The road which led Rodney Lynn Temperton from early employment at Ross Frozen Fish Factory in Grimbsy to the same Beverly Hills enclave as George Clooney, Jack Nicholson and Bruce Willis could be summarised in three words: he wrote Thriller.
That is of course only part of the journey of Rod Temperton whose death from cancer at 66 last week, announced on Wednesday, has seen him justifiably added alongside those musical titans lost this year.
As with most interesting journeys, his one had a fair few twists and turns.
Rod Temperton was working as a touring keyboard player in Worms, Germany when he formed a covers band Soul Carousel with guitarist Bernd Springer. It was the last time he would be associated with others’ songs.
Two former GIs’ stationed in the country sent out an advert for a keyboard player answered by Temperton and Heatwave were born. He thought he should write their songs. Results, including Boogie Nights, Gangsters of the Groove, Always and Forever (later covered by the golden tonsils of both Luther Vandross and Beverley Knight), and The Groove Line suggested sound instincts. He also wrote a song called Posin’ ‘Til Closin’, which shows an uncommon panache for the age of Boogie Oogie Oogie, Disco Duck and Hot Stuff.
His work came to the attention of Quincy Jones, who was about to start on Michael Jackson’s debut album. There is no record of whether Jones was aware of Temperton’s habit of wrting songs on his Wurlitzer organ with a bundle of dirty washing on top of it, which so delighted members of Heatwave.
Temperton soon established himself as a master of working to a brief. Jackson had been spending nights at a 1970s disco cathedral Studio 54, particularly on a dance called “The Rock”. Cue Rock With You, Burn This Disco Out and the album’s title track, Off the Wall.
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The next title track and its name were also his. Sales for Thriller were last estimated to be north of 110m.
Temperton, the skinny chain smoker from Cleethorpes and Jones, the bandleader with impeccable musical credentials from work with Sinatra and Basie, were an unlikely but potent combination. The three-headed monster of disco-soul-funk spawned Temperton-penned hits from the Brothers Johnson (Stomp!), George Benson (Give Me The Night, Love X Love), four songs from Jones’ legendary album The Dude (including another title track) and an Academy-award nominated song from The Color Purple soundtrack, Miss Celie’s Blues (Sister) with Lionel Richie. Temperton also specialised in the Quiet Storm ballads of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s like James Ingram & Patti Austin’s Baby Come To Me and Anita Baker’s Mystery as well as several songs on Karen Carpenter’s solo album.
Following his monster hits of the ’70s and ’80s (Michael McDonald’s Sweet Freedom was the last big one) he continued to shy away from the spotlight. Others knew his worth.
Jones was keen to alert the audience at his recent Albert Hall Prom of his presence but blink and you’d miss a shy wave from the back row behind Mr. and Mrs. Michael Caine. It was to be the last public appearance of very few.
Ultimately, although he wrote two other songs for that album, the title track is likely to be Temperton’s best recalled moment. As well as choosing the title, and deciding the song should have a chosen word segment with its words written in a taxi en route to the studio – it was handy that Jones’ then wife Peggy Lipton knew Vincent Price and even handier Price accepted a $20,000 cheque rather than a percentage of album royalties – he played no small part in its musical genesis. Quincy Jones liked to give his crew nicknames. Temperton and Greg “Mouse” Philliganes created Thriller’s bassline playing two MiniMoog synthesizers in unison. So one of the most exuberant and landmark-defining pieces of music of the past half century was forged by “Worms” and “Mouse”.
On entering the studio, engineer Bruce Swedien (his was “Slim”), reported the opening words of the producer: “OK guys, we’re here to save the recording industry.”
History records that Rod Temperton helped Quincy Jones make good on those words.