Exclusive photos by Bobby Holland: MPtvimages.com
*Songwriter Rod Temperton is the star of a story I’ll always tell: One afternoon in the late 70s, while hanging out at the production office of Quincy Jones on the A&M Records lot—-I was probably there at the invitation of buddy Ed Eckstine, then running Quincy’s production company-—out of the blue, Jones asked me how I felt about the songs of Rod Temperton.
At the time, Temperton was keyboardist and chief songwriter for Heatwave, the dynamic U.K.-based seven-man band that scored with songs singularly created by Temperton, such as “Boogie Nights,” “Too Hot To Handle,” “Always And Forever” and “The Groove Line.” Heatwave struck fear in the hearts of R&B headliners, anxious about following onstage a band with a repertoire of smoldering dance hits and soul ballads and a take-no-prisoners live act that included vocalists/brothers Johnnie and Keith Wilder performing acrobatics.
Quincy, already a legendary figure in jazz, TV theme and film soundtrack production, was looking to fortify his foray into commercial R&B/pop initiated by solo albums that weren’t so jazzy–Body Heat, Mellow Madness, Sounds…And Stuff Like That—and protégé act the Brothers Johnson (“I’ll Be Good To You,” “Get The Funk Out Ma Face,” “Strawberry Letter 23”).
Remarkably, Jones was asking lil’ ol’ me, a fledgling 23 year-old music journalist writing for Soul Newspaper, if I thought Temperton’s songwriting style could transcend Heatwave and be hits for other artists. Jones’s question suggested his interest in enlisting the songwriter’s services for future productions.
I paused for a few seconds and said something along the lines of, “Hmmm…maybe, Q…but I don’t know,” the
I-don’t-know part delivered in a lilt designed to convey thoughtful wariness. Me. Giving Quincy Jones musical advice.
What I didn’t realize then was that even as Jones patronized me with this query, he was negotiating with Temperton to bring the songwriter—never crazy about life as a musician on the road—-from the U.K. to Los Angeles to begin working with him on various projects.
Fact is, Quincy’s musical instincts were never more on point than the day he listened to a Heatwave record and decided to seek out a relatively unknown British songwriter named Rod Temperton.
Rod would become the creamy center of Quincy’s late ‘70s/early ‘80s hit run, penning Jones-produced chart records for, among others, George Benson (“Give Me The Night”), Patti Austin and James Ingram (“Baby, Come To Me”), Chaka Khan (“Live In Me,” “Master Jam”), Tamia (“You Put A Move On My Heart”) and Temperton’s biggest achievement, writing songs for Michael Jackson’s iconic albums, Off The Wall and Thriller.
The Grammy Award-winning Temperton, who quietly passed away–either in late September or earlier this month in London at the age of 66 after a battle with cancer–was a mild-mannered, badd-ass white boy who possessed a ridiculous command of black pop.
Rod had the rarified ability to craft both monster grooves–the first three Heatwave albums were his early audio resume–sexy ballads (“Always And Forever,” Michael Jackson’s “Lady In My Life”) and everything in between (Michael McDonald’s “Sweet Freedom”; the James Ingram/Michael McDonald hit, “Ya Mo B There”).
In the shadow of his own tremendous talent, Temperton’s Clark Kent normalcy made him an enigma.
He was born in Cleethopes, Lincolnshire England–not the world’s funkiest of regions—-where Temperton’s father would put a young Rod to bed with a transistor radio softly playing on his son’s pillow. The style of ‘60s top-40 pop seeping into the young Temperton’s subconsciousness-—the strong verses, b-sections and big, singalong hooks—would serve him later in life.
Temperton’s teen years saw him augment different bands, initially as a drummer, before turning to keyboards and developing his skills as a songwriter. After answering a U.K. music magazine’s classified ad for a keyboardist placed by singer Johnnie Wilder, Jr.—-an American serviceman living in London and leading of a group of musicians including his brother, vocalist Keith Wilder–Heatwave was born.
Working at the height of disco, Heatwave was a cover band before it started performing Rod’s original material. According to Temperton, he’d never danced in a disco or hung out in clubs. To write dance music for the unit, he channeled the musical styles of American bands like Kool and The Gang, the Ohio Players and Philadelphia producer Thom Bell (as evidenced in the early Heatwave ballad, “Sho’ Nuff Must Be Love”, which took its cue from the Stylistics’ 1972 track, “Children Of The Night” ). The band’s powerful performances of Temperton’s tunes got them signed to the U.K.-based, CBS-distributed GTO Records.
Too Hot To Handle, the unit’s 1976 hit debut album, followed by Central Heating, featuring smash “The Groove Line,” caught the ear of Quincy Jones, who reached out to the band.
