[midlife 150] #131: the temptations “papa was a rollin’ stone”

May 2, 2010

#131 Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone by The Temptations (taken from All Directions, 1972)

The high watermark of cinematic soul, Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone in fact sat uneasily with The Temptations. First, the song was written neither by nor for them: producer and co-writer (with Barrett StrongNorman Whitfield had released a recording by The Undisputed Truth months before the Temptations were handed it. Second, by refashioning it from a four minute potboiler to a twelve minute quest for truth, Whitfield moved it firmly away from the group’s straight-up-soul comfort zone; they simply weren’t in it enough to be sure it was theirs. Third, Whitman ensured Dennis Edwards took the opening line, “It was the 3rd of September, that day I’ll always remember (yes I will). Cos that was the day that my daddy died” – it was the day Edwards’ daddy died.

The song in its full version (seven and four minute edits were released too) is a masterclass in sustained, searching tension. The repeated attempts by its protagonist (a son seeking, from his mother, the truth about his recently deceased father) to get ‘closure’ apply to the song as a whole: no chord changes from which to return home; no variation in its mantra-like chorus; no loosening of its firmly anchored bass line.

The son’s plea for honesty is forever caught between fatalism on the one hand and stoicism on the other – perhaps between soul music’s roots in the blues and gospel respectively. The first act of an unfinished morality play.

This review is part of close to 94 ‘s [midlife 150] series, which counts down favourite music 1970-2009.


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