When The Groove Is Dead & Gone, Love Survives: Rod Temperton’s Affect on Modern Soul
By Matthew Allen
If you took one look at Rod Temperton, you’d never peg him for being an aficionado of soul music. When Heatwave‘s Johnnie Wilder found the British keyboardist in a small, dishelved flat, he could’ve imagined he was capable of writing songs like “Boogie Nights” and “The Groove Line.” Even his closest collaborator, Quincy Jones, couldn’t believe “I could never understand how he could be from Grimsby, England, living in Worms, Germany, and understand “Ain’t No Half Steppin'” and all those different terms that he was writing.” When news of his passing from cancer at age 66 broke this week, the headlines of various publications all referred to him as the “Thriller Songwriter.” Like Michael Jackson, Temperton was much more than just that album and that song. Rod Temperton carved the template for the contemporary R&B song for over three decades. His arrangement techniques, his incoparable bridges and approach to harmony ushered in a new era of R&B and pop that artists, producers and composers are still trying to emulate.
When Rod Temperton’s father put a radio in his crib as a baby in Cleethorpes, England, little did he know that he was fueling a music paradigm shift. From there to keyboard lessons as a kid, to German Army bases where he’d encounter Black American soldiers and their music, the future two-time Oscar-nominee would begin to stockpile a stack of songs for an eventual rag-tag group of multi-lingual musicians called Heatwave in 1976.
What Temperton did was add a sophistication to R&B; giving dance music some structural depth without diluting it. Take his first hit with Heatwave, “Boogie Nights,” as exhibit A. In 1976, disco was just about to begin its dominance on radio. The jazz intro of “Boogie Nights” plays more like a Wes Montgomery tune than a late ’70s club banger. The set up from there into the guitar-driven Ohio-style funk could very well serve as the seeds of the “beat drop.” Another example of this sophistication was “Baby Be Mine” from Thriller. Quincy Jones stated that the composition was “like a Coltrane song, just with a pop arrangement.” It’s easy overlook how unorthodox a song like The Brothers Johnson’s “Stomp” was because it was so popular. The subdued keyboards at the top, transitioning to thumping bass drum and strange and sudden key changes. You could dance to George Benson‘s “Give Me the Night” and still not notice how intricatly dignified the arrangement is. Soon, everyone was catching on and acts like Evelyn “Champange” King, Shalamar and Luther Vandross stated adapting techniques Rod had already perfected.
Temperton’s treatment of balladry was wildly charasmatic. He was able to make professions of love and devotion like “Always & Forever,” “The First Day of Snow,” and the ethereal “The Star of a Story” sound earnest and full of finesse; whereas others have taken similar concepts and turned them into songs that were sappy and formulaic. He mastered the art matching the right lyric with the right melody to maximize the delivery. If you listen to Quincy Jones’s 1989 hit, “The Secret Garden,” and a lyric as lascivious as “here in the garden, where temptation feels so right/passion can make you fall for what you feel,” his contribution to that track gave it a maturity that would fall short in lesser hands. Temperton was a private man, and that mysterious nature spilled into his love songs. Patti Austin and James Ingram’s number hit “Baby, Come to Me,” was so much of a pop sensation, you forget how brooding the chords on the hook are. To opposing affect, Jackson’s “The Lady in My Life” had a bright, uplifting chorus that made each dark preceding verse an adventurous ebb and flow. That push and pull of colors inspired many balladers and divas like Whitney Houston and Peabo Bryson to follow suit and can still be heard today from acts like Kem and Jill Scott.
Rod’s collaboration with Jackson was quite atomic, but it was his astute attention to detail that changed history. Rod stated that when asked to write for what became the Off the Wall album, he’d noticed from MJ’s previous worked that his vocals were rhythmic in nature. Therefore he purposely wrote his verses with staccato arrangements that would fuel Jackson’s delivery power and enhance the melody. In addition, he doubled down on the vocal harmonies for Michael to double and triple up in the background, making for a marbleized wall of voices that gave each track a pristine presentation. On the bridge of “Burn this Disco Out,” he helped make it so that several Jackson vocal harmonies still managed to sound like one voice. If you look at any vocalist today – Justin Timberlake, Beyonce or Ne-Yo – they all appropriate the Temperton/Jackson methods of rapid short note vocal phrasing and ambitious overdubbed background harmonies. One of the best results of their working relationship was his influence of Jackson’s own songwriting. He was so impressed with “Rock with You,” he was compelled to write material at least as strong as that. “Every time Rod would present something, I would present something, “Jackson stated, “and we’d form a little friendly competition.” That friendly rivalry pushed Michael to write songs like “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin‘,” “Workin’ Day and Night” and “Billie Jean.”
From Heatwave’s 1977 Too Hot to Handle LP to George Benson‘s 2009 Songs and Stories album, Rod Temperton was relentlessly prolific and obsessively innovative. His legacy is that helped make pop come to soul, without compromising the ultimate ego – the song. Whether under multi-colored strobe lights on a dance floor, or after walking down a hallway littered with rose petals after a romantic dinner, Temperton’s pop gems and sensuous ballads alike brought the world together. He will be missed.
Thank you Rod for leaving the world better than how you found it.
Matthew Allen is a Brooklyn-based music journalist and television producer. In addition to soulhead, his work can be found on EBONY, JET and Wax Poetics Magazines. To keep up with his work, follow him on Twitter and visit his blog, The Well-Dressed Headphone Addict. Check out some of his work for soulhead.