You may know hits such as Heatwave's "Always and Forever," Michael Jackson's "Rock with You" and "Thriller," Patti Austin and James Ingram's "Baby Come to Me," and Michael McDonald's "Sweet Freedom." What you may not know is one person is responsible for penning all of these 1970s and 1980s classics: English-born Rod Temperton, the Heatwave member who became one of Quincy Jones' chief collaborators. Temperton's ear for disco, funk, pop, and jazz attracted numerous artists in all categories, making him one of the most important--and underrated--tunesmiths in modern music.
Born in Cleethorpes, England in 1947, Temperton loved music from an early age. He began by playing drums, even forming a group at his high school. Upon graduation he pursued a career as a full-time musician; at this time, he switched to keyboards. Relocating to Worms, Germany in 1972, Temperton played in several bands until he answered an ad in Melody Maker. This proved to be the turning point in his career, as he met Johnny Wilder, Jr., the founder of a new band called Heatwave. The duo instantly clicked, with Temperton impressing Wilder with his keyboard abilities as well as his compositions. Thus the songwriter was the major creative force behind the group's debut, 1976's Too Hot to Handle, scoring hits with the slow jam "Always and Forever," the jazz/disco classic "Boogie Nights," and the live favorite "Ain't No Half-Steppin'." Temperton's smooth sound, along with Wilder's beautiful voice and the group's impeccable harmonies, drew many fans to Heatwave. One such fan was Jones, who was looking for a songwriter to contribute solid tracks to Jackson's upcoming album Off the Wall.
After Heatwave's second album, Central Heating, Temperton ceased performing with the group in order to focus on songwriting full time. He never abandoned his friends, however, as he continued to pen hits for them. He would often offer them "first dibs" on his latest compositions, including a song called "Rock with You." Wilder passed on the song--a move he would come to regret. Temperton ultimately presented Jones with three compositions for Jackson: "Rock with You," "Off the Wall," and "Burn This Disco Out." To his amazement, Jones accepted all three. The sophisticated funk sound perfectly suited Jackson's vocal range, enabling him to explore his lower voice while still demonstrating his mastery of percussive singing. The album became a massive success, and began a long collaboration with the songwriter and Jones.
Jones called on him for several projects, including his own album The Dude. Temperton also penned other late 70s/early 80s R&B hits including the Brothers Johnson's "Stomp," the Austin and Ingram smash "Baby Come to Me," and Donna Summer's "Love Is in Control (Finger on the Trigger)." But his greatest legacy is his contributions to Jackson's Thriller album. Jones commissioned Temperton to write songs for the project, and he did not disappoint. The title track, "The Lady in my Life," and "Baby Be Mine" all proved to be stellar additions, with Temperton demonstrating a knack for challenging Jackson to expand his technique (most notably with "Lady," a track Jones dubbed a "begging" song). While he continued working with Jones throughout much of his career, Temperton added production to his repertoire and reached out to artists from other genres. He wrote and produced McDonald's "Sweet Freedom" and Klymaxx's "Man Size Love," which also marks his first attempts at writing for a movie soundtrack. He even ventured into jazz territory by penning two songs for Manhattan Transfer's Bodies and Souls album (1983): "Spice of Life" and "Mystery," the latter covered by Anita Baker three years later.
It is difficult to summarize Temperton's sound with one song, but George Benson's "Give Me the Night" comes closest. The opportunity to write for Benson must have presented a unique challenge for Temperton: he had to write a song that would suit Benson's jazz background and allow him to incorporate his guitar work. By 1979, Benson wanted to dabble in mainstream R&B without completely alienating his jazz fanbase, and Temperton nicely straddles the two genres in this song. Producer Jones recruited an all-star lineup, including Austin on backing vocals and Lee Ritenour on guitar. While the disco-friendly beat places the song firmly in the late 1970s, the chord changes derive straight from jazz. Benson frequently scats over his guitar playing, but the lyrics celebrate nightlife and dancing. "Whenever dark has fallen / You know the spirit of the party seems to come alive," Benson croons at the song's onset, clearly setting the scene. He extols "the evening action," clarifying that entails "a place to dine, a glass of wine, a little late romance." Then comes the dancing, which will lead to ecstasy, romance, and freedom.
One highlight of "Give Me the Night" occurs at the bridge; as horns enter the picture, Benson calls for his lover--and listeners--to venture into the night "and we'll lead the others on a ride through paradise." This experience will ultimately lead to love. "Don't you know we can fly?" Benson asks, calling on us to join him in celebrating the finer things in life. Lastly, music itself can be a healing force: "'Cause there's music in the air / And lots of loving everywhere," he emphasizes. "Give Me the Night" is a celebration of the dance culture of the disco era, but the jazzy touches do not root the song solely in the late 1970s. Like many of Temperton's compositions, it maintains a timeless quality, still enticing audiences onto the dance floor.
In recent years, Temperton has maintained a low profile, rarely granting interviews and avoiding having his photo taken. His vast catalog speaks for itself, as he is responsible for some of the most sophisticated yet accessible pop, R&B, and disco tracks of the 1970s and 1980s. The Guardian's Dave Simpson calls the songwriter's contributions to pop "Herculean," which dramatically yet accurately describes his talent and influence. From Pharrell Williams to Justin Timberlake, Temperton's smooth sound still permeates the charts.