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Song Swarm: Papa Was A Rolling Stone

March 13th, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

In Motown’s happy family it was common that the same songs would be recorded by different artists. So it is with Papa Was A Rolling Stone, written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong.

The Undisputed Truth, who may be remembered for their hit Smiling Faces Sometimes (which was originally recorded by the Temptations), recorded Papa Was A Rolling Stone as a single release in 1971. It did not perform well, peaking at #63 in the US charts. A year later, Whitfield gave the song to The Temptations when he produced their 1972 All Directions album on which it appeared as a 12-minute workout of the kind that recalled the epic soul symphonies of Isaac Hayes (though the Undisputed Truth version sounds more like an Ike arrangement). The shortened single version went on to top the US charts.

The Temptations line-up for that period differed significantly from that of the 1970s glory days, with only Otis Williams and Melvin Franklin remaining. Dennis Edwards had replaced David Ruffin; Richard Street, who had been a member of a Temptations precursor, had replaced the troubled Paul Williams; and Damon Harris had replaced Eddie Kendricks.

The Temptations perform Papa Was A Rolling Stone on Soul Train in 1973.

 

Recorded in June 1972 and released the following month, all but Otis Williams took lead vocals on Papa Was A Rolling Stone (see below), backed by Motown’s in-house session band, The Funk Brothers, and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. It topped the US charts, but only made #14 in the UK, two positions lower than the Was (Not Was) 1990 cover.

Cover versions sprung up almost immediately. The earliest featured here is by jazz multi-instrumentalist Jay Berliner, in 1972. The same year Stevie Wonder performed it on TV, using the then little known vocoder. Billy Wolfer’s electronic version in 1982 featured the artist on the vocoder, and Michael Jackson — who had been party to the Jackson 5’s live cover in 1973 — contributing to the background vocals. In 1996 Isaac Hayes, who clearly influenced Whitfield in both of his versions, finally got around to recording Papa Was A Rolling Stone, live with Soul II Soul.

A couple of other versions of the 30 featured here are worth mentioning. Malik Adouane gives it the Arab-Funk treatment, and Los Lobos’ soft acoustic version is quite splendid. I’ll spare us the recent versions by Phil Collins and Craig David.

Back to The Temptation’s version, here are the vocal leads:

Dennis Edwards:
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, tell me the truth.
And Mama just hung her head and said,

Dennis Edwards: It was the third of September. That day I’ll always remember.

ALL (lead Edwards)
“Son, Papa was a rolling stone.
Wherever he laid his hat was his home.
And when he died, all he left us was alone.
Papa was a rolling stone, my son.
Wherever he laid his hat was his home.
And when he died, all he left us was alone.”

Edwards
Well, well.
Hey Mama, is it true what they say,
that Papa never worked a day in his life?

Melvin Franklin: And that ain’t right.

Melvin Franklin
And Mama, bad talk going around town
saying that Papa had three outside children and another wife.
And that ain’t right.

Richard Street
Heard some talk about Papa doing some store front preaching.
Talking about saving souls and all the time leeching.
Dealing in debt and stealing in the name of the Lord.
Mama just hung her head and said,

All (lead Street)
“Papa was a rolling stone, my son.
Wherever he laid his hat was his home.
And when he died, all he left us was alone.
Hey, Papa was a rolling stone.
Wherever he laid his hat was his home.
And when he died, all he left us was alone.”

Richard Street (left) and Damon Harris, both died in February 2013

Damon Harris
Hey Mama, I heard Papa call himself a jack of all trade,
Tell me is that what sent Papa to an early grave?
Folk say Papa would beg, borrow, steal to pay his bill.
Richard Street
Hey Mama, folk say that Papa was never much on thinking,
Spent most of his time chasing women and drinking.
Damon Harris
Mama, I’m depending on you to tell me the truth.
Mama looked up with a tear in her eye and said,
All (lead Harris)
“Son, Papa was a rolling stone.
Wherever he laid his hat was his home.
And when he died, all he left us was alone.
Papa was a rolling stone.
Wherever he laid his hat was his home.
And when he died, all he left us was alone.
I said, Papa was a rolling stone. Wherever he laid his hat was his home.
And when he died, all he left us was alone.”

