Rod Temperton is my personal favorite composer of the last four decades. The funk and disco era he was a part of is generally thought of to be all rhythm based-simply to make you want to dance. But along with people such as Stevie Wonder,Con Funk Shun’s Felton Pilate and Earth Wind & Fire’s Maurice White,Temperton showcased how to write funky music with very singable,jazzy melodic scaling and modulation. He is yet another one of those figures who not only inspired this blog itself. But also the entire way I listen to music. And probably how I’ll continue to listen to it.
Temperton sadly passed away on October 5th,2016. Sources say of cancer,at the age of 66. His family wishes to protect his privacy. Which is totally logical as he lived as pretty much of a recluse. He was born in post WWII Lincolnshire,England. He apparently described his family,particularly his father,parenting him more with a radio by his bedside than their own presence. That began his lifelong love of music. From spending time as a drummer,working in the office of a frozen food company in Grisby he continued his fascination with music. This eventually landed him in Germany as a keyboardist.
In 1974,he answered the personal ad of Johnnie Wilder for the new band his was forming called Heatwave. He became the chief songwriter for the band-honing his craft with hits such as “Boogie Nights” and “The Groove Line”. This earned him the attention of Quincy Jones. He than became a household name as a composer for Michael Jackson,namely the song “Thriller”.This is what Temperton is best known for. He wrote with the Westlake Studio crew for The Brothers Johnson,George Benson,Patti Austin and maintaining a songwriting relationship with Heatwave until they stopped recording after 1982.
The late Johnnie Wilder described Temperton’s personality as possessing a good sense of humor and a friendly attitude. This naturally made him a good musical partner for Quincy Jones. The man composed so many funk/soul/dance classics in the 70’s and 80’s that it would be too long to go through all of them. So today,I’m going to run down only the Rod Temperton songs that personally moved me the most. And chances are,many of them are being played on a radio station in your town at this very moment too. And that level of popularity is part of what makes many of these songs so enduring and distinctive.
“Boogie Nights” (1976)
The very idea of putting a swinging drum/jazz guitar opening and closing to the Moog bass led funky disco of this song gave it a strong and thoroughly musical sense of continuity.
“The Star Of A Story” (1978)
This might very well be my very favorite ballad of the late 70’s. With it’s processed electric pianos and orchestral sonics,its essentially a jazz tune with some tremendous multi tracked harmonies from Johnny Wilder. It was such a strong song,George Benson covered the song two years after Heatwave originally recorded it.
“The Big Guns” (1982)
In a lot of ways,this song became the instrumental prototype for what Temperton would do with Michael Jackson on the song “Thriller”. What this has is a slower,more complex percussive rhythms,jazzy scat singing and even a synthesizer solo from Herbie Hancock.
The Brothers Johnson
Temperton really know how to compose melodies spacious enough for both vocalists and instrumentalists. This song does both as a collaboration with Louis (also deceased) and George Johnson. Its a total bass/guitar showcase of course. But it also allows space for George Johnson’s vocal leads as well.
“Give Me The Night” (1980)
This song is instrumentally a fairly close cousin of MJ’s “Rock With You”. Difference being the rhythm is far leaner-allowing Benson’s different guitar and lead vocal/scat playing parts to be more prominent in the mix.
“Off Broadway” (1980″
Oddly enough I first heard this as incidental music on a rerun of SCTV. Its built around Moog bass and horn/string interactions-all allowing Benson to shine on an evolving solo on this fine instrumental.
This is probably one Patti’s most vibrant uptempo songs. The song is very stop heavy with horns,strings,guitar,keyboards and drums all playing the high key melody and rhythm. On the other hand,its a dance funk masterpiece where everything seems to fit just where it needs to go.
“Love Me To Death” (1981)
This album track from Austin’s Qwest debut Every Home Should Have One is a gurgling mid tempo jazzy post disco groove with a deep,liquid guitar riff. To me a wonderful example of the clean production,molten instrumentation and harmonically powerful melody.
“Sweet Freedom” (1985)
This sonically heady dance/pop song from the 1985 comedy Running Scared is a song I remember singing to when I was 6 years old. So whether I knew it or not,Temperton’s songwriting style was deeply impacting on me before I even knew who he was. It has all the hallmarks of his writing and production style-emphasizing a rhythmically heady uptempo number with vast (in this case more electronic) instrumental sonics.
“One More Rhythm” (1983)
This song from Ingram’s debut album Its Your Night has an extremely singable melody. And uses modern production touches such as bass synthesizers and dancable refrains to what essentially amounts to a big band swing jazz revival. One of my all time favorite Temperton compositions-showing his understanding of Quincy Jones’ outlook on the musical continuity of black America.
“Rock With You” (1979)
One of the songs that helped launch MJ into a popular musical force of the early 80’s,”Rock With You” has such mellow instrumental sonics (including bass from Rufus’s Bobby Watson) that this steamy uptempo disco pop groove seems more like a ballad. And that’s probably not an easy quality to achieve.
This is of course the song Temperton is best known for. It sounds like it sprang from a late in the day Heatwave demo. Its led by light percussion,hefty synth bass lines and a brittle liquid rhythm guitar on its bridge. Instrumentally,its one of Temperton’s finest compositions.
2016 is reminding me of the fact that today,most casual music listeners are again associating songs with singers. That instrumentalists,arrangers and composers are often afterthoughts. That’s because of the non stop parade of death this year of big musical icons. On a happier note,the internet and newer documentary films are bringing the creative history of these icons to live on a broader level. For me,Rod Temperton is such an artist. I could mention him in the same sentence as Nat King Cole and Burt Bacharach as one of the greatest mid/late 20th century musical composers.