On Dec. 2, 1972, The Temptations’ single “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” was #1 on the Billboard Hot 100—the group’s fourth time at the top spot.
The single was almost seven minutes in length, edited down from its original 12-minute LP version. As prominent as The Temptations’ vocal track was, the song’s instrumentation was outstanding — a whole lot of “psychedelic soul” from the amazing house musicians at Motown (a.k.a. The Funk Brothers). The song would win a Grammy for Best R&B Instrumental (the B-Side to the single was an instrumental passage). The song would also be awarded a Grammy for Best R&B Song, and The Temptations would receive Best Vocal Performance by a Group.
The Temptations were a five-man vocal group that formed in the early ’60s. It’s a long story of individual singers traveling across country, forming groups, merging groups, and eventually being in Detroit’s Hitsville U.S.A. at the right time. The “classic” lineup is considered to be Melvin Franklin, Eddie Kendricks, David Ruffin, Otis Williams and Paul Williams.
By 1972, the group had changed. Original members Franklin and Otis Williams were still singing, but Kendricks had left to pursue a solo career (“Keep on Truckin'” would hit #1 in ’73) and he was replaced by Damon Harris. Richard Street replaced Paul Williams a year earlier when Williams was forced to retire because of sickle-cell disease and depression. Dennis Edwards had been with the group since 1968, after David Ruffin had been fired from the group (another long story … maybe I’ll go into it one day … ).
There are a lot of odd trivia tidbits about “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone, ” including:
- It had been released as a single by The Undisputed Truth four months earlier, but went nowhere on the charts. The new instrumentation with The Temptations’ vocals seemed to make the difference.
- Singer Edwards hated the song. The opening verse about “Papa” dying on the third of September hit close to home. Edwards’ father had died on September 3 and had actually been a preacher, but his father was nothing like the philandering con man in the song.
Here’s the full 12-minute version from their 1972 album All Directions.
Here’s a clip with both sides from the single (the B-side instrumental starts at 3:28).