Jamaican Trip Pt2 – The Pioneers / Temptations – Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone





Good day to you, sir(s).Here’s hoping that the morning finds you well, and ready to embark on some serious listening.

Though – as I stated yesterday – this is a theme week of sorts, devoted to soul music by Jamaican artists (all being cover versions of US soul records), I’ve decided that today’s selection simply cannot appear without also including the original version as well. “Why”, you ask, rolling your eyes and clenching your fists in frustration “would I do such a thing?”

Easy now….

I include the earlier recording of said song because it is, in the opinion of this writer one of the five or ten best records of any kind made in the last 40 years, and to rhapsodize about another artists version of this song without also doing so about the original would amount to a colossal sin of omission, from which my reputation (as it is) might never recover.

Or not…

Either way, I think that hearing these records side by side enhances them both.

That said…

I first heard the Temptations ‘Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone’ when it was released in 1972. I was but a lad of ten, but even then, absent a mature understanding of the lyrics of the song or music in general, I knew an amazing record when I heard it. I’m not even sure that I knew any other songs by the Temptations, and I certainly had no idea who Norman Whitfield was. I was just another kid with a transistor radio glued to my ear, beginning a love affair with music that would still be coming to fruition 34 four years hence (Oh, how it pains me to do that bit of math…).

Of course, with brilliant records like ‘Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone’ (which as a Number One hit was unavoidable); I was also exposed to all kinds of crap. There are those of a similar vintage who embrace said crap nostalgically, as 70’s music, and will assault you with the likes of Paper Lace, First Class etc etc. However, a look at a survey from December of 1972 (from WABC in New York, the station I was listening to), the Top 20 was dominated, not by crap, but rather by the likes of Billy Paul, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, the Stylistics, Al Green, and Stevie Wonder. Sure, you also have stuff like Helen Reddy and Gilbert O’Sullivan, but looking at the law of averages, and taking into consideration that good taste has never been universal, taking a few bad songs in rotation with a bunch of good ones was hardly a high price to pay (especially in the universe of Top 40 AM radio).

I will assume that the vast majority of people reading this blog will hardly need an introduction to the Temptations. They were one of mightiest weapons in the Motown arsenal, and despite the brutal overplaying of some of their golden oldies (I can hardly listen to ‘The Way You Do The Things You Do’ or ‘My Girl’ without turning the dial), they were possessed of an embarrassment of riches as far as vocal talent is concerned (c’mon, David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks in the same group?!?) and by 1972, they were firmly in the grasp of the label’s reigning mastermind Norman Whitfield.

It was not always thus. Despite the fact that Whitfield was always a genius (listen to some of the brilliant records he made with the Velvelettes in the mid-60’s), he was not always considered a “guiding light” at Motown. Even when he started to craft the “psychedelic soul” that would bring the Temptations back to prominence in the late 60’s (as well as groups like the Undisputed Truth, who recorded ‘Papa…’ first), it wasn’t until the hits started to roll in (being with money talking and bullshit walking, etc.) that he got the respect that he deserved – at least as an auteur of sorts, as he was already a very successful songwriter.

Starting in 1969, with the ‘Cloud Nine’ lp (by this point Ruffin had made his exit, replaced by Dennis Edwards, formerly of the Contours), Whitfield and the Temps made a string of amazing records that redefined funk and soul. By 1972, when they recorded ‘Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone’, Eddie Kendricks – who initially fought Whitfield on the group’s new direction – left to go solo and was replaced by Damon Harris.

So…it’s 1972, I’m ten years old, it’s way after bedtime and I’m huddle up with my radio and the DJ drops the needle on ‘Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone’. From the opening bass notes, through the ticking of the high-hat, into the strings, the wah-wah guitar and then – really setting the scene – the echoing trumpet, it is immediately obvious that what Whitfield has created here is more than just a record. It’s almost as if he took an aural snapshot of the ghetto and managed to transport a piece of that world onto two sides of a 7-inch record. Though ‘Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone’ is in the most basic sense a “story song”, as a record, its reach is positively cinematic. When this record comes on, I can close my eyes and the story comes to life. It’s as if you’re in a bar, and you’re overhearing the Temps in the booth behind you telling the story.

Whitfield builds the record, layer upon layer, with each of the instrumental elements – from the gritty guitar to the sublime addition of elements that might otherwise seem incongruous, like harp and strings – as well as the different vocal sounds, Edwards’ growl, Harris’ falsetto and Melvin Franklin’s bass (and the group together in harmony) inhabiting separate strata, while blending together seamlessly.

 Taking the record (as it appeared on the LP ‘All Directions’) as a connected 11:45 whole, with it’s almost five minute instrumental prelude, it’s nothing less than an epic. It’s the greatest of the Whitfield/Temps collaborations, and one of the greatest records of any kind ever committed to vinyl, standing as a testament to the skill of the Funk Brothers as musicians, the Temps as vocalists but more importantly as a showcase for Whitfield as arranger/producer, or dare I say conceptualist. It’s that amazing/important a record. In the midst of an era where records in excess of ten minutes were becoming more common (though usually the bloated purvey of pretentious art rockers), Whitfield took that concept and ran away with it. You always hear talk about producers/arrangers crafting the prefect “three minute” pop record, yet here, Whitfield carries it out to almost twelve minutes and I defy you to find a single, solitary second of wasted sound.

When the Pioneers decided to cover ‘Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone’ in 1973, they wisely eschew any attempt to mount an epic version of the song, instead choosing to boil it down to its essence. They focus on applying their harmonies to delivering the story within the song. The backing, while at times a distant mirror of the Temps original, is much sparer, the brisk reggae rhythm driven by the rhythm guitar and minimal percussion. Their only concession to the scope of the Temps version is some atmospheric electric piano and organ.

