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Papa Was a Rolling Stone
"Papa Was a Rolling Stone" (also spelled "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone") is a soul song, written by Motown songwriters Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong as an album track for Motown act The Undisputed Truth in 1971. A year later, Whitfield, who also produced the song, took "Papa Was a Rolling Stone" and remade it as a twelve-minute record for The Temptations, which won three Grammy Awards in 1973. While the original version of the song has been largely forgotten, The Temptations' version of the song has been an enduring and influential soul classic.
Beginning with an extended instrumental introduction, each of the song's three verses is seperated 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, establishes the musical theme, a simple three-note figure; the bass is gradually joined by other instruments, including a blues guitar, wah-wah guitar, Rhodes piano notes, handclaps, horns, and strings; all are tied together by the ever-present bass guitar line and repeating hi-hat rhythm.
Vocal duties are performed in a true ensemble style: Temptations singers Dennis Edwards, Melvin Franklin, Richard Street, Damon Harris, and Otis Williams alternate vocal lines, taking the role of siblings questioning their mother about their now-deceased father; their increasingly-pointed questions, and the mother's repeated response ("Papa was a rolling stone/whereever he laid his hat was his home/and when he died, all he left us was alone") painting a somber picture for the children who have never seen their father and have "heard nothing but bad things about him."
Friction arose during the recording of "Papa Was a Rolling Stone" for a number of reasons. The Temptations didn't 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. In addition, Dennis Edwards was angered by the song's first verse: "It was the the 3rd of September/That day I'll always remember/'cause that was the day/that my daddy died". Edwards' real-life father had died on the same day as the fictional father in the song, and although the song wasn't originally written for the Tempts, Edwards was convinced that Whitfield assigning him the line was intentional. Although Whitfield denied the accusation, he used it to his advantage: he made Edwards record the disputed line over and over again until Whitfield finally got the angered, bitter grumble he desired out of the ususally fiery-toned Edwards.
The Temptations' version of "Papa Was a Rolling Stone" set a precedent for extra-length "cinematic soul" song mixes, and future songs like Donna Summer's fourteen-minute "Love to Love You Baby" and the instrumentals of MFSB expanded upon the concept in the mid-1970s.
A 7-minuted edited version of "Papa Was a Rolling Stone" was released as a single in September 1972; its b-side was Whitfield's instrumental without the Temptations' vocals. "Papa" rose to #1 on the US pop charts and #5 on the US R&B charts, becoming the Temptations' final pop #1 hit. The song, the anchor of the 1972 Temptations album All Directions, won three 1973 Grammies: its a-side won for Best R&B Vocal Performance by a Group, and its b-side won for Best R&B Instrumental (awarded to Whitfield and arranger/conductor Paul Riser), and Whitfield and Barret Strong won for Best R&B Song as the song's composers.
- Lead and Background Vocals by Dennis Edwards, Melvin Franklin, Richard Street, Damon Harris, and Otis Williams
- Written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong
- Produced by Norman Whitfield
- Arranged and Conducted by Paul Riser
- Instrumentation by The Funk Brothers
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