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Music

Appreciation: Songwriter Rod Temperton’s emotionally rich, game-changing work for Michael Jackson and others

Rod Temperton and Carmen Consoli
Songwriter Rod Temperton, who died last week, rehearsing in 2004 with Italian singer Carmen Consoli.
(Frank Micelotta / AFP Getty)

Rod Temperton, the influential songwriter responsible for harnessing the power of disco grooves in service of precisely measured pop songs, may have been best known for his work with Michael Jackson on albums including “Off the Wall” and “Thriller,” but the measure of his craft extends well beyond his work with the King of Pop.

The British songwriter died in London last week at age 66, having left a body of songs including Jackson classics “Rock With You,” “Off the Wall,” “Thriller” and “Baby Be Mine.”

His death was announced by Jon Platt, chairman and chief executive of Warner/Chappell music publishing, who wrote that Temperton died after "a brief aggressive battle with cancer.”

In addition to his work with Jackson, Temperton was responsible for gems that predicted Jackson’s revolution, including the Brothers Johnson’s magnetic party jam “Stomp!”; “Boogie Nights” by British funk band Heatwave (which Temperton co-founded);  George Benson’s “Give Me the Night”; and the Rufus workout “Masterjam.” 

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On those tracks and others, the writer celebrated the exuberance of life, the tactile feeling of unrestrained joy. “You’ve got to feel that heat, and we can ride the boogie,” he advised on “Rock With You.” On “Stomp!,” Temperton crafted an uptempo jam about a night out, starting with the cruise to club and culminating under the disco ball. “The set is hot, there’s people wall to wall/ Old ones, young things, short ones standing tall.”

For Benson’s “Give Me the Night,” the songwriter rejoiced in late-night thrills, when “there’s music in the air and lots of loving everywhere.” Temperton in the song presented dance floor revelry not as a hobby but as a form of sustenance. “You need the evening action/ A place to dine, a glass of wine/ A little late romance/ It’s a chain reaction.”

Temperton avoided the spotlight and turned down most interview requests. He did, however, make himself available for a BBC Radio 2 documentary in 2006 entitled “The Invisible Man: The Rod Temperton Story.”

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He mastered his style in service of Jackson’s two classic albums. Recruited by producer Quincy Jones, Temperton was brought on to help the former child pop star transition into a mature artist. The result on 1979’s “Off the Wall”  was Temperton’s classic ode to nighttime heaven, “Rock With You.”

Each line a lesson in precision, Temperton eases into the song with the delicacy of a yogi leading students through poses. “Girl, close your eyes, let that rhythm get into you,” sings Jackson, guiding his lover with a soothing seduction that occurs — where else? — on the dance floor: 

“Out on the floor/ There ain’t nobody there but us/ Girl when you dance/ There’s a magic that must be love.”

On the title track to “Thriller,” Temperton framed the song as a kind of B-movie, with creatures “out to get you” and “beasts about to strike.” Within this setting, the songwriter presents the protagonist as savior: “Now is the time for you and I to cuddle close together,” sings Jackson. “All through the night I’ll save you from the terror on the screen.”

His words were poetic ... his rhythm was bar none spot on funky. His arrangements froze you.
Drummer Questlove of the Roots

On Twitter, musicians lined up to express their artistic debt.

 Abel Tesfaye, the artist who performs as the Weeknd, wrote, simply, “R.I.P to the legend Rod Temperton.” Drummer and Roots bandleader Questlove penned a long appreciation on Instagram, which concluded, “His words were poetic (like on Smokey Robinson level) his rhythm was bar none spot on funky. His arrangements froze you. Salute to Rod Temperton. Thank you.”

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Citing his favorite Temperton songs, producer Mark Ronson wrote, “so devastated to hear that Rod Temperton has passed away. a wonderful man & one of my favourite songwriters ever. thank you for the magic x.”

That so-called magic drove Temperton’s best work.

There’s a lot of terrible music out there. For tips on the stuff that’s not, follow Randall Roberts on Twitter: @liledit

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