“It was the third of September / That day I’ll always remember,” begins “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone,” the classic song by the Temptations. Though it became one of their biggest hits, the group initially rejected the song – and that opening line proved problematic as well.
“Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” was penned by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, two of the most successful songwriters in Motown’s arsenal. Whitfield created the song’s haunting melody, while Strong handled the lyrics.
“Norman said he wanted lyrics that were fun, not serious, so listeners would have a good time with it,” Strong recalled during an interview with the Wall Street Journal. “But as I listened over and over after Norman left, I didn’t hear the music the way he did. There was something about the bass line that spoke to me. It was the sound of someone confused about something and was trying to make sense of it.”
As Strong listened to the a demo of the track, he was reminded of conversations he’d heard around his neighborhood. “‘Rolling stone’ was a phrase used all the time in my neighborhood going back to the ’50s,” the lyricist explained. “It meant a guy who couldn’t settle down, even if he had a wife and kids. It was from the old proverb, ‘A rolling stone gathers no moss.’”
Blending storytelling with his real-life observations, Strong created a narrative about a child’s conversation with his mother, asking questions about his deceased father.
“That’s the way it generally happens,” Strong explained, noting the gritty sincerity of the song. “A child asks his mother why his father is like that. Then the child has to live with what he’s told. In the song, the mother rationalizes the father’s behavior and blames it on his nature, even though they’re left with nothing. It’s about hopelessness and hope.”
The original version of “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” was recorded by Motown group the Undisputed Truth and released in May of ‘72. It peaked at No. 63 on the Billboard chart, but failed to generate the kind of response the songwriters had hoped for.
Whitfield went to label head and founder Berry Gordy and asked for another chance. He wanted to record a new version of “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” and he wanted the Temptations to sing it.
Paul Riser Sr. would write the arrangement for the new rendition. The song’s feeling of suspense – specifically its bass line – made him view the piece like a film score. “The soundtrack to Shaft was a big influence. I had seen the film a year earlier when it came out and loved what my friend, arranger Johnny Allen, did with the orchestration. The bass on ‘Papa’ had a similar feel.”
Riser added strings to the track, doubling down on its sense of suspense.
When the Temptations were presented with the track, the group was less than impressed. “To be truthful, we almost didn’t record the song,” admitted Temptations founding member Otis Williams. The guys had grown weary of Whitfield and Strong’s “psychedelic soul” and wanted to return to the romantic songs that had been so successful for the group in the ‘60s.
Whitfield remained determined, insisting that the Temptations version would be a hit. The group eventually relented and agreed to give it a try.
According to Williams, frontman Dennis Edwards was annoyed by the song’s opening verse: “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.”
“Dennis hadn’t heard the Undisputed Truth’s single and didn’t like ‘Papa’s’ opening line,” Williams explained. “His father had died the previous Sept. 3, and he thought Norman and Barrett were poking at him.” It’s important to note that Williams’ recollection was a little off. Edward’s father had died on Oct. 3, not Sept. 3. Nevertheless, Whitfield had to convince the Temptations frontman that any connections to his own life were purely coincidental.
Edwards also took exception to the muted delivery Whitfield requested. “I wanted to put more on it. I didn’t want it to be so bland. But (Whitfield) actually wanted it bland,” the singer recalled in an interview with the Detroit Free Press. “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,” Edwards continued. “And I said, ‘Wow.’ What he was doing, he was getting me into a certain mood.”
Released in September of 1972, “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” became one of the Temptations’ most popular tunes. The track won three Grammy Awards, including Best R&B Song, and hit No. 1 on the Billboard chart – the final chart-topper of the Temptations’ career.
“The song works because the lyrics reflect reality,” Strong later opined. “People have conversations like that every day. That’s why it rings true.”