Coming together in 1962 in Jamaica, the Pioneers has two big ska hits with ‘Longshot’ in 1967 and it’s sequel, ‘Longshot (Kick De Bucket)’ in 1969. ‘Longshot (Kick De Bucket)’ (both songs were about a famous racehorse) was a big hit in the UK, and the Pioneers relocated there in 1970. They recorded for Trojan and associated labels through the late 70’s as the Pioneers, the Reggae Boys, the Rebels and Sidney, George and Jackie. They specialized in covers (reggae, soul and pop); with their biggest hit being a reworking of Jimmy Cliff’s ‘Let Your Yeah Be Yeah’ in 1971.

 Though they broke up for good in 1989, they remain one of the more popular acts to have recorded for Trojan and their classic work is available on many reissues.


18 Responses to “Jamaican Trip Pt2 – The Pioneers / Temptations – Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone”

  1. J Epstein Says:

    Well put and all true.

    In December 1972 I was listening to WABC on the family car’s radio: we took long rides to Vermont nearly every weekend to ski, and it was on those rides that I became a Top 40 man.

    Your namechecks brought back some very strong groans – “Alone Again Naturally” give me the heaves to this day – but I daresay the chaff was thin and the wheat was very very thick back in that day.

    Where did you find the WABC past surveys?



  2. D.J.P. Says:

    Larry –

    I acutally think I like the Pioneers version of this song better than the Temptations. Thanks for introducing it to me.

    I would recommend checking out “Time Hard” and “Mother Ritty” by the Pioneers.

  3. Nick Says:

    The Pioneers are still playing gigs- they usually come to Germany at least once a year. I just saw them a few weeks ago at a festival. There are only two of them nowadays, but their voices are still great. Unfortunately, they always use Des Dekker’s 4-piece backing band, so you get synth horns and strings, but you can’t have everything.

  4. Remy LeBeau Says:

    its crazy to say the Pioneers version is better, but great job on this Jamaican trip, truly amazing stuff.

  5. lencho Says:

    Keep posting the Jamaican stuff. It’s really amazing, and perfect listening for these thick, sticky days in NYC.


  6. red kelly Says:

    THE best record ever to emanate from Hitsville, USA.


    thanks, larry!

  7. Eddy De Clercq Says:

    hi Larry,
    it’s good to see these two versions together, although the original remains to be surpassed. The first time I heard The Temptations original was when I walked into a club when the record first came out, I was about 14 years old then and I remember the atmosphere and tension this track created;
    just chillin! Although nobody danced to it, the DJ played the whole song from the album while people just stood and listened… really a groundbreaking track that became an instant classic.
    I love The Pioneers version but the original by The Temptations rules!

  8. Heraclitean Fire » Daily Links Says:

    […] Funky16Corners – The Pioneers / Temptations – Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone Jamaican soul (tags: music soul Jamaica blog mp3 blogs) […]

  9. I am Dali Says:

    i can’t even believe what i’m listening to. this is amazing.

    i have to admit that for a while i didn’t come to your site much, i always thought to myself, “Why bother? I like #1 Songs In Heaven much better and I don’t have time to read through the billion-page posts this guy writes” but you’ve really outdone yourself this time.

    Also: I liked that Toussaint McCall write-up you did about the note he held for like 24 seconds.

  10. funky16corners Says:

    Thanks. Glad you found something you like.

  11. I am Dali Says:

    i think i have a habit of putting things harshly.

    i’ve always thought your site was good and great and kept it in my bookmarks and checked up more than occasionally.


  12. Lady Di Says:

    I love the Pioneers and they are not disbanded at all. In fact, they just performed in Germany and Spain (March 2007) though its only Jackie Robinson and George Dekker. They are tremendous! Catch them on You Tube with a video called Pioneers Live which was recorded in the 70’s at Wembly Stadium.

    Great site!

  13. Shark Wilson & the Basement Heaters - Make It Reggae « Funky16Corners Says:

    […] if you ask me – I brought to you a week of Jamaican tracks, presented under the banner of the Funky16Corners Jamaican Trip. I figured that the time was long overdue for a reprise, and so this week will see three excellent […]

  14. PB Says:

    I love your blogs, big time… and this no different, as I’d never heard ‘the pioneers” version. I have to tell you though, that the temps didn’t do the original version, ‘the undisputed truth’ did it 3 months earlier. the truth’s version is gordy 7117 and the temps’ is gordy 7121. check it out, it’s great as well. thanks, pb.

  15. funky16corners Says:

    That makes sense, since the Undisputed Truth were a kind of pet project for Whitfield. I can’t remember which, but there’s at least one other instance where UT did a famous song before the hit version by someone else.

  16. collieman Says:

    I wonder if you could solve a problem I have been experiencing. Curtis Mayfield wrote no man is ana island, however, I have never been able to locate a copy of his version. can anyone tell if he ever, sang it.

    peace & love

  17. funky16corners Says:

    If your talking about the song I think you are, it’s actually by the Van Dykes, a Texas group that sounded a lot like Curtis.

  18. collieman Says:


    I have that version of the song, I read that curts wrote it. I will keep on looking!

    I would like to put forward two cover versions of soul classics. Firstly johnny Clarke`s cover “give the little man a great big hand” & Donvan Carless`s “Be thankful” both by William DeVaughn. I have played these classics for many years and they still rock the house.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: