Fatherless siblings hear the nasty talk going around on the street, and ask Momma some pointed questions she was hoping she’d never have to answer, but she isn’t about to lie. It’s true. Papa was good for nothing, and when he died, all he left us was alone. This is pure urban grit, the sound of streetlights reflecting off the surfaces of dark, rain-soaked streets, steam rising from subway grates, and big old Cadillacs splashing through the potholes, while over there, down that dark alley…well, shit, you don’t even want to know what’s goin’ on in there. Written by the immortal Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone was first recorded by the almost forgotten Undisputed Truth, who never got any higher with it than #63 on Billboard, before the Temptations got ahold of it, turned it into an epic twelve minute statement piece (later edited down to about seven minutes for the single release) and took it right to the top in September 1972, winning three Grammys in the process.
It’s undoubtedly a great vocal performance all around, but that ain’t the half of it. Crucial, impeccably moody backup is provided by the Funk Brothers, Motown’s legendary in-house ensemble of master musicians, with Maurice Davis on trumpet, Melvin “Wah-wah Watson” Ragin on guitar, and Bob Babbitt on bass, everybody doing their thing at such a high level that the backing track, without vocals, was chosen for side B of the single, and it won a Grammy for Best R&B Instrumental. The mood they create is so immersively, evocatively atmospheric that in its full-length version, with almost the first four minutes being exclusively Funk Brothers with no vocals at all, Papa Was a Rollin Stone isn’t so much a song as history’s funkiest film score. Indeed, the music for 1971’s Shaft was a major influence on arranger Paul Riser Sr., whose idea it was to add a frosty string section to ratchet up the drama. It’s practically impossible to listen to it now without thinking Seventies urban crime drama.
Amazingly, the group was reluctant to record it. The guys were growing weary of the “psychedelic soul” label affixed to them since their smash hit “Cloud Nine”, and wanted to go back to romantic ballads, like My Girl, and Since I Lost My Baby; writer/producer Whitfield also seemed just as interested in the instrumental backing as the vocals, which wasn’t an attitude likely to win over a vocal group, but surely suited this particular number to a “T”. There was also personal friction between various band members and Whitfield, especially when it came to frontman Dennis Edwards, who was irritated at being commanded to keep redoing his vocal until it had just the right tone of pained weariness, dread, and uncertainty. There were dozens upon dozens of takes. Edwards wanted to emote. Whitfield wanted him to sound more matter of fact, almost flat, like you would when you knew you weren’t going to like what you were asking to be told, but reckoned you needed to hear it anyway. Later, basking in the glory of the band’s last Number 1 hit, the singer had a change of heart, saying in an interview with the Detroit Free Press that “I wanted to put more on it. I didn’t want it to be so bland. But Whitfield actually wanted it bland. Every time I would try to over-sing it, he would change it. He would make me mad…I did not appreciate it until I heard the record. And I said, ‘Wow.’ What he was doing, he was getting me into a certain mood.” He was, and did it ever work. There’s nothing in pop quite like the intonation of those opening lines:
It was the third of September
That day I’ll always remember, yes I will
‘Cause that was the day that my daddy died
I never got a chance to see him
Never heard nothing but bad things about him
Mama, I’m depending on you to tell me the truth
It sounds so emotionally authentic that for years the story has circulated that the pain was real, because Edwards’s father actually did die on September 3, which seems not to be true, at least according to the Wikipedia article**, but sure sounds as if it ought to be –too good to fact-check, in the words of author, screenwriter, and old newspaperman David Simon.
If ever there was a song that better earns the old “they don’t make ’em like that anymore” label, I’ve yet to hear it. They really don’t. Back then we didn’t realize, of course, that we were feasting on the last great songs of a golden age in popular music. In 1972, it still felt like the Sixties (which anyway hadn’t really begun until February 1964 over here), and Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone seemed to be setting the standard for another decade of terrific hit music. Nope. Of course, there was great music in the Seventies, but generally it wasn’t the zeitgeist. Times were changing, and the era of big radio hits being not merely the most popular, but also the very finest, compositions of the day was drawing to a close. In just a couple of years, it was all Disco Duck, Convoy, Theme From the Poseidon Adventure, and Billy Don’t Be a Hero. Meanwhile, Barry Gordy wrapped up the operation at the famous “Hitsville USA” house/recording studio in Detroit, moved Motown Records to L.A., and made a go of it for a while, but the magic was lost, and the label was eventually sold and then re-sold to and among various international conglomerates. Look at it this way: it was a miracle in the first place, and miraculous things don’t last forever.
Both the single and extended album cut versions are attached above.