Category Archives: songwriting

Rod Temperton: The Star Of A Story I Love So Well

rod-temperton

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.


Heatwave

“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 

“Stomp” (1980)

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.

George Benson

“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.

Patti Austin

“Razzmatazz” (1980)

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.

Michael McDonald

“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.

James Ingram

“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.

Michael Jackson

“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.

“Thriller” (1982)

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.

 

 

 

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Filed under 1970's, 1980's, Brothers Johnson, Funk, George Benson, Heatwave, James Ingram, Michael Jackson, Michael McDonald, Patti Austin, Quincy Jones, Rod Temperton, songwriting, UK

Prince Summer: “I Feel For You” (1979)

Prince had a couple of other musical ventures outside himself even before he broke out. One of them was masterminding a group of proteges such as Vanity 6 and The Time in the early 80’s. And the other was a burgeoning interest in writing/producing outside his camp. The latter actually occurred even before his commercial breakthrough. Many of these songs showcased more pop oriented flavors then the funk and exploratory jazz/rock excursions he’d later go on. One thing about these songs is that generally,he hadn’t already released these songs on himself yet. There was one major exception.

Prince’s first two albums,released in 1978 and 79,had unique musical flavors of their very own. His self titled sophomore album was by far more pop oriented-with carefully crafted song structures that could easily translate to radio play. Prince knew this very well-even referring to the album as contrived later on.  Still there was one song on it that became his first to be more famous as by other artists. The Pointer Sisters first did it more verbatim in 1982. Two years later,Chaka Khan and Melle Mel completely restructured it for her blockbuster solo hit. The name of this song was “I Feel For You”.

A drum roll kicks into the stomping yet simple 4/4 beat that defines most of the song. On top of this,Prince plays a thick polyphonic synth brass melody. A break leads it right into the refrain,which features a function popping bass line with round washes of synthesizer backing up Prince’s vocal lead. Just before the chorus comes in,Prince is accompanied by more synth brass-with it becoming totally call and response on the choruses. There’s a bridge where Prince is playing synthesizer like a muted trumpet. The drum breaks off into a snare heavy hit with hard synth brass accents before returning to the chorus to fade out.

As with a lot of Prince’s early work,this song is deceptively simple. Upon listening to his original version of it so many times, a degree of complex presentation reveals itself in this songs stripped down production. For one thing,this is a wonderful showcase for Prince’s synthesized horn sound that became his signature. He not only plays the horn charts right on the meter,but he also manages to get some of the calls and vibratos of horn solos as well. On each one,the melody is always very singable and the rhythm is righteous. Personally speaking,its one of the three songs on this 1979 album that I love the most.

 

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Filed under 1970's, drums, Funk Bass, I Feel For You, Minneapolis, Minneapolis Sound, Prince, songwriting, synth brass, synthesizers