Women in Music 2016
Rod Temperton's Underrated Legacy: Writing the Two Most Famous Un-Famous Songs Ever
Seven of the nine tracks on Michael Jackson's 'Thriller' went top 10. In addition to the title track, Temperton wrote the other two.
Songwriter Rod Temperton, who passed away at age 66 in London last week after a "brief aggressive battle with cancer," was responsible for composing some of the most-beloved and best-recognized songs of the '70s and '80s. As the keyboardist and principal writer for disco-era funk band Heatwave, he penned Billboard Hot 100 top 10 hits "Boogie Nights" and "The Groove Line" and prom staple "Always and Forever," and went on to churn out pop smashes for peers like George Benson ("Give Me the Night"), The Brothers Johnson ("Stomp") and Donna Summer ("Love Is in Control (Finger on the Trigger)").
Today, Temperton is probably best remembered for his association with a single collaborator — Michael Jackson, arguably the biggest pop star ever, and one for whom Temperton wrote a pair of iconic, everlasting hits: the sublime disco chart-topper "Rock With You," and the Halloween and MTV perennial "Thriller." However, within the MJ catalog, Temperton also holds a somewhat lower-resumé, if undeniable singular distinction: He wrote the two songs on Thriller — the best-selling album of all time — that nobody remembers.
Released in November 1982 to quickly unprecedented sales (eventually going on to be certified 32x Platinum in February 2016, the highest certification handed out to an LP in U.S. history), Michael Jackson's Thriller saw seven of its nine tracks -- "The Girl Is Mine," "Billie Jean," "Beat It," "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'," "Human Nature," "P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)" and the Temperton-scribed title cut -- hit the Hot 100 top 10. All seven were staples of their era, and with the possible exception of the Paul McCartney-assisted "The Girl Is Mine," all continue to reverberate today; repeatedly covered, sampled and referenced by younger generations of stars who grew up with those songs as fixtures of their pop-cultural canon.
But two songs from the album were never pulled as singles: "Baby Be Mine" and "The Lady in My Life," both also penned by Temperton. For their relative anonymity in comparison to some of the most famous songs of their era, the pair of songs are best-remembered today as the answer to a trivia question, or worse yet, a punch line, pointed to by some as the ballast keeping Thriller from reaching the heavens.
You know what, though? The two songs earn every bit of the real estate they command on the biggest nine-track album in history. Despite what Chris Rock may think, Thriller two-hole batter "Baby Me Mine" is a lithe, infectious piece of burbling pop-funk, its spare lyricism allowing Michael the room for one of his best vocal showcases on the album, stretching lines like "Ev'ry mo-ment takes me to paraaaadiiiiiise" to near-hymnal rapture.
And "The Lady in My Life" — substantial enough a work to be selected as the LP's closer — is one of Michael's finest quiet-storm slow burns, an ode of romantic commitment that also gives subconscious closure to "She's Out of My Life," the heart-rending breakup ballad from previous album Off the Wall. "Lady" has also proven nearly as enduring as the album's singles, providing the template for sister Janet's Control closer "Funny How Time Flies (When You're Having Fun)," as well as lending the soulful backbone to LL Cool J and Boyz II Men's '90s crossover smash "Hey Lover."
Of course, it's a tribute to the otherworldly talents of Jackson and producer Quincy Jones that even the non-singles they were concocting in the early '80s could've been world-beating chartbusters if the pair hadn't provided such stiff competition for themselves. But it's also a testament to Temperton, one of the most proficient songwriters of his time, that he was able to keep the quality of his lesser-heard contributions — as in, only by the dozens of millions who actually bought Thriller — so high that they don't dim the album, even when surrounded by some of the brightest-shining pop songs the world had ever seen.