Book Review: The Invisible Man (The Story Of Rod Temperton) by Jed Pitman

How many British songwriters have made their living exclusively in soul/funk/R’n’B? If you can come up with more than one name, you’re doing pretty well…

It shows just how singular and important Rod Temperton’s career was until cut short by his death in 2016. Though never ‘flavour of the month’ (i.e. not ‘rock’), he has to be in the pantheon of great songwriters, Brit or otherwise.

Jed Pitman is first out of the traps with a biography of the Cleethorpes-born melody maestro who came out of the somewhat unprepossessing mid-’70s Midlands soul scene to somehow write (or co-write) ‘Thriller’, ‘Rock With You’, ‘Sweet Freedom’, ‘Give Me The Night’, ‘The Dude’, ‘Love Is In Control (Finger On The Trigger)’, ‘Ya Mo Be There’, ‘Love X Love’, ‘Always And Forever’, ‘The Lady In My Life’, ‘Razzamatazz’ and ‘Boogie Nights’.

Pitman’s book evolved from a BBC radio programme and as such does at times feel somewhat like a transcription, with lots of verbatim interview material but fairly limited authorial insight. But that’s nitpicking when one considers his interviewees: Quincy Jones, Siedah Garrett, Michael McDonald, Herbie Hancock, Bob James, Bruce Swedien. The only major absentee seems to be Michael Jackson.

It has to be said, the constant theme of these interviews is: I can’t believe Rod wasn’t black. But once he’s got over that elephant in the room, Pitman builds up a more vivid picture of this rather geeky guy writing his funky, hook-laden tunes on a cheap keyboard in the weird town of Worms, Germany.

The groundbreaking disco/funk band Heatwave were of course the first recipients of his signature tunes, but the book’s great success is forging a line through all of Temperton’s work, identifying common traits and signposts. All those little synth and vocal motifs were clearly planned well in advance – it’s also clear that he worked from the bassline up. And what fabulous, much-sampled basslines they were. Even Public Enemy nicked from Heatwave’s brilliant ‘The Groove Line’ for their ‘Sophisticated B**ch‘.

The other really pleasing aspect of ‘The Invisible Man’ is discovering some of the more obscure avenues of Temperton’s career – collaborations with Herbie Hancock and Bob James, ‘The Color Purple’ soundtrack, ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show’ theme music. The book also places a lot more emphasis on his arranging work than is commonly known.

But we never quite work out what makes Temperton tick musically. Who were his main influences? The anecdotes seldom go beyond: ‘He was the real deal’. And Pitman rather glosses over the leaner last 20 years of his career – it would have been interesting to find out more about his view on the more technology-led/minimalist R’n’B of recent years.

But on the whole this is an extremely readable, valuable book, and the world is a better place for it. It certainly had me scurrying to various streaming services to check out everything in Rod’s illustrious songbook. The Heatwave albums, in particular, have been a revelation. (Incidentally, the cover of ‘The Invisible Man’ is pretty ghastly but apparently a very accurate portrayal – almost every interviewee speaks of his obsession with the cigs…)

‘The Invisible Man’ is published now by The History Press.

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Rod Temperton (1949-2016)

When MJ and Quincy are requesting your songs, you know you’ve made it. Rod Temperton’s compositions are timeless, uplifting, full of detail and subtleties, with lots of vamp-busting major-7th/9th chords and joyful melody lines. It’s also important to note that he arranged all his own tunes for Jackson and Quincy too, outlining the rhythm, vocal and keyboard parts.

Like many kids of my age, I was kind of obsessed with Rod’s ‘Thriller’ during the mid-’80s. It was a perfect musical storm. Jackson’s red-hot vocal performance, the killer groove, brilliant horn arrangements, silly but spooky horror-movie lyrics, intriguing sound effects and Vincent Price’s rap/monologue all left an indelible mark.

But there was much more to Rod Temperton’s career than that obvious highlight. He was born in Cleethorpes, Lincolnshire, beginning his public life playing keyboards and writing songs for Heatwave, writing every song on their 1977 debut album Too Hot To Handle including ‘Boogie Nights’ and classic ballads ‘All You Do Is Dial‘ and ‘Always & Forever’. This led to his work on Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall album for which he wrote the title track, ‘Rock With You’ and ‘Burn This Disco Out’.

Temperton started the 1980s contributing to George Benson’s Quincy-produced Give Me The Night, composing the title track, ‘Love X Love’, killer disco/jazz instrumental ‘Off Broadway‘ and the extraordinary ‘Star Of The Story’:

There were other classic Rod compositions and arrangements around this time for Patti Austin, The Brothers Johnson, Rufus, Herbie Hancock, Karen Carpenter and Bob James, as well as this classic Donna Summer floorfiller:

He contributed to Quincy’s fine 1981 solo album The Dude, supplying the title track, ‘Somethin’ Special’, ‘Turn On The Action’ and of course the stunning ‘Razzamatazz’:

Then came the epochal Thriller. Temperton was all over the record, composing and arranging ‘Baby Be Mine’, soul standard ‘The Lady In My Life’ and of course the title track. He famously wrote most of Vincent Price’s rap/monologue in a car whilst being rushed over to Ocean Way Studios to join Price’s vocal session. In fact, he was so prolific that he found time to write a third verse for the monologue, edited from the album version but available in outtake form here:

In the mid-’80s, Rod supplied three more classic compositions: Michael McDonald’s ‘Sweet Freedom’, McDonald’s duet with James Ingram ‘Yah Mo B There’ (co-composed by Ingram, McDonald and Quincy) and also the underrated ‘Spice Of Life’ by Manhattan Transfer featuring Stevie Wonder on harmonica:

Rod enjoyed somewhat of a songwriting/arranging/producing renaissance in the early ’90s, including some great work for Mica Paris’s Whisper A Prayer album and also Q’s Jook Joint. His contributions to music won’t be forgotten, and he was by all accounts a lovely fellow too.

Rodney Lynn Temperton, 9th October 1949 – October 2016