This post is obviously in tribute to Harris and Street, both whom died last month (as noted in last week’s In Memoriam post).

Here are the featured versions:

The Undisputed Truth (1971) • The Temptations (1972) • Stevie Wonder (1972) • Jay Berliner • Fausto Papetti (1973) • The Pioneers (1973) • Roy Ayers (1973) • The Jackson 5 (1973) • The Temptations (live, 1973) •  Gene Ammons (1973) • Sidney, George and Jackie (1973) • 20th Century Steel Band (1975) • Bill Wolfer (1982) • Precious Wilson (1983) • Was (Not Was) (1990) • South Central Cartel (1992) • Isaac Hayes & Soul II Soul (1996) • Third World (1996) • Los Lobos (1999) • Paul Bollenback (1999) • Ray Brown, John Clayton, Christian McBride (2001) • Malik Adouane (2002) • Lee Ritenour feat Lisa Fischer & Chris Botti (2003) • Leningrad Cowboys (2003) • Rare Earth (2005) • Horace Andy (2005) • Gilbert Montagné (2006) • Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry (2009) • Papa John Defrancesco (2011)

GET IT

And while we’re on the subject of old soul, check out this excellent article in SPIN on R&B legend Swamp Dogg, who, it’s fair to say, has his share of great stories to tell and opinions to state.

And more pictures from Soul Train on my Flickr series.

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  1. halfhearteddude
    March 13th, 2013 at 07:08 | #1

    PW = amdwhah

  2. Crinan Dunbar
    March 13th, 2013 at 12:54 | #2

    Somewhere there should be an excellent George Michael version – he certainly has done it as part of his live act.

  3. halfhearteddude
    March 13th, 2013 at 14:36 | #3

    Oh, it’s in there. I forgit to list it.

  4. Kevin Killion
    March 13th, 2013 at 15:36 | #4

    “The Undisputed Truth, who may be remembered for their hit Smiling Faces Sometimes (which was originally recorded by the Temptations)…” Interesting switcheroo between these two groups, each thus had the original of a song that became a hit for the other. Now, I’d love to hear that Temptations version of Smiling Faces Sometimes!

  5. March 14th, 2013 at 02:03 | #5

    Whenever I hear this song I hear the lyric as “all he left us was a loan” and I have to wonder how much the loan was, what was the interest rate, and when will it be paid off. They never said.

  6. halfhearteddude
    March 14th, 2013 at 07:30 | #6

    I wonder if that wasn’t a deliberate pun. They certainly emphasise the word.

  7. dogbreath
    March 20th, 2013 at 00:03 | #7

    The Temps’ version is still the one to beat [IMHO]. Many thanks for this fine collection.

  8. geoviki
    March 20th, 2013 at 03:47 | #8

    This is such a terrific song! And a great collection, for which I give much thanks. In fact, I’ve got 6 more for ya, here:

    http://rapidshare.com/files/1342555822/PWARS_plus.zip

    This includes Run C&W, Big Youth, Craig David, Olaf Stiletti, Russell Watson, and a remix of that Third World one. I hope I have enough free bandwidth on Rapidshare so that you can hear them. If not, let me know.

  9. Stephan
    March 26th, 2013 at 14:51 | #9

    Thank you so much for this collection.
    I have got one more version to add:
    Stefan Gwildis from Hamburg with a German version called “Papa will da nicht mehr wohnen” (Papa does not want to live there any longer).
    It is not even bad.

    Stephan from Hamburg (no acquaintanceship with Mr. Gwildis)

  10. Ace K.
    March 31st, 2013 at 22:29 | #10

    The Temps version is the best I have ever heard.

    But I really love the Was (Not Was) version, including (especially the raps) where in one I hear the rapper exclaiming, “You never even knew my name, you DICK.” Wonderful. Really.

    Ace K.

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