THRILLER WRITER ROD TEMPERTON 1949 - 2016
LONDON, October 2016: The music industry is mourning the death from cancer aged 66 of Rod Temperton, the UK songwriter behind 'Thriller', 'Off The Wall' and 'Rock With You', three of Michael Jackson's best known hits. He initially made his mark as the keyboardist and main songwriter for the '70s band Heatwave, whose hit songs included 'Boogie Nights' and 'Always and Forever'. He also wrote George Benson's hit 'Give Me the Night', and Patti Austin and James Ingram's US No. 1 'Baby, Come to Me', among many others such as Donna Summer, Aretha Franklin, Rufus and Chaka Khan, and Mica Paris.
Rod Temperton with Paul Pacifico (AIM) & SongLink editor David Stark at a London tribute show to Quincy Jones.
Temperton, who was born in Cleethorpes, was often referred to as the "invisible man" behind the Thriller album, which, after its release in 1982, became, and remains, the best-selling studio album of all time, as the Daily Telegraph's obituary states. In fact, he had already been working with Jackson for several years, having been recruited to help write songs for the "King of Pop" by the producer Quincy Jones. But it is for 'Thriller', the title track of Jackson's album, that Temperton will be best remembered, not least because of the song's 14-minute music video and its unprecedented record sales for an African-American artist.
Nor was Temperton's contribution solely a musical one; he had originally wanted to call the song by another name but felt it needed a more commercial title. "I went back to the hotel," he later recalled, "wrote two or three hundred titles and came up with 'Midnight Man'. The next morning I woke up and I just said this word. Something in my head just said: 'This is the title'. You could visualise it at the top of the Billboard charts. You could see the merchandising for this one word, how it jumped off the page as Thriller." Temperton also brought in the actor Vincent Price to perform the spoken rap in the song, and wrote Price's lines in a taxi on the way to the studio.
He learnt to play drums while playing truant from school and would play along to the test card on the television. He also taught himself to play keyboards. After a spell filleting fish in the Ross Frozen Foods factory, Grimsby, Temperton answered an advertisement in Melody Maker for a keyboardist with Heatwave and went to join the band in Hamburg. But it was composing to which he was best suited, and after the slinky 'Boogie Nights' was a major hit for the band, he withdrew from performing and became their songwriter, penning a number of other tracks including the much-covered smoochy love song 'Always & Forever'.
In 1979 Quincy Jones approached Temperton during the recording of Heatwave's third album in New York. The two men hit it off immediately. "I'm from Cleethorpes and he's from Seattle," Temperton later recalled, "where's the meeting of minds there? But as soon as we met it was like I'd known him all my life. I love him to death." That same year Temperton was brought in as part of the songwriting team for 'Off the Wall', arguably Jackson's "coming of age" album after he left Motown. His smooth, tuneful tracks, 'Off the Wall' and 'Rock With You', epitomised Jackson's new-found maturity.
As well as his work with Jackson, Temperton wrote for numerous stars of soul, funk and disco: there were more collaborations with Jones, as well as with Donna Summer, George Benson, Aretha Franklin, Rufus and Chaka Khan, and Mica Paris. By the mid 1990s, however, he appeared to have little public involvement in the music profession and divided his time between houses in France, Kent, Fiji and Los Angeles. In 2006, when asked in a rare interview what he did when he was not working, he replied: "I watch telly, catch up on the news. Maybe the phone will ring."
In 1986 he was nominated for the best original song Oscar for 'Miss Celie's Blues', a song he co-wrote with Quincy Jones and Lionel Richie for the film The Color Purple. Songwriting, he said, was a very personal experience: "You have to please yourself first. Once you feel the hairs stand up on the back of your hand – you can go for the world. Writing a song is the biggest moment of all. Yesterday it didn't exist. Today it does." He is survived by his wife Kathy, while his funeral took place before his death was announced on October 5th.