In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
The world was changing. Music was changing. Motown was changing. By 1972, the classic Motown sound — that gorgeous, efficient pop-soul assembly line — was just about dead. Instead, the music had turned lush and psychedelic and orchestral. Auteurs like Isaac Hayes and Curtis Mayfield were cranking out heady, sprawling masterpieces. Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff’s Philadelphia International label was on the rise, and so was the smooth, cinematic style that the label represented.
Motown, meanwhile, had moved most of its operations to Los Angeles. And the label had its own soul auteurs, newly empowered superstar visionaries like Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, who had fought for and finally won artistic control. Their experiments were paying off, and they were becoming more and more of the label’s focus.
As for the Temptations, they still recorded in Detroit, still with the Funk Brothers, the ever-evolving crew of studio-musician geniuses. They still worked with the songwriter Barrett Strong, once the singer who’d scored Motown’s first-ever hit, and with Norman Whitfield, the visionary producer who was also Strong’s songwriting partner. But the Temptations were changing, too. Classic-era Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams had just left the group — one for solo stardom, the other for the addiction and depression that would soon kill him. And the Temptations weren’t happy with the increasingly experimental Whitfield, who was foregrounding his own instrumental adventures at the expense of the Temptations’ own voices.
Before long, everything would change. Whitfield and Strong would stop working together. The Temptations would stop working with Whitfield. Whitfield would leave Motown and start his own label. The Temptations would go back to singing the sort of ballads that they’d always wanted to sing, and they would slowly drift off into artistic and commercial irrelevance. But before all that happened, Whitfield and the Temptations would pull off one last job. And it would prove to be an all-time monster of a hit, a masterful orchestral howl that would anticipate so many of the changes to come. This would be the last, and the best, of the Temptations’ four incredible #1 hits. They went out strong.
“Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone” didn’t start out as a Temptations song. Instead, Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong wrote it for the Motown trio known as the Undisputed Truth, and they recorded it earlier in 1972. The Undisputed Truth were Whitfield’s pet project. He’d assembled the group himself in 1970, and he used them as a vehicle for his most psychedelic ideas. The Undisputed Truth’s version of “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone” — a fuzzed-out, horn-drenched three-minute take — was a minor hit on R&B radio. It’s a pretty amazing example of what Whitfield could do.
But when Whitfield took the song to the Temptations, he blew it all the way out. The album version of “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone” is a dazed, world-swallowing 12-minute symphony. Even edited down to become a single, “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone” was still a monolith — at seven minutes, one of the longest #1 singles of all time. And Whitfield didn’t waste any of that time. He built and built the song, carving a towering monument out of tense hi-hats and pulsating bass and shivering strings and hard-strutting chicken-scratch guitars and panicked trumpet-blasts.
The guitars, from Funk Brothers masters Melvin “Wah Wah Watson” Ragin and Paul Warren, murmur and weep to each other throughout the song, even during the verses; they’re as expressive as the voices. And the merciless four-four stomp-clap beat predicted not just disco but house music, as well. Disco didn’t really exist yet, but the amniotic beginnings of it were just taking shape — New York party kings like David Mancuso throwing all-night invite-only ragers with state-of-the-art soundsystems and acid-spiked punch. For parties like those, a record like “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone,” as dark and heavy-hearted as it might be, must’ve felt like a blessing from above.
And it is a dark record. The term “rolling stone” has, throughout pop history, evoked images of romantic devil-may-care outlaw types: Muddy Waters, Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan, Hunter S. Thompson. But on “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone,” it’s not a term of endearment. Instead, it’s a song about a piece of shit — a man who may have seen himself as a romantic devil-may-care outlaw type — who is now dead, and who goes unmourned by his family. The narrator has never even met his father — “never heard nothing but bad things about him” — but he wants to know who this man was, now that he’s dead: “Mama, I’m depending on you to tell the truth.” But the narrator already knows the truth. He knows his father slept around, had another family, stayed drunk, scrounged money where he could. He asks questions about the man like he’s not sure, but he’s sure. And his mother sighs and confirms all of it as gently as she can. It’s a magnificent, heartbroken posthumous ethering.
There’s no lead singer on “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone.” The different Temptations all trade off lead vocals. That makes for a richer, more compelling musical experience, all these different vocal tones bouncing off of each other. It even gives us little moments of levity. (The way bass singer Melvin Franklin intones the line “and that ain’t right” is deadly serious, but it’s funny, too.) But it also helps paint the picture. Because there’s no specificity to “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone.” Instead, it’s the story of millions. There are a lot of rolling stones out there, and a lot of fatherless families. So the Temptations sing it collectively, together underscoring the truth that this isn’t just one person’s story.
Of course, the Temptations themselves weren’t happy about any of this. They could see that “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone” was more of a Norman Whitfield record than a Temptations record. The song is already minutes in before any of the Temptations even show up. They were stars, and this was not what they signed up for. (There’s also a story, used in the 2001 Temptations miniseries that Dennis Edwards, the lead singer on the first verse, hated the opening line — “It was the third of September / A day I’ll always remember” — because his own father had died on September 3. But Edwards’ father had actually died on October 3, and he hadn’t been a rolling stone. Whitfield hadn’t known about any of that when he was putting the song together.)
Soon after the success of “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone,” the Temptations would complain about Whitfield to Berry Gordy. And when their album sales started to decline, Gordy would assign them a different producer/songwriter, and Whitfield would leave the label. But there’s something to be said for playing a role in a great director’s masterpiece. That’s what the Temptations do on “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone.” The song wouldn’t work without them, without that beautiful swirl of strained and pained voices. Maybe it wouldn’t work without the tension between them and Whitfield, either, since tension is one of the song’s driving forces. But it’s not their song. The Temptations were vehicles, conduits for someone else’s grander vision. And throughout the 61-year history of the Billboard Hot 100, there are very few #1 hits quite as perfect as that vision.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Run-DMC’s 1988 Tougher Than Leather track “Papa Crazy,” which sampled “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone”:
(Run-DMC’s highest-charting single was the 1986 Aerosmith collaboration “Walk This Way,” which peaked at #4. It’s a 5.)