Papa Was A Rollin' Stone

Album: All Directions (1972)
Charted: 14 1
Play Video


  • A rolling stone may gather no moss, but it doesn't handle responsibility well. In this song, the father is an itinerant, disreputable philanderer. When he dies, the mother opens up about him, telling the kids all about his laziness and womanizing.
  • This was written by the Motown songwriters Barrett Strong and Norman Whitfield, and produced by Whitfield. It was first recorded by The Undisputed Truth, but Whitfield also had The Temptations record it, with much greater success.
  • A story that is often circulated and is recounted in the 2001 miniseries The Temptations deals with the lines of this song:

    It was the 3rd of September
    That day I'll always remember
    'cause that was the day
    That my daddy died

    The story goes that lead singer Dennis Edwards hated the song and was incensed when he heard this line, since his father died on that date and he thought Norman Whitfield put that in to goad him. This tale made for good drama, but was considerably overblown. Edwards' father actually died on October third, and he was anything but a rolling stone. The elder Edwards was a minister who gave his son a good upbringing. Whitfield chose the date simply because it fit well in the song; he had no idea when Edwards' father had died.
  • The album version of this song runs 11:46. The single was released with the song split into two parts: the A-side was the "vocal" version and runs 6:58; the B-side is the "instrumental" and goes 4:49.

    Even truncated for single release, the A-side was exceptionally long and remains one of the longest chart-toppers in Hot 100 history. It was not, however, the longest #1 of 1972 - that was Don McLean's "American Pie," which clocked in at 8:33.
  • Both sides of the single was Grammy awards. The A-side won for Best R&B Vocal Performance By A Duo, Group Or Chorus, and the B-side took the award for Best R&B Instrumental Performance.
  • Speaking about this song's writer/producer Norman Whitfield in a 1995 interview with Goldmine, Motown head Berry Gordy said: "He could take one chord, like on 'Papa Was A Rolling Stone,' and play the same chord and do all these different beautiful melodies and stuff that many people could not really imagine this guy doin'. And I would watch him and he did it all by himself as a producer. He would work with five guys in the Temps and he would change leads on each one. He would pick the right lead for the right song, ya know, and he'd utilize all five of those leads in a song that was just incredible. When I listen to 'em today, now that I have time to listen to 'em, I'm saying, "Wow! This guy was probably the most underrated producer we had."
  • This was the last big hit recorded in Motown's famous Studio A, located in a two-story house in Detroit. Most of Motown's studio work had moved to Los Angeles by then, but The Temptations still recorded in Detroit.

Comments: 30

  • Curious from UsaThe Life of Frederick Douglass an American Slave Frederick wrote On the third day of September 1838 I left my chains
  • Tim from DetroitIs it "a loan" or "alone"?
  • Al The Soul-lova from The ChiI agree with pete from ferryman. I thought the chorus went "All he left us was aloooooone", but wikipedia seems to disagree. Anyone know for sure?
  • Jk from NycGreat Great tune..50 yrs young!
  • Chris Porter from Brierley Hill West Midlands Is the verse all you left us alone or a loan
  • Edward Blumenthal from MiamiI came her looking to find who the band playing was. The Temps sang but the instrumental part was extraordinary
  • Pete from FerrymanCall me crazy, but I’ve always thought there was a brilliant double entendre with the “all he left us was alone” - which could also mean “a loan”. Probably over thinking it!
  • Barry from Sauquoit, NyOn December 5th 1982, "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone" by Wolf entered Billboard's Hot Top 100 chart at position #82; and on January 9th, 1983 it peaked at #55 {for 1 week} and spent 9 week on the Top 100 chart...
    Wolf was actually Bill Wolfer; he is best known as the keyboardist on the ten second intro on Michael Jackson's #1 hit record "Billie Jean".
  • Barry from Sauquoit, NyOn November 18th 1972, the Temptations performed "Papa Was a Rolling Stone" on the syndicated television program 'Soul Train'...
    At the time the song was at #6 on Billboard's Hot Top 100 chart; and eight days later on November 26th, 1972 it peaked at #1 {for 1 week}...
    {See the next post below}...
    R.I.P. Don Cornelius, Soul Train’s host, {1936 -2012}.
  • Barry from Sauquoit, Ny*** Where ever he laid his hat was his home ***
    On October 8th, 1972, "Papa Was a Rolling Stone" by the Temptations entered Billboard's Hot Top 100 chart at position #83; and on November 26th, 1972 it peaked at #1 {for 1 week} and spent 16 weeks on the Top 100...
    And kind of surprisingly, it only reached #5 on Billboard's R&B Singles chart; but their next four releases all peaked at #1 {"Masterpiece", "Let Your Hair Down", "Happy People", and "Shakey Ground"}...
    Earlier in 1972 the original version of the song by the Undisputed Truth entered the Top 100 on June 4th at position #76; it stayed on the chart for five weeks and on June 25th, 1972 it peaked at #63 {for 1 week}.
  • Markantney from Biloxi, MsThis is one of the songs that prove the timelessness and the ability of the Temps to transform and adapt (with the times), nowadays you'd think they could replace David (Ruffin) but then to replace him with someone with even stronger vocals (I didn't say "Better"). This song fits Dennis' vocal(s) a lot better than they would/could David's.

