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.