Born in 1947, Rod Temperton wrote some of the most memorable and important music of the late 1970s and early 1980s. He first made an impression as the principle songwriter for disco funk band Heatwave and would go on to write major parts of both Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall and Thriller albums (including both title tracks), orchestrating dance pop shockwaves that would echo around the world and help confirm Jackson as the biggest star the world had ever seen. He never reached such lofty peaks again in terms of popularity, but he continued to write classily crafted treasures for numerous R&B stars, including the sublimely smooth “Give Me the Night” for George Benson.
Scouring his discography reveals a man with a winning melodic touch that sits alongside the crisp disco-inflected funk of his late 1970s work. Like every great story, the best place to start is at the beginning and here that means delving into the first two albums from Heatwave. Too Hot To Handle (1976) spawned the perennial classic “Boogie Nights” and oft covered slow jam “Always And Forever,” while follow-up Central Heating (1977) features the insistently funkin’ “The Groove Line.” Placed perfectly at the intersection of funk, disco and pop, these two albums reached the masterful ears of music legend Quincy Jones, who made the fateful first call to Temperton, thus beginning an enduring and massively successful collaboration that peaked with the Mount Everest of pop music: Michael Jackson’s 1982 album Thriller. Writing the epic title track assured his place in pop history as a name forever placed at the top of the tree.
But beyond the obvious joys of the many classics he wrote, it is what he symbolizes about music that connects with me most. Firstly, he reminds me of the deep joy of musical adventure—the hours spent poring over CD inlay cards and liner notes soaking up the minutiae of personnel, locations and lyrics. To hold a copy of Thriller in your hand and drink in the knowledge to discover the influence of this “invisible man” in a time before Wikipedia, was to set sail on a voyage of discovery, immersed in the thrill of the chase and wholly focused on the mystery man at hand. That has been the DNA of my devotion to music—the interconnectivity, the genealogy and influence of what I love.
Secondly and, perhaps most importantly, he reminds me that anything in this life is possible. You see, that urge to find out who Rod Temperton was led me (and many others) to discover something utterly unexpected. Surely this writer of smash hits must be a slick bass player from Detroit, maybe a product of the great Motown stable? Or maybe the dude was from that melting pot of magic, New Orleans, a man with generations of music in his very fibres?
Turns out though, things were very different. In fact here was a man born in the UK, raised in the far from glamorous and very chilly North Sea coastal town of Cleethorpes. A man who had worked in a fish factory as a younger man and who, in all honesty, looked more like a bank manager than a superstar songwriter. But a man nevertheless with the funk flowing freely through his veins like blood. He is the embodiment of the power of soul music—music that stretches across oceans, mountains and prejudices and unites us all in its power to move us physically and emotionally. He is a reminder that nothing is impossible and that we all have the power to overcome and reach higher. So for these very things, Mr. Temperton, we salute you, as you head off to jam with the great band in the sky. Play on, invisible man, play on.