He is from Cleethorpes and wrote the title track for the biggest-selling solo album of all time. So why has no-one heard of Rod Temperton? Michael Hickling reports
Rod Temperton wrote Thriller for Michael Jackson which has so far sold 40m copies, outstripping every other solo album.
Rod also wrote and arranged some of the biggest songs in the recent history of popular music – Give Me the Night, Boogie Nights, Always and Forever and Off the Wall. Not bad for a self-taught musician who used to work in a fish factory in Grimsby.
Apart from Michael Jackson, Rod has spent a lifetime working with other legends of the business like Quincy Jones, Aretha Franklin, Donna Summer, George Benson and Herbie Hancock. Today all of these stars chorus an identical view – that Rod Temperton is one of the song-writing geniuses of all time. Indeed, some go so far as to say that his influence is so pervasive that it is interwoven with our lives and is like "the air we breathe".
Even allowing for the usual hyperbole of the music industry, these are extraordinary claims. Especially in the light of the fact that Rod's name rings no bells with the general public. This week, a radio documentary fronted by Paul Gambaccini aims to put the record straight and give Rod Temperton his due. But it took the programme makers four years to persuade him to go ahead. "It's the only time that he has done a programme and been interviewed," says Neil Cowling, the producer for Fresh Air Productions who were commissioned by Radio 2 to do the programme.
"All the people he has worked with, like Quincy Jones, were so willing to talk, and when Rod heard that all his mates would be in this tribute he thought he might as well take part."
One problem was finding him. His home is in Los Angeles but he also has properties in the south of France, Switzerland, and Kent and owns an island off Fiji. And they are just the ones they know about. Rod was born in Cleethorpes in 1947, but even years of living in far-flung places have not diluted his regional accent and the cadences which make him sound uncannily like the former Tory leader William Hague.
Is this son of Cleethorpes honoured in the town of his birth? According to Neil Cowling, he must be one of the richest men to come out of the town. When we put the question to Mike Walton in the press office of North East Lincolnshire Council, he scratched his head. "I think I have heard of the man but only outside a work context. There's certainly no kind of civic acknowledgement of him. I'll do some digging and if I find any more I'll let you know." The digging failed to unearth any more locally about a man who, 30 years after it all began, remains an unknown quantity.
A trawl of picture libraries and the internet turned up just one ancient fuzzy image of him. When we approached Coalition, the agents representing Rod in London, for a photograph, they asked, "Who? Can you spell that? I'm not sure we do him."
Where did his music talent spring from? "My father wasn't one to read bedtime stories, and he would put a transistor radio on the pillow in the crib," says Rod. "I would go to sleep listening to Radio Luxembourg. I think that had something to do with it."
He taught himself to play the drums by skiving off from school when his dad was at work, playing along to the Test Card on the telly. It obviously worked because Ted Gledhill, a former music teacher of Rod's at the De Aston school in Market Rasen, recalls how his pupil formed a group, which did rather well, even though in the early Sixties pop was frowned upon at school. Rod has kept in touch and invited Ted to his home in Switzerland. "He was very unassuming at school and he still is," says Ted.
After school Rod went to work for Ross Foods in Grimsby and played with a band doing gigs in South Yorkshire. He moved on from frozen fish after answering an advert for a keyboard player (he had switched from drumming) in Melody Maker. The recruiting band, based in Hamburg , was called Heatwave and working with them soon showed up the limitations of Rod's self-taught technique. "I got so bored doing scales and thought, 'you can forget this as a musician player'. But I did have a strong leaning towards writing melody."
So strong in fact that for the band's first album in 1976 he wrote Boogie Nights. If there is one single number which sums up that era, this is probably it. On the other side of the Atlantic, Quincy Jones liked what he was hearing, and when the two met to talk about working together, they hit it off straight away.
"I'm from Cleethorpes and he's from Seattle – where's the meeting of minds there?" says Rod. "But as soon as we met it was like I'd known him all my life. I love him to death."
The two collaborated with Michael Jackson to create his first solo album in four years, Off the Wall, in 1979. How the follow-up, Thriller, came together in 1982 indicates Rod's relish for the challenge of tight deadlines. He had sketched out 35 to 40 ideas, boiled those down to five tunes and then set off with Quincy Jones for Michael Jackson's house to make a demo and put a voice on it. Three of Rod's pieces were eventually selected for recording but what was to be the title track still needed more work.
Rod went home and wrote down 200 to 300 titles with the favourite being Midnight Men and then went to bed. "In the morning I woke up and said this word 'thriller'. I thought 'this is the title'. I could visualise it. I could see the merchandising." The idea was for Vincent Price to perform a sort of Edgar Allen Poe rap in the vein of a Hammer horror movie at the end of the album.
The actor and the studio were booked but when the day for recording arrived, there were still no words for Price to read. "I had one verse done," says Rod.
"Then I started writing more in the back of the taxi to the studio. When we got there I saw a limousine and out stepped Vincent Price, so I told my driver 'go round the back'. I gave the words to the secretary to photocopy. Vincent Price sat down with it and got it in two takes. Amazing."
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Rod, in a business famous for bloated egos, is how little success has changed him professionally. One producer, who has been working with him for 30 years says, "He's the same as he was before he was successful, a really, really nice guy."
Maybe the reason why he has kept his feet on the ground is because he has never entirely stopped working, even though there's no longer any need to earn a crust.
How does Rod explain the gift that made him a hit machine? "You have to please yourself first. Once you feel the hairs stand up on the back of your hand – you can go for the world. Writing a song is the biggest moment of all. Yesterday it didn't exist. Today it
He is currently working with an up-and-coming English singer-songwriter called Emily Friendship. What does he do when a project is finished? "I watch telly, catch up on the news. Maybe the phone will ring."