Obituary: Rod Temperton
Songwriter and keyboard player who was behind Michael Jackson's hit Thriller
Published 09/10/2016 | 02:30
Rod Temperton, who died on Wednesday of cancer aged 66, was the British songwriter behind Thriller, Off The Wall and Rock With You, some of Michael Jackson's best known hits.
Modest and publicity-shy, Temperton, who had been the keyboard player and songwriter with the funk band Heatwave in the 70s, is often referred to as the "invisible man" behind the Thriller album, which, after its release in 1982, became - and remains - the best-selling studio album of all time. In fact, he had already been working with Jackson for several years, recruited to help write songs for the "King of Pop" by producer Quincy Jones.
But it is for Thriller, the title track of Jackson's album, that Temperton will be best remembered, not least because of the song's 14-minute music video and its unprecedented record sales for an African-American artist.
Nor was Temperton's contribution solely musical; he had originally wanted to call the song by another name but felt it needed a more commercial title. "I went back to the hotel," he later recalled, "wrote two or three hundred titles and came up with Midnight Man. The next morning I woke up and I just said this word.
"Something in my head just said: 'This is the title'. You could visualise it at the top of the Billboard charts. You could see the merchandising for this one word, how it jumped off the page as 'Thriller'."
Temperton also brought in the actor Vincent Price to perform the spoken "rap" in the song, and wrote Price's lines in the taxi to the studio.
Although only ardent Michael Jackson fans would have been aware of the extent of Temperton's influence (he is described by one Jackson fan site as "Rod Temperton of Grimsby and Heatwave"), the singer's death re-awakened interest in his work, particularly after it was reported that when Jackson died several Post-It notes - on most of which were written uplifting messages - were found stuck to his mirror. One of them said simply: "Call Temperton".
Rodney Lynn Temperton was born on October 9, 1947, in Cleethorpes, England. Temperton later recalled that as a child he would drift off to sleep to the sound of a transistor radio playing Radio Luxembourg in the background.
He learnt to play drums while playing truant from school and would play along to the test card on the television. He also taught himself to play keyboards.
After a spell filleting fish in the Ross Frozen Foods factory, Grimsby, Temperton answered an advertisement in Melody Maker for a keyboardist with Heatwave and went to join the band in Hamburg. But it was composing to which he was best suited, and after the slinky Boogie Nights was a major hit for the band, he withdrew from performing and became their songwriter, penning a number of other tracks including the much-covered smoochy love song Always & Forever.
In 1979 Quincy Jones approached Temperton during the recording of Heatwave's third album in New York. The two men hit it off immediately. "I'm from Cleethorpes and he's from Seattle," Temperton later recalled. "Where's the meeting of minds there? But as soon as we met it was like I'd known him all my life. I love him to death."
That same year Temperton was brought in as part of the songwriting team for Off the Wall, arguably Jackson's "coming of age" album after he left Motown. His smooth, tuneful tracks, Off the Wall and Rock with You, epitomised Jackson's new-found maturity.
As well as his work with Jackson, Temperton wrote for numerous stars of soul, funk and disco: there were more collaborations with Jones, as well as with Donna Summer, George Benson, Aretha Franklin, Rufus and Chaka Khan, and Mica Paris.
By the mid 1990s, however, he appeared to have little public involvement in the music profession and divided his time between houses in France, Kent, Fiji and Los Angeles. In 2006, when asked in a rare interview what he did when he was not working, he replied: "I watch telly, catch up on the news. Maybe the phone will ring."
In 1986 he was nominated for the best original song Oscar for Miss Celie's Blues, a song he co-wrote with Quincy Jones and Lionel Richie for the film The Color Purple.
Songwriting, he said, was a very personal experience: "You have to please yourself first. Once you feel the hairs stand up on the back of your hand - you can go for the world. Writing a song is the biggest moment of all. Yesterday it didn't exist. Today it does."
He is survived by his wife Kathy.