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#TuneTuesday No. 74: Papa Was A Rollin' Stone

Jack Le Breton


Today is a Tuesday 3rd September, so there is only one song I could talk about for this weeks #TuneTuesday. That, of course, is 'Papa Was A Rollin' Stone' by The Temptations (I do talk about 'normal music' sometimes you know!).

Not many people know this, but The Temptations version is a cover version. Written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong in 1971, and released as a single in May 1972 for the Motown act The Undisputed Truth. Later that year, Whitfield, who also produced the song, took it and remade it as a 12-minute record for The Temptations, which was a No. 1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 and won three Grammy Awards the following year.

It has since become a Soul classic, for good reason. It's a fucking good tune!

On a production and arrangement level, it is fantastic. A solo plucked bass guitar part that does not change for the whole song, establishes the moody yet serious he musical theme, a simple three-note figure, letting the listener know we are going to be Bb minor.  This is backed by hi-hat cymbal, which are gradually joined by other instruments, including a blues guitar, wah-wah guitar, Wurlitzer electric piano, handclaps, strings and solo trumpet; all are tied together by the ever-present bass guitar line and repeating hi-hat rhythm.And of course, the fantastic vocals of The Temptations themselves. There are also several trumpet solos with a stupid amount of reverb and delay for such an instrument. A brilliantly brave move!

This song represents many things on a social level. The sound of Motown was changing. Gone was the previous happy-clappy sound of the 50s and 60s. Now in the 70s, Motown adopted a more serious, hard-hitting sound funk sound to reflect the more serious and depressing events that were happening in Detroit at the time, mostly race riots and a shit tonne of racism. This song was one of the first in a whole line of 'cinematic soul' songs during the late-70s, where soul records would just go one forever, with the arrangements would build and drop, allowing the music to tell a story. Think any Issac Haye song for example.

So go ahead and listen to this song, and if you dare skip the 4min intro, then you might as well skip the song, you weirdo!


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