'Thriller' Songwriter Rod Temperton Dies At 66

Oct 5, 2016
Originally published on October 6, 2016 9:52 am

Rod Temperton has been called pop music's "Invisible Man" because few knew his name. But his songs were megahits in the 1970s and 80s. Along with big hair, wide lapels and bell bottoms, his music helped define the disco era. Temperton died of cancer last week in London, according to a statement from his publisher. He was 66.

Temperton wrote such hits as "Thriller," "Rock with You," and "Boogie Nights." But even disco had songs that were layered with great harmonies and robust horn parts. Temperton's ability to craft a song with funk and soul earned him comparisons to Stevie Wonder.

Temperton grew up on the northeast coast of England. He said he went to sleep listening to Radio Luxembourg as child. After school he worked at a frozen fish factory. He taught himself how to play drums and keyboards. His professional career was launched when he answered an ad for a keyboard player in Melody Maker magazine. He not only got the job, but the songs he wrote for the band Heatwave were huge hits. For a time during the 1970s, you couldn't turn on the radio without hearing "Boogie Nights," "Groove Line," or "Always and Forever."

One of those listening was legendary producer Quincy Jones. At the time, Jones was orchestrating Michael Jackson's solo career. He first enlisted Temperton to write songs for Jackon's 1979 album, Off The Wall. Temperton once said he was "shocked" to get the call from Jones, a musician and bandleader he revered. Temperton delivered three songs. Jones put all of them on Jackson's album: "Off The Wall," "Burn This Disco Out" and "Rock With You," which went to Number 1.

His song "Thriller" was originally called "Starlight." In an interview for Thriller Remastered, Temperton said he always envisioned someone talking at the end of the song. Jones' wife, actress Peggy Lipton, suggested her friend, legendary horror star Vincent Price. Needless to say Temperton was, well, thrilled.

The original plan was for Price to do whatever lines he wanted in the style of his movies. But the night before the recording session, Temperton said Jones was worried that might not work and suggested Temperton write something for Price to say. Temperton agreed even though he had little time. He said he "frantically started to write some stuff." But because he'd already written the lyrics to Thriller and said he felt the theme of the song was "so strong," the verses for Price came easily. It was, he said, "Just one of those lucky times it flowed out of me."

Temperton was called "modest" and "unassuming." He was also known as someone who was constantly working. His other credits include songs for George Benson, Donna Summer and Anita Baker, to name a few.

Temperton rarely gave interviews. His funeral was private. According to his publisher, "His family is devastated and request total privacy at this, the saddest of sad times."

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Rod Temperton has died from cancer at the age of 66. He was called pop music's Invisible Man. His songs, on the other hand, were mega-hits in the 1970s and '80s, so big you probably know them even if you weren't on the dance floor back then. NPR's Elizabeth Blair has this remembrance.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Donna Summer, George Benson, Michael Jackson - so many artists recorded songs by Rod Temperton.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOOGIE NIGHTS")

HEATWAVE: (Singing) Boogie nights. Ain't no doubt. We are here to party.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCK WITH YOU")

MICHAEL JACKSON: (Singing) I want to rock with you all night.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE IS IN CONTROL")

DONNA SUMMER: (Singing) I've got my finger on the trigger. Love is in control.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIVE ME TONIGHT")

GEORGE BENSON: (Singing) Just give me the night - all right - tonight.

BLAIR: The music defined the disco era, along with big hair, wide lapels and bell bottoms. Rod Temperton was English, and he hooked up with an American R&B band living in Germany when he answered an ad for a keyboard player. The songs he wrote for Heatwave were considered more sophisticated than what was on the radio at the time and funkier.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE GROOVE LINE")

HEATWAVE: (Singing) 'Cause rain, shine don't mind. We're riding on the groove line tonight.

BLAIR: Songs like "Groove Line" got the attention of Quincy Jones, who was working with Michael Jackson. Temperton once said he was shocked to get a call from the producer and bandleader. Jones asked him for a few songs. All three ended up on the classic album "Off The Wall." Then a couple of years later, Temperton wrote this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THRILLER")

JACKSON: (Singing) 'Cause this is thriller - thriller night. And no one's going to save you from the beast about to strike. You know it's thriller.

BLAIR: The accolades and sales were off the charts. In 2001, on a remastered recording of "Thriller," Temperton talked about how he'd always envisioned some talking at the end of that song. The plan was for horror legend Vincent Price to improvise. But the night before the recording, Temperton and told him to write something.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RON TEMPERTON: I got a piece of paper and frantically started to write some stuff. And just one of those lucky times - it just flowed out of me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THRILLER")

VINCENT PRICE: The foulest stench is in the air - the funk of 40,000 years. And grizzly ghouls from every tomb are closing in to seal your doom.

BLAIR: Rod Temperton was known for his modesty and for being something of a recluse. His funeral was private. Tributes are all over social media. As Nile Rodgers of Chic put it, your genius gave us a funkier world. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.