Rod Temperton, best known for composing Michael Jackson’s hit songs “Thriller” and “Rock With You,” has died at age 66 after a brief cancer battle. That led us back further, to the foot-tapping joys of his ’70s-era work with Heatwave.
If you attended any discos or high school dances during the time that Jimmy Carter reigned supreme, there’