Rod Temperton, ‘Thriller’ Songwriter, Dead at 66
Rod Temperton, the songwriter behind Michael Jackson’s hit singles “Thriller,” “Rock With You” and “Off the Wall,” died last week in London following a brief battle with cancer. He was 66.
“Rod Temperton, British Composer and Musician, died last week at the age of 66 in London following a brief aggressive battle with cancer,” Warner/Chappell CEO Jon Platt wrote in a statement (via BBC News).
“His funeral was private,” Platt added. “He was often referred to as ‘The Invisible Man.’ He was the sole writer of multiple successful songs such as ‘Thriller,’ ‘Off The Wall,’ ‘Rock With You,’ [George Benson’s] ‘Give Me The Night,’ [Michael McDonald’s] ‘Sweet Freedom,’ [Heatwave’s] ‘Always & Forever’ and ‘Boogie Nights’ to name just a few. His family is devastated and request total privacy at this, the saddest of sad times.”
Before linking up with the King of Pop, Temperton first served as keyboardist and primary songwriter for the disco-funk outfit Heatwave, including that group’s smash singles “Boogie Nights” and “Always and Forever.” After two albums as a performer with Heatwave – 1976’s Too Hot to Handle and 1978’s Central Heating – Temperton segued into a full-time songwriter role.
In 1979, Quincy Jones sought out Temperton as the producer began work on what would become Michael Jackson’s first solo album in four years, Off the Wall. For the LP, Temperton contributed three tracks: “Off the Wall,” “Rock With You” and the closer “Burn This Disco Out.”
Three years later, Jones and Temperton would reconnect for Jackson’s Thriller, with the songwriter concocting both the album title and its world-changing title track.
“Originally, when I did my demo, I called it ‘Starlight,’ Quincy said to me, ‘Well, you came up with the title of the last album, see what you can do for this album.’ I said, ‘Great,'” Temperton said of “Thriller” in a BBC Radio 2 interview. “I went back to the hotel, I wrote two or three hundred titles for this song. Then I came up with the title ‘Midnight,’ [Jones] said that’s a little bit more mystery, more where you should be heading … 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 on top of the Billboard charts. You could see the merchandizing of this one word; it jumped off the page at you. So I knew I had to write it as ‘Thriller,’ and I wrote all the words very quickly, then went to the studio and we did it.”
Temperton is also credited with infusing “Thriller” with its horror movie overtones.
“When I wrote ‘Thriller,’ I always envisioned this sort of talking section at the end, and didn’t really know what we were gonna do there,” Temperton said. “But one thing I’d thought about was to have somebody, a famous voice in the horror genre, to do this vocal. Quincy’s wife knew Vincent Price, so Quincy said to me, ‘How about if we got Vincent Price?’ And I said that’d be amazing if we can get him.”
In addition to “Thriller,” which revolutionized the music video genre, Temperton also penned “Baby Be Mine” and “The Lady in My Life” for what ultimately became the best-selling album of all time.
Temperton remained a prolific songwriter, penning songs for Karen Carpenter, Aretha Franklin, Herbie Hancock, Donna Summer, the Manhattan Transfer, Jones and McDonald. (McDonald turned Temperton’s “Sweet Freedom” into a Top 10 hit on the Hot 100 and a Golden Globe nominee.) McDonald and James Ingram also sang the Temperton-co-penned “Yah Mo B There.”
In 1989, Temperton, Jones and Lionel Richie’s The Color Purple song “Miss Celie’s Blues (Sister)” was nominated for Best Original Song at the Academy Awards, where it lost to Richie’s White Nights theme “Say You, Say Me.”
“So saddened to hear about the passing of Rod Temperton,” McDonald tells Rolling Stone. “He was a truly kind and generous man with lethal musical aim in the recording studio. His talent made him a giant in my eyes and his compositions will always be amongst the classic R&B songbook.”