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We've just lost the most important man in music you've never heard of

How an unassuming man from Cleethorpes rewrote pop history

We've just lost the most important man in music you've never heard of
05 October 2016

I remember DJing a friend's 30th birthday party a few years ago. A whole array of people were there - friends, family, youngsters, oldies, from all over the place. As any DJ will tell you, despite the happy nature of the event, this is one of the toughest crowds to play to. How, exactly, do you please everyone, with all their many different tastes and preferences, and keep everyone on the dancefloor?

Thus far, I'd engaged pockets of them, but nothing had quite stuck. Then, a little girl, no more than five years of age, and her mother approached the DJ booth.

"She'd like to request a song" said mum. "Of course - anything she'd like" said I, clearly not about to crush the hopes and dreams of a youngster.

What would it be? Bob the Builder? Crazy Frog? The Timewarp? God, I hope it's not The Timewarp. If it is, I'll just have to play it through gritted teeth I guess.

"What would you like to hear?"

"Could you play Thriller please?"

Of course I bloody can my love. Of course I can. Give me a high five right now.

Five minutes and fifty eight seconds later: a full dancefloor.

Imagine writing a song that good. A song so good that, 30 years on, it can still become the favourite song of a little kid who has no idea who Michael Jackson was, or where it fits into a sequence of releases, or its historical context: they just know it's an absolutely incredible song.

Not only was it the title track of the biggest album of all time and the song which spawned the most memorable video of all time, it's also still inspiring people all this time later.

Then, imagine you'd written this as well.

What a guy. Must have been a big-time American hitmaker, right? A huge name who we've all heard of?

Not quite. The man responsible for both of these absolute bangers - and a whole lot more besides - was a man from Cleethorpes called Rod. Who just happened to be an outrageously talented songwriter.

Today brings the sad news that Rod Temperton has passed away at the age of 66. In a year which has seen a host of icons depart this world, it's highly likely that Temperton's departure from this mortal coil may not quite garner the attention it deserves, but he'd probably like it that way - after all, he was nicknamed The Invisible Man due to his low profile.

A self-taught musician from an early age, upon leaving school, Rod went to work in the office of The Ross Foods frozen food company in Grimsby. He soon became a full-time musician, playing keyboards in a variety of bands before getting his big break, joining the disco band Heatwave, for whom he wrote Boogie Nights - still a party staple around the world today.

He left the band in 1978 to concentrate on his songwriting and, the following year, was recruited by Quincy Jones to write songs for a young Michael Jackson's debut album, Off The Wall.

The rest, as they say, was history, with Temperton writing Rock With You, the title track Off The Wall and album closer Burn This Disco Out for the hugely-successful record.

Naturally, the winning formula was repeated on 1982 follow-up Thriller, with Temperton contributing Baby Be MineThe Lady In My Life and - of course - that title track.

He would go on to write songs for the likes of Donna Summer, Aretha Frankin, Herbie Hancock, Anita Baker, George Benson, Rufus, while his Jackson compositions were routinely sampled by other artists, including the likes of LL Cool J.

Yet, despite all the fame and acclaim that could have been his, he chose to shun the spotlight, rarely giving interviews. When he was finally persuaded to appear on a 2006 Radio 2 documentary, it revealed that he still kept in touch with his school music teacher, who found him as "unassuming" as ever, and said that when he was home, "I watch telly, catch up on the news, and maybe the phone will ring."

So how exactly did he write Thriller?

He revealed that, "Originally, when I did my Thriller demo, I called it Starlight. Quincy said to me, 'You managed to come up with a title for the last album, see what you can do for this album.' I said, 'Oh great,' so I went back to the hotel, wrote two or three hundred titles, and came up with the title 'Midnight Man'. The next morning, I woke up, and I just said this word... Something in my head just said, this is the title. You could visualise it on the top of the Billboard charts. You could see the merchandising for this one word, how it jumped off the page as 'Thriller'.

And that iconic end section?

"When I wrote Thriller I'd always envisioned this talking section at the end and didn't really know what we were going to do with it. But one thing I'd thought about was to have somebody, a famous voice, in the horror genre, to do this vocal. Quincy's [then] wife [Peggy Lipton] knew Vincent Price so Quincy said to me, how about if we got Vincent Price? And I said, 'Wow, that'd be amazing if we could get him...'"

Get him they did. And a truly incredible piece of music was complete.

Rod Temperton: the quiet man who left us with some unforgettable sounds. Rest in peace.