Rod Temperton: In Rod We Trust

A selection of top tunes from the vast discography of the Michael Jackson collaborator.

Rod Temperton wrote some of pop music’s most enduring and beloved songs. Born in Cleethorpes, Lincolnshire, England in 1947, his recording career began as a member of Johnny Wilder’s group Heatwave, having answered an advert about a vacancy for a keyboardist in Melody Maker while living in Germany. Eventually, he would step back as a performer to concentrate on songwriting. In the late ’70s, Heatwave’s classy blend of soul, funk and disco found a fan in Quincy Jones, who during the recording of Heatwave’s third album in New York called upon Temperton to write three songs for then-current production projects, Rufus & Chaka Khan and Michael Jackson.

Temperton would go on to establish himself as part of the core team for Jackson’s Off the Wall and Thriller, penning gold like “Baby Be Mine,” “Rock With You,” and the title tracks of both records. Bruce Swedien, an engineer for Jackson, once said that “Rod Temperton is different from anyone else I’ve ever known. They call him the Invisible Man.” Around the time of working with Jackson, the modest Temperton found time to write great material for a wealth of other artists. Here are five standouts.

George Benson - Give Me The Night

George Benson - Give Me the Night (1980)

A year after Off the Wall smashed the charts, Warner Brothers recruited Quincy Jones to usher the great George Benson down the road from jazz guitarist to R&B star. Rod Temperton wrote five songs for the record including the irresistible title track, a bubbly, glossy, feel-good disco cut. The record was aided by an all-star supporting line-up, producer Jones having little trouble recruiting the very best in the business post-Off the Wall. (Herbie Hancock, Paulinho Da Costa, Patti Austin and Greg Phillinganes all contributed.)

“‘Give Me The Night’ was serious,” explained Jones in BBC Radio 2’s 2006 documentary on Temperton. “To me it was the mixture of be-bop with Patti Austin – it was a very unique concept, especially during that period.” The song’s influence wasn't lost on the artist himself either. Said Benson in the same documentary: “The beginning of ‘Give Me The Night,’ the little hook, it actually launched careers. It launched Luther Vandross’ career. This was why he wrote (‘Never Too Much’), because he fell in love with that hook.”

Heatwave - The Star Of A Story (1977)

Heatwave - The Star of a Story (1977)

“If you can’t afford to move to England, you can at least afford to move to the English disco sound,” stated the sleeve of Heatwave’s satisfying debut, Too Hot to Handle. Their best known tracks – the straight-up disco of “The Groove Line,” “Boogie Nights,” and the perennial wedding favourite slow jam “Always and Forever” – were strong enough to alert Quincy Jones to the talent of their unassuming British writer, but lesser known, hidden in the middle of side two of their second album, lies one of the jewels of their catalogue.

A sublime ballad, “The Star of a Story” unfolds around a stunning arrangement of melancholic strings, acoustic guitar, flute, electric keyboard and Johnnie Wilder’s floating falsetto, together affording it a dreamy, otherworldly quality. Overlooked as a single at the time in favour of the easy pop of “Mind Blowing Decisions,” “The Star of a Story” retains all of its mystical, eerie charm years later. Covered down the line by George Benson, and ripe for sampling too: see Smif-N-Wessun’s mighty fine unreleased mid-’90s jam “Still Don’t Nuthin’ Move But the Money.”

RUFUS & CHAKA. "Live In Me". 1979. album "Masterjam".

Rufus & Chaka - Live in Me (1979)

Chaka Khan had already embarked on a solo career in 1978 with her eponymous debut, but she soon returned to the Rufus fold for the solid, Quincy-produced Masterjam LP. The charged disco burner “Any Love” and cover of “Body Heat” might be better known, but the real standout from the record is the superb Rod Temperton-penned “Live in Me” which kicks off side two. Bolstered by the Seawind horns, a robust guitar lead, swelling strings and Chaka’s playful vocal, it’s one of the finest examples of soul music on the Temperton/Jones axis. It proved an ideal scenario for Chaka to flex her devastating ability as a singer, and further confirmation that her long-term future lay away from the Rufus stable.

Manhattan Transfer - Spice Of Life (12" Extended )

Manhattan Transfer - Spice of Life (1983)

Pop-jazz vocal group The Manhattan Transfer had a decade of recording and Grammy success under their belts before their Richard Rudolph-produced album for Atlantic in 1983. Coming off the all-conquering Thriller, Rod Temperton contributed two great songs: “Mystery” and “Spice of Life,” the latter a funky, uptempo pop cut, co-written with old pal Derek Bramble from Heatwave. Listen closely and you’ll hear none other than Stevie Wonder on harmonica, the same year he contributed similarly to Gap Band’s “Someday” and De Barge’s “Love Me in a Special Way.”

The Brothers Johnson - Stomp! (1980)

Brothers Johnson - Stomp! (1980)

Guitarist George and bassist Louis Johnson’s fourth Quincy Jones-helmed album in as many years would be their last under the wing of the master producer. Temperton wrote or co-wrote a whopping seven out of Light up the Night’s nine tracks, none more potent than the pulsating “Stomp!,” co-composed with both Brothers and Louis’ wife Valerie. Smudging the lines between funk, soul, and disco, “Stomp!” is built on rich layers of strings, guitars and horns, enveloped in smart, chillingly effective pop sensibility. Party-flavoured and standing tall on the cusp of the decadent ’80s, it proved to be their biggest commercial smash on both sides of the Atlantic.

By Zaid Mudhaffer on January 6, 2015

On a different note