Initially, there were discussions about Heatwave signing with Mellow Management, the Quincy Jones Productions subsidiary that managed the Brothers Johnson. Instead, Jones cut to the chase and offered Temperton the opportunity to be part of his unofficial team of go-to songwriters.
For Rod (who, after joining Jones’s fold, continued to write songs for Heatwave), the arrangement meant not having to be on the road. For Quincy, Temperton became a valuable source of potential hits.
Temperton will forever be remembered as composer for the Jones-produced Michael Jackson albums Off The Wall and Thriller. Between both albums, he contributed just six songs-—“Rock With You,” “Burn This Disco Out” and the title track for Off The Wall; “Baby Be Mine,” “The Lady In My Life” and “Thriller.”
Those songs, however–particularly “Off The Wall,” “Rock With You” and “Thriller,” title track for the biggest selling record in the history of the planet, became integral to the Jackson legend. Likewise, they’ve forever cemented Temperton’s place in pop music songwriting history.
Temperton’s uptempo tunes are personified by their funky, exuberant urgency: aggressive, insistent bass line, enticing melody, colorful chord structure, sleek vocal harmonies, and nifty bridge sections that make returning to the main groove all the more relentless.
Rod believed in setting a song up with a great intro. His uptempo numbers, more often than not, feature beginnings that resemble a clarion call for the listener to get ready to get down. Example: the jazzy, wondrous opening of “Boogie Nights”; the drama-filled intros of Jackson’s “Burn This Disco Out” and one of Temperton’s lesser known grooves, Aretha Franklin’s “Living In The Streets” (from her 1981 Arista album Love All The Hurt Away).
Lyrically, most Temperton dance tunes sing of rhythm as a deliriously euphoric state of being. There’s a funky exigency about getting down to it. Ever present is the phrase, “There ain’t”—-usually followed by no use, no reason, no time to waste.
In Temperton’s funky world there is a jubilant rebellion going on in the streets (which always rhymes with beat and heat), where we are all connected by our love of The Dance.
And almost always tucked in among this lyrical reverence for the boogie is a subtle message of positive ambition; the urging of one to take a chance and live life—-life being a “one way ride”–to its fullest. On the mid-tempo “Rock With You,” rhythm is even a metaphor for romance (“…And when the groove is dead and gone/you know that love survives, and we can rock forever”).
Temperton’s musical craftsmanship was rivaled only by his creative discipline. He’d work incessantly on a song until it met his approval. In the beginning of his partnership with Jones, before he bought a home in Los Angeles, he’d spend hours sequestered in his Hollywood hotel room sitting at a keyboard with a cassette recorder, coffee and cigarettes sitting atop it (this was before you weren’t allowed to smoke in a hotel room), writing non-stop.
Rod’s ideas for his songs were usually complete. When Quincy produced Tamia singing the Temperton ballad “You Put A Move On My Heart” for his 1995 album Q’s Jook Joint, he used British singer Mica Paris’s version of the song—-produced by Temperton two years earlier– as his production blueprint, following what the instruments played on the original to having Tamia replicate Mica’s lead vocal down to the ad-libs.
Not everything Rod wrote worked. Quincy’s production of Temperton’s 1982 Donna Summer single, “Love Is In Control ( Finger On The Trigger)”, while reaching the Billboard top 10, was a glossy, clichéd dance number that had Summer sounding more like Michael Jackson than herself. Summer would later say of the project that she felt like she was singing on a Quincy Jones album, as opposed to her own.
Temperton’s songs made him a very rich man. He and his wife, Kathy, had homes in Beverly Hills, Switzerland, France, Fiji, and the U.K. If there were kids in the picture, Temperton never shared. He kept the lowest of profiles and did so few interviews in his career—-even at the height of Thriller’s success and in the wake of the 2009 death of Michael Jackson–that the casual fan of his work often assumed the creator of all those ferocious grooves and passion-filled ballads was a black man.
So private was Temperton that by the time the public was made aware of his passing, his funeral had already happened. We still don’t know the exact date of his death. Because of his immense reticence of the spotlight, Temperton was nicknamed, “The Invisible Man.”
When photographer Bobby Holland shot the rare 1978 photos accompanying this piece—-in a Hollywood recording studio while Quincy and Temperton worked on Off The Wall—he recalled the songwriter’s quiet demeanor.
“He was just sitting there in the room, not saying anything, observing,” said Holland. “If you didn’t know who he was, you would have wondered what he was even doing there. Just an ordinary cat.”
With an extraordinary talent.
Steven Ivory, veteran journalist, essayist and author, writes about popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio, TV and the Internet. Respond to him via [email protected].