Date of Birth: 9 October 1949, Cleethorpes, Lincolnshire, UK
Birth Name: Rodney Lynn Temperton
Nickname: Rod Temperton
Member of Heatwave who went on to become a successful songwriter creating huge hits for Michael Jackson such as Thriller
But despite his huge hits for Michael Jackson, above all the title track for Thriller, he was so low-profile that he was nicknamed the “invisible man”. His compositional skills led to him writing three songs for Jackson’s 1979 album Off the Wall, which went on to sell more than 20m copies. In 1982, he wrote three of the nine songs on Jackson’s Thriller, including the title track, and his contributions helped the album to shift 65m copies and become the biggest seller of all time.
Temperton, who had previously been a member of the funk-disco band Heatwave, was recruited to the Jackson team by producer Quincy Jones in 1978, as Jones was preparing to record Off the Wall. Temperton formed a fruitful partnership with Jones and the recording engineer Bruce Swedien, prompting the three of them to be dubbed the A-Team.
Of the songs Temperton wrote for Off the Wall, the title track reached the Top 10 of the US Billboard pop chart, while Rock With You topped it. Both were Top 10 hits in Britain. His third track, Burn This Disco Out, was released as the B-side of Beat It. When Thriller was recorded three years later, Temperton was seen as indispensable by Jones
He toyed with the idea of calling it Midnight, before he hit upon Thriller.
It was also Temperton’s idea to include the macabre spoken word section at the end of the song: “One thing I’d thought about was to have somebody, a famous voice in the horror genre, to do this vocal.” As luck would have it Jones’s wife was friendly with the actor Vincent Price. He was delighted to be offered the job. Temperton wrote out the text in a cab on his way to the recording session, Price (who took a flat fee) did only two takes, and the result entered into music industry folklore. The album also featured the Temperton songs Baby Be Mine and The Lady in My Life; only Jackson himself contributed more numbers.
The songwriter’s journey to the centre of the West Coast entertainment business began in the Lincolnshire seaside resort of Cleethorpes, where he was born. He would later describe how his father put a transistor radio on his pillow when he was a child and he would fall asleep listening to the pop station Radio Luxembourg.
He attended De Aston school in Market Rasen, where he formed a band in which he was the drummer. On leaving school he worked for a time at the Ross Foods frozen fish factory in Grimsby. Meanwhile he persevered as a musician. Switching from drums to keyboards, he played in several dance bands and in the early 1970s moved to Germany. With guitarist Bernd Springer he formed a band called Sundown Carousel, which played soul music covers in bars and GI clubs across Germany.
In 1974, having also been part of a group called The Hammer, he replied to an advert in the Melody Maker that had been placed by Johnnie Wilder Jr. He had sung with a number of groups while serving with the US army in West Germany and was putting together a new outfit. The band began performing in London as Chicago’s Heatwave before shortening their name to Heatwave, adding a funk beat to their disco sound and signing to GTO Records in 1976. They recorded a debut album, Too Hot to Handle, and in 1977 their third single from it, Boogie Nights (written by Temperton, as were all the songs on the album), reached No 2 on both the UK chart and the Billboard Hot 100.
The follow-up single, the ballad Always and Forever, reached the UK Top 10 and climbed to 18 on the Billboard pop chart. Luther Vandross recorded a version of it for his album Songs (1994). A second album, Central Heating, appeared in 1978, and another Temperton composition, The Groove Line, delivered another US Top 10 hit. It was in 1978 that Temperton decided to leave the group to concentrate on songwriting, though he would continue to contribute material to Heatwave. He soon received his priceless opportunity with Jackson and became a writer for countless major artists.
Among his credits are George Benson’s most successful single, Give Me the Night (1980), from the album of the same name, various contributions to Jones’s The Dude (1981), and several co-writing credits on Donna Summer’s album Donna Summer; Baby, Come To Me for Patti Austin and James Ingram; and tracks on Herbie Hancock’s Lite Me Up (all 1982). He also wrote for Manhattan Transfer, Siedah Garrett, Aretha Franklin, Jeffrey Osborne, Karen Carpenter, Mica Paris and many more.
In 1986 he was nominated for the Oscar for best original song for the track Miss Celie’s Blues, which he had co-written with Lionel Richie and Jones for the film The Color Purple. Temperton also wrote five songs for the Billy Crystal movie Running Scared (1986).
He remained self-effacing, though his success funded homes in Los Angeles, the south of France, Fiji, Switzerland and Britain. Tongue in cheek he summed up: “I watch telly, catch up on the news, and maybe the phone will ring.”