    They transformed and adapted again after Dennis left, came back-left, when Ollie came in.
  • Kevin from East Brunswick, NjDennis Edwards' father did not, in fact, die on "the third of September," but on the third of October.
  • Steve from Whittier,'ve GOT to be kidding.."Housecleaning Music"..? Anyway, good comment. The song is about 14 minutes long, or 12, either way even longer than the 7 minute long 45 rpm version.
  • Jennifer Harris from Grand Blanc, MiMy favorite Tempations song.
  • Jay from Brooklyn, NyThink of the Temps' last three big hits: Ball of Confusion, Just My Imagination, and Papa Was a Rollin' Stone. They were all written by Norman Whitfield, yet they are so different. Ball of Confusion is ordered chaos, jumping from singer to singer and idea to idea. Just My Imagination is beautiful and heartbreaking, but traditional in its arrangement. Papa is a knife to the gut. It is a terrible song - a masterpiece in its performance, but terrible in its subject matter. I can picture the song taking place over many years with the "children" asking "Momma" more and more pointed questions about what kind of a man their father really was. It is devastating and brutal to see the "children" learn that their father was not a good man. We never learn how "Papa" died, but I infer he met a violent end, brought on by his many illegal and immoral actions.
  • Lalah from Wasilla, AkGreat housecleaning song. It's the right cadence for dusting.
  • John from Nashville, TnThis song is unique because it's such a complex song considering the fact that it only has one chord (B flat-ninth).
  • Joe from Monroe, NyThis song was actually released in 1972, NOT 1973. It is the best Temptations "real world" song, barely edging out "Ball of Confusion". Both were written by Norman Whitfield, who also wrote their best love song, "Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)"
  • Guy from Woodinville, WaDefinitely one of the best songs ever out of Motown. Fantastic production! The instrumental version is worth a buck on iTunes.
  • Ticketred from Walpole, MaThis song takes me right back to the '70's, where I grew up (Boston) and seemed to be playing throughout the summer back in those crazy days of racial tension, political strife and the anti-war movement. The bass line, pecussion (including handclaps), and vocals are just awesome. The version I have is 6:56 with vocals.
  • Matt from Boston, Mathe group rockapella did a version of this that KICKS ASS. Its wicked cool with a more modern feel
  • Justin from Albany, Nymy favorite motown song good
  • Duane from Columbus, OhCorrection for Pete...Eddie Kendricks left the group before this song was recorded. The "girl" part is Damon Harris.
  • Steven from Sunnyvale, CaBob Rivers ( did a good parody called "Grandpa Loved The Rolling Stones" that has this line: "He never got a chance to see them; Losing all of his vision and most of his hearing"
  • Chad from Eagan, MnBest funk song ever!
  • Pete from Ny, NyYou could always easily picture the three different singers as kids sitting at their mother's knee, asking about the father they never knew. It was only years later that I realized the "girl" vocal part was actually Eddie Kendricks. A masterpiece.
  • Jay from Brooklyn, NyYou're missing some of the lyrics.

    It was the third of September
    That day I'll always remember
    'Cause that was the day when my daddy died
    I never got the chance to see him
    Never heard nothin' but bad things about him
    Mama, I'm depending on you to tell me the truth
    Mama just hung her head and said, "Son...

    CHORUS: (repeat twice)
    "Papa was a rollin' stone
    Wherever he laid his hat was his home
    And when he died,
    All he left us was alone."

    Hey Mama, is it true what they say
    That Papa never worked a day in his life?
    And Mama, there been talk all around town
    Sayin' that Papa had three outside children and another wife
    And that ain't right!
    Heard some talk about Papa doin' some storefront preachin'
    Talkin' 'bout savin' souls and all the time leachin'
    Dealin' in drugs and stealin' in the name of the Lord.
    Mama just hung her head and said, "Son...
    Hey Mama, I heard Papa called himself a jack of all trades
    Tell me, is that what sent Papa to an early grave?
    Folks say Papa would beg, borrow, or steal to pay his bills
    Hey, Mama, folks say Papa never was much on thinkin'
    Spent most of his time chasin' women and drinkin'
    Mama, I'm depending on you to tell me the truth
    Mama looked up with a tear in her eye and said, "Son...
  • Patrick from Bonheiden, BelgiumRemember that movie 10 with Bo Derek? She made love to the man who saved her from drowning having Ravel's Bolero on. Once I had a girl and we hadn't the Bolero but used the 11 minutes version of this song: works fine!
  • Dave from Holt, MiI love this tune.Iit would be great as an instumental as well,as attested by the first 1:56 of the song. Dave T.;Holt,Michigan
  • Arlo from Westfield, MaIn the Temptations movie, this song was a big source of contention.
see more comments

Editor's Picks


AC/DCFact or Fiction

Does Angus really drink himself silly? Did their name come from a sewing machine? See if you can spot the real stories about AC/DC.


QueenFact or Fiction

Scaramouch, a hoople and a superhero soundtrack - see if you can spot the real Queen stories.

Mike Campbell

Mike CampbellSongwriter Interviews

Mike is lead guitarist with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, and co-writer of classic songs like "Boys Of Summer," "Refugee" and "The Heart Of The Matter."

The 10 Bands Most Like Spinal Tap

The 10 Bands Most Like Spinal TapSong Writing

Based on criteria like girlfriend tension, stage mishaps and drummer turnover, these are the 10 bands most like Spinal Tap.

Joe Elliott of Def Leppard

Joe Elliott of Def LeppardSongwriter Interviews

The Def Leppard frontman talks about their "lamentable" hit he never thought of as a single, and why he's juiced by his Mott The Hoople cover band.

Who's Johnny, And Why Does He Show Up In So Many Songs

Who's Johnny, And Why Does He Show Up In So Many SongsSong Writing

For songwriters, Johnny represents the American man. He has been angry, cool, magic, a rebel and, of course, marching home.