, the “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” original lacked the orchestral odyssey feel of the cover. It feels like a warm-up for the Temptations.
Undisputed Truth’s Career
The Undisputed Truth never quite replicated the success of “Smiling Faces Sometimes”. In the mid-70s, they became more funk-focused and followed Whitfield to Whitfield Records when he left Motown. The Undisputed Truth cycled through band members, with only Harris remaining throughout.
The group enjoyed a brief revival in the 90s and released a new album in 2019. Harris recently worked with UK band, Stone Foundation. In 2015, along with other Undisputed Truth members Calvin Stephenson, Dazee Love and Jaki G, he was inducted into the R&B Hall of Fame.
Papa Gets a Rework
Whitfield reworked the Undisputed Truth’s three-minute “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” original into a 12-minute track for the Temptations. In July 1972, the song appeared on the Temptations’ 16th studio album, All Directions. The “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” single was just under seven minutes.
Dennis Edwards, Melvin Franklin, Richard Street and Damon Harris sang lead vocals. Dennis Edwards, Melvin Franklin, Richard Street, Damon Harris and Otis Williams sang backup. Whitfield made Edwards re-record his parts dozens of times until he finally achieved the desired angered, bitter grumble. Paul Riser arranged and conducted the song. The Funk Brothers and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra provided instrumentals.
The composition of the Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” was ground-breaking. Coming at a time when songs lasted around three minutes, the seven-minute single featured a two-minute-long instrumental intro. It went on to become one of the longest number one singles of all time. The singers alternated vocal lines and various instrumental textures were brought in and out of the song. It was truly a work of “cinematic soul” that Donna Summer’s 14-minute “Love to Love You Baby” would soon expand upon.
The Temptations were not huge fans of “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone”. They didn’t like that Whitfield’s instrumentals got more emphasis in their songs. They wanted to sing ballads. Whitfield’s treatment of the group eventually led to his dismissal as their producer.
Success & Legacy
The “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” single was a number-one hit on the Billboard Hot 100. It also won three Grammy Awards in 1973 – Best R&B Vocal Performance by a Group, Best R&B Instrumental and Best R&B Song. The twelve-minute album version ranked number 169 on Rolling Stone‘s “500 Greatest Songs of All Time”, one of three Temptations songs on the list.
“Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” was the Temptations’ second and final Grammy in a competitive category. Once they stopped working with Whitfield, they returned to the ballads they loved. But throughout the 70s, the band lost their musical relevance.
“Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” wouldn’t have worked without the Temptations’ “beautiful swirl of strained and pained voices”. But they were also conduits for Whitfield’s grand vision for more elongated, operatic music.
Regardless of the Temptations’ attitude to the song, “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” is an enduring and influential soul classic that ushers in a new musical sounds. In reflection of this, in 1993, George Michael made a house-sounding blended remix, “Killer / Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone“.