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An Appreciation

Rod Temperton: A white guy at the soul of black pop

A creative partner to Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones, The Invisible Man lives on in the best music of the 20th century

In 1980, just as Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall was beginning to stick to radio airwaves like so much sonic honey, attentive radio listeners noted a curious similarity between Jackson’s seductive single and Heatwave’s 1977 disco hit, Boogie Nights.

The similarity wasn’t imagined.

That’s because both Off the Wall and Boogie Nights were composed by the same man — namely Rod Temperton, a Grammy-winning songwriter so publicity-shy that he would eventually earn the nickname The Invisible Man. But while he craved anonymity, Temperton’s 24-karat jams grab you by the collar and make you dance. Aside from composing a slew of 1980s hits for George Benson, Michael McDonald, James Ingram, Patti Austin and more, Temperton will always be best remembered for the songs he created expressly for Jackson, including Off the Wall, Rock With You and Thriller, the latter being the title track of the best-selling album in history.

Sadly, the bashful Temperton was recently thrust into the limelight with the announcement earlier this month of his death from cancer at 66. News of his death prompted an outpouring of emotion. Legendary producer Quincy Jones — the man who oversaw the recording of Off The Wall and Thriller — offered insight via Twitter: “We never did anything for the money,” Jones wrote about his departed friend. “We did what gave us goose bumps and that’s what we got.” Chic writer/guitarist Nile Rodgers tweeted, “I’m actually crying now. We go way back to the no joke #R&B #funk #soul days!” Millennial superstar The Weeknd, who has cited Jackson as one of his biggest influences, simply tweeted “R.I.P to the legend Rod Temperton.”

Born in Lincolnshire, England, Temperton emerged in the late ’70s, initially earning kudos for penning Heatwave classics such as Groove Line, Boogie Nights and Always and Forever. In 1980, he would help jazz guitarist Benson stage a surprising funk-pop coup by composing his breakthrough single, Give Me The Night. Temperton’s 1982 ballad Baby Come To Me was a hit for Austin and Ingram, while his 1980 Brothers Johnson hit, Stomp, lived up to its floor-shaking title. He collaborated with Ingram on the Grammy-winning 1985 hit, Yah Mo B There, and composed McDonald’s breezy 1986 hit, Sweet Freedom.

Those fondly remembered hits notwithstanding, it was Temperton’s association with Jackson that ignited his career. The jams the Englishman composed for Jackson’s Off the Wall album — including the classics Rock with You and the title track — were so stylish that they seemed to set the visual tone for that album’s now-classic cover.

The irony is that much of Off the Wall‘s indescribable blackness is attributable to songs composed by a white Englishman. It’s important to remember that Off the Wall featured songwriting contributions from some of the world’s most acclaimed pop composers, including Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, Carole Bayer Sager and David Foster. But it was Temperton’s tracks that seemed to have the most appreciable impact, which speaks volumes about his prodigious composing instincts and skills.

So it was only logical that Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson would invite Temperton to contribute tunes to the album that would eventually become Thriller.

Temperton wasn’t just a master of musical composition, he was also a first-rate lyricist, as demonstrated on Off the Wall. The song uses partying as a metaphor for asserting one’s self in life: Do what you want to do / There ain’t no rules, it’s up to you! / It’s time to come alive / And party on, right through the night. In a modern age in which record companies often hedge their bets by recruiting multiple hit composers for a single song, Temperton’s lone command of rhythm, melody and lyrics today seems more impressive than ever.

Off the Wall was not only the solo breakthrough Jackson craved; it also kicked Temperton’s career into hyperdrive. So it was only logical that Jones and Jackson would invite Temperton to contribute tunes to the album that would eventually become Thriller. As with Off the Wall, Temperton came up with three tunes, including Baby Be Mine, a feel-good funk track smooth enough to pass for an Off the Wall outtake. Temperton’s come-hither slow jam, The Lady in My Life, treaded close to Barry White turf.

But perhaps more than any other Temperton song, it was Thriller that most assertively seized the world’s imagination. Like most Temperton jams, Thriller showcases a surging bass line that rides the rhythm as deftly as a shark negotiating a rip current. Atop its pulsating beat is a haunting, shadowy melody that lends the song its horror movie authenticity. Indeed, Thriller was so amenable to film adaptation that it spawned the famous short film many folks consider the best music video of all time.

As Temperton explained in a rare 2009 interview, Thriller was originally called Starlight until Jones requested a change in title. “I went back to the hotel, wrote two or three hundred titles and came up with Midnight Man,” Temperton said. “The next morning, I woke up and I just said this word. Something in my head just said, ‘This is the title!’ You could visualize 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.”

For all intents and purposes, Thriller would spell the end of Motown-era Jackson, the boyish vaudevillian with a swing-era penchant for crowd-pleasing. Seizing almost total control of his creative career, the dynamic singer would part ways with Jones and Temperton. Without their mellowing influence, Jackson’s music became edgier, angrier, more paranoid. Eventually, the lyric from Off the Wall let the madness in the music get to you — seemed less like musical poesy and more like prophecy.

Jackson reveled in the spotlight that Thriller afforded him; Temperton evaded it. But though they approached success differently, this odd couple couldn’t have been more compatible musically. Their brief collaboration helped rescue the music industry while creating the finger-popping soundtrack for a generation. In the end, that’s probably what most of us will remember most about the King of Pop and The Invisible Man.

Bruce Britt is an award-winning writer and essayist. He lives in Los Angeles with his three dogs and his Fender Stratocaster guitars.