Anniversary of The Temptations' Papa Was a Rollin' Stone

05/15/2012
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(Gibson) On this day in 1972, The Temptations recorded "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone." When released later in the year, it hit no. 1 on the charts. Gibson looks back:

"Ball of Confusion" was an early '70s hit for The Temptations, but it's a fair description of the Motown group's lineup during that period, as well. The "Classic Five" lineup of the band had long since splintered, with David Ruffin being sent packing in 1968 due to an unhealthy combination of ego and cocaine. The group's other lead vocalist, Eddie Kendricks, tired of internal bickering, unhappy with the group's musical direction and depressed by the declining health of founding member Paul Williams, left the band to pursue a solo career in 1971. Williams, who suffered from sickle-cell disease as well as alcoholism, retired from the band the same year. Down to just two original members, Otis Williams and Melvin Franklin, it seemed the legendary R&B group was on their last legs. Yet somehow it was under these dire circumstances that The Temptations made perhaps their greatest—or at least, their most ambitious—recording.

Norman Whitfield was a crucial figure in the evolution of The Temptations. While not a member of the vocal group, the former Motown quality control staffer took on the role of The Temptations' chief producer in 1966 after his "Ain't Too Proud to Beg" outperformed the Smokey Robinson-written-and-produced "Get Ready." Whitfield steered the band away from the pop ballads that had brought them fame the previous two years and pushed their sound into psychedelic rock frontiers. Songs like "Cloud Nine" and the aforementioned "Ball of Confusion (That's What the World is Today)" added distorted guitars and funkier, Sly Stone-esque beats to the mix, creating a unique and powerful new sound for the group.

Whitfield's direction chaffed Kendricks, who wanted to continue mining "My Girl" territory. Ruffin embraced Whitfield's edgier sound, as did his replacement, a powerful, gritty singer named Dennis Edwards, who was initially discovered by Funk Brothers bass legend James Jamerson and cut his teeth with The Contours before being offered the Temptations gig. Edwards picked up right where Ruffin left off, following Whitfield into more experimental terrain. more on this story

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