David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Day 125: The Temptations (Papa Was A Rolling Stone)

August 29, 2020

O.k., yesterday's blog may have been a little too much. I seem to be dropping the f asterisk bomb a little more frequently than I should. I may be alluding too much to the most hideous person to live during my lifetime (Charles Manson and Ted Bundy can concede the gold medals).  I can't afford to stay so wound up about things.  Next week begins a very important week at SMC, with key presentations to faculty and staff, moments of direction necessary about the things that hold several hundred employees and several thousand student's fate in the institution's hands.

Where does one turn for feel-good, 3-minute pop songs?  Motown, of course.  You know,

"My mama told me, 'you better shop around.'"

"It's like a heat wave burning in my heart."

"Sugar pie, honey bunch, you know that I love you. I can't help myself."

"Ain't no river wide enough to keep me from getting to you babe."

Man, all those great songs of love, desire, lust, passion.  I'll just throw on The Temptations and I will float to my happy place.

"It was the third day of September/that day I'll always remember/yes, I will/cause that's the day that my daddy died/I never got a chance to see him."

Whoah? What? How the f*ck (crap, there I go again) did that depressing lyric creep in? No worries, I suppose, give it a few minutes and the song will be over. I am sure "Get Ready" will follow.

Of course, if it does, it won't matter because I better be listening to the album version of "Papa Was A Rolling Stone," just under 12 minutes of reminder that for every "My Girl," Motown is filled with some of the best protest or socially relevant music that any single record company ever produced: "What's Going On" and "Mercy Mercy Me" by Marvin Gaye; "Abraham Martin And John" by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles; "War" by Edwin Starr.  And apparently almost everything by The Temptations. Heck, even "War" was originally a Temptations' song.

From a canon of great socially woke songs (either by The Temptations or by one of them solo, such as Eddie Kendricks), "Papa Was A Rolling Stone" stands out. And it stands out all the more as an 11:50 epic album track. It takes almost 4 minutes to get to that sobering first line about the "third day of September," the song content to simmer to a boil through that punctuated bass line, hand claps, trumpets, hi-hat drumming, and wafting strings.  Amazingly, for being so long, the song has just three basic verses, with the chorus presented just four times.  One might think The Temptations don't want to let you get too content with the vocals that we may have taken for granted, not only for them but for almost all Motown acts.

Or, based upon some of the song history, The Temptations may have been the ones not content with the vocals not center stage for the song.  Norman Whitfield, the original writer of the song, and producer, apparently pissed off the guys by dedicating so much time and space to that great classic riff and hook and the dozens of variations that seem to spiral off of them.

Structurally, the vocals and lyrics have enough to pull off the song without the excessive instrumentation, which is why a version more than 1/3 shorter than the album track made it to #1 on the pop chart.  Using their different vocal ranges, The Temptations capture perfectly a series of children telling their Mom that they are "depending upon you to tell me the truth" about their absent dad, well-known around their town as an adulterer, cheater, heavy drinker, all-around bad egg.

Those pleas continually met by that fantastic chorus:

"Son, papa was a rolling stone/

Wherever he laid his hat was his home/

And when he died/

All he left us was a loan." 

Maybe as perfect a quatrain as ever written. I wonder how many of us white kids out in the middle of nowhere hearing this song never even got the pun. Heck, I admit that for a brief moment back then I thought the song was about Keith Richards, but even then he wasn't yet dead.  It was just my imagination running away with me.

"Papa Was A Rolling Stone." The Temptations. All Directions. Motown. 1972. Link here.

Day 124: Guns N' Roses. "Civil War."

Day 126: The Golden Palominos "Buenos Aires."->

See complete list here.