The Dark Time Behind The Temptations' "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone"

The Temptations in 1972
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Ron Howard/Redferns

The session for The Temptations' epic "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone" was one that, for the rest of his life, Dennis Edwards would probably never forget.

Edwards became a member of Motown's sterling soul group in 1968, replacing David Ruffin - who'd led the group on hits like "My Girl" and "Ain't Too Proud to Beg." That latter track, from 1966, marked another changing of the guard for the group: from that point forward, Norman Whitfield took over primary producing duties for The Temptations from Smokey Robinson. The group's singles of the late '60s and early '70s, including Edwards-led songs like "Cloud Nine" and "Ball of Confusion" were hits - but Whitfield's expansive production skills, deemed "psychedelic soul" by critics, often got as many headlines - often to the chagrin of the group.

READ MORE: January 1969: The Temptations Release "Runaway Child, Running Wild"

In the summer of 1972, Whitfield assembled the group to cut "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone," a woeful tune he wrote with longtime partner Barrett Strong and originally cut with a group called The Undisputed Truth. The song painted a grim portrait of an absent, now-dead father to children who have no memories of their patriarch, other than the bitter memories of others put off by his bad behavior.

An oft-cited legend has it that Edwards' beaten-down delivery of the opening lines ("It was the third of September / that day I'll always remember...") had to do with Whitfield's lyric as a taunt, as Edwards lost his father on that same date. But that's not true - the elder Edwards passed on Oct. 3. Their frustration, in fact, had to do with the session itself. Already dealing with an ornate track that stretched to 12 minutes, where none of the group could be heard until nearly a third of the way through, Whitfield's perfectionism led him to scrap dozens of takes because he didn't think Edwards' approach was right. The weary final take was the last one.

"Papa Was a Rollin' Stone," cut down to just under seven minutes as a single, was a smash despite the less-than-ideal conditions, topping the Billboard Hot 100 the week ending Dec. 2, 1972 and taking home three Grammy Awards including Best R&B Performance by a Group and Best R&B Song. The band and Whitfield would part ways soon after - and while the group continues to record and perform, they never had another pop hit match this one.

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