The expression ‘rolling stone’ meaning a person who is unwilling to settle for long in one place, which is why it gathers no moss, has been around a lot longer than this week’s suggested song. In 1950, the blues musician Muddy Waters released a song called Rollin’ Stone which was a favourite of Brian Jones who, in 1962, decided to name the new group he was putting together after it. The following year their manager Andrew Loog Oldham suggested they add a ‘G’. Three years later Bob Dylan recorded the song Like A Rolling Stone, which the Rolling Stones would cover in 1995, but the term first originated in song in 1948 when the blind country singer/songwriter Leon Payne wrote a song called Lost Highway that opens with the line, ‘I’m a rollin’ stone, all alone and lost’. In 1949, Hank Williams covered the song as it almost summed Williams up. This week, it’s Papa’s turn and it wasn’t even the Temptations who told us about him first.
Very few of the Motown artists actually wrote their own songs with Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder being the notable exceptions although Marvin Gaye did write a handful too. The majority of songs released on the Detroit label were penned by various staff writers which included Holland/Dozier/Holland, Barrett Strong, Norman Whitfield, Henry Cosby and Ron Miller among others. The label worked in a very unique way where songs were written and submitted and various acts on the label had a go at recording them. A good example is I Heard It Through the Grapevine which is synonymous with Marvin Gaye who had the international number one hit in 1969, but the first release in the UK was by Gladys Knight & The Pips in 1967 but the year before, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles laid the track down. That too was a Whitfield/Strong composition which probably explains why the Temptations in 1969 and the Undisputed Truth in 1971 both covered it. Whitfield liked to pitch his songs to both of those groups as he thought they complimented each other.
Once a week there was a meeting chaired by the label’s founder, Berry Gordy, who would then decide who sang what and what was going to be released or shelved. With his experience, he knew he had to appeal to the widest range of people once saying, “I wanted songs for the whites, blacks, the Jews, gentiles, the cops and the robbers”.
Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone, which was written by both Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong with instrumentation arranged by Paul Riser, was first recorded by the Undisputed Truth six months before the Temps. Both versions had a similar bass intro which had more than a passing resemblance to Donny Hathaway’s 1969 song The Ghetto. The Truth’s version limped to number 63 in the Billboard singles chart and after five weeks it had disappeared from the chart and most people’s minds. Whitfield then suggested that the Temptations should cut it and decided to play it the group’s lead singer at the time Dennis Edwards. As soon as he heard the opening line, ‘It was the third of September, that day I’ll always remember, yes I will, ’cause that was the day that my daddy died’ he became visibly upset and said he wasn’t going to record the song. It transpired that Edwards’ father, who was a preacher, had actually passed away on that date and he believed that Whitfield had written it that way to cajole Edwards into singing it.
Eventually Edwards agreed to cut it but wanted to change a few bits, “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.” he explained to Brian McCollum in an interview with the Detroit Free Press. “Whitfield kept poking, prodding and pestering me until he forced the sullen vibe he wanted for that first verse. 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. The result was magic.” The other difficulty he had trying to get through to Whitfield saying, “I’m trying to tell them, ‘Yeah, the big thing is, I’ve got to explain this to my mom,'” Edwards recalled years later.
Whitfield said he chose that particular date because it fitted nicely and obviously had no idea when Edwards’ father had passed. Another thing that might have upset Edwards was, unlike the song says, he did have a very good upbringing. Basically the story tells of a man who just travelled around unable to settle down and face his responsibilities. He seemingly didn’t care for people and enjoyed a number of affairs. When he passed away, the mother of his child lets it all out by telling them that their father was a lazy womaniser. The child had obviously heard things about his father but no one would explain whilst his dad was still alive. A number of times we hear the child say, ‘Hey Momma, Is it true what they say….’ one about the facts that he never worked a day in his life and he was a Jack of all trades. The mother also reveals that he had three children and another wife. She keeps repeating the line, ‘Wherever he laid his hat was his home’ which was a line ‘borrowed’ from the Marvin Gaye song from 1962 that Paul Young took to number one in 1983.
The single version clocks in at six minutes and 50 seconds of which one minute 55 seconds is just the intro. The recording process didn’t go too smoothly, the group were upset that Whitfield’s elaborate instrumentation was getting more attention than Edwards voice and in return Whitfield kept pushing Edwards to re-record various parts numerous times until he was satisfied he’d got the proper amount of anger in his voice. It was unconventionally long but it didn’t seem to worry anyone. Edwards later said, “We found out if you have a quality record, they would play it.” If you thought the single was long you should hear the album version, that times in at just over 12 minutes.
The song reached number 14 in the UK in January 1973 but topped the chart in America giving the group their fourth and final number one. Even at almost seven minutes it wasn’t the longest number one in America, that feat goes to Don McLean whose American Pie ran for the whole eight and a half minutes and was number one the same year as Papa… The American single version of American Pie was not edited unlike the UK.
Technically the track did reach number one in the UK when it was covered by George Michael as a track on the Five Live EP. The main A-side was Somebody To Love which he performed with Queen but on the B-side was a medley of Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone with Adamski’s Killer. So, yes, it topped the chart on both sides of the pond.
Edwards, who had replaced David Ruffin in 1968, had, by the mid- 70s, turned to cocaine and was dismissed from the group by founding member Otis Williams explaining, “I couldn’t stand his intolerable attitude.” In 1980, Edwards re-joined the group with Williams explaining to him that he wasn’t going to stand any nonsense. By 1983, Edwards’ behaviour had lapsed and once again he was kicked out and replaced by Ali-Ollie Woodson who sang lead vocals on their big 80s comeback hit Treat Her Like A Lady.
Edwards embarked on a solo career and had the hit Don’t Look Any Further as a duet with Siedah Garrett. In 1987, Woodson was fired for bad time keeping and Edwards was brought back for the third time. That stint lasted just two years when he was bizarrely replaced by Woodson. However, 1989, wasn’t a bad year for Edwards because he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of The Temptations.
Edwards, who once had a relationship with Aretha Franklin and was married, briefly, to Ruth Pointer of the Pointer Sisters, contracted meningitis in the 2010s and died on 1st February 2018 just two days before his 75th birthday.