Rod Temperton Dies: “Thriller” & Oscar-Nominated ‘The Color Purple’ Songwriter Was 66

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Rod Temperton, pop music’s “invisible man” behind a string of influential and highly successful songs in the 1970s and 80s, including Michael Jackson’s hit “Thriller”, and who was nominated for two Academy Awards in 1986 for his work alongside Quincy Jones on The Color Purple soundtrack and score, has died following a battle with cancer. He was 66.

Temperton’s impact in the sound and texture of popular music during his peak years was enormous, matched only by artists like Giorgio Moroder. Born in Cleethorpes, England, Temperton’s music career took off in 1974 when he became a founding member of the disco-funk band Heatwave after answering an ad in Melody Maker magazine placed by the nascent group’s American lead singer Johnnie Wilder.

Temperton quickly emerged as the band’s lead composer, writing all songs for their 1976 debut album including the hits “Boogie Nights” and “Always and Forever”, and all but two tracks on their second album, once again securing a major hit with his song “The Groove Line”. He left the group at this point to focus on songwriting, and in 1979 caught the attention of Quincy Jones, then producing Michael Jackson’s landmark solo album “Off The Wall”.


Jones recruited Temperton to write three songs for the record, including the title track and the massive hit “Rock With You”. Two years later, he was asked to do the same for Jackson’s solo follow-up album “Thriller”, writing three tracks including the title song. Quickly becoming the best-selling album of all time, “Thriller” spawned a string of hits and influential music videos, most notably for the title track, a 13-minute musical short film inspired in particular by the horror films of John Landis and George Romero. Temperton would also work with Jackson on “Someone in the Dark,” a song from the audiobook and soundtrack to E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.

Temperton maintained a long working relationship with Quincy Jones, co-writing songs on several Jones albums. In 1985, Jones and Temperton teamed up with Lionel Ritchie for the original song “Miss Celie’s Blues (Sister)” on the soundtrack to¬†The Color Purple, with Temperton also receiving credit for contributions to the film’s original score. Jones, Temperton, and Ritchie received an Oscar nomination for “Miss Celie’s Blues (Sister)” but ultimately lost, ironically, to Ritchie’s “Say You, Say Me” from the White Nights soundtrack.

Temperton also composed five songs for the soundtrack to the 1986 Billy Crystal/Gregory Hines buddy cop film Running Scared, including the song “Sweet Freedom”, which became the last Billboard Top 100 hit for Michael Mcdonald. His other songwriting credits include songs for The Brothers Johnson, Donna Summer, George Benson, Herbie Hancock, James Ingram, and more.

As word of his passing spread, tributes poured out from those who knew him, used his music in their works, or were influenced by him.

“Rod Temperton, British Composer and Musician, died last week at the age of 66 in London following a brief aggressive battle with cancer. His funeral was private. 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,’ ‘Give Me The Night,’ ‘Sweet Freedom,’ ‘Always & Forever’ and ‘Boogie Nights’ to name just a few,” said Jon Platt, Chairman & CEO of Temperton’s music publisher Warner/Chappell in a statement. “His family is devastated and request total privacy at this, the saddest of sad times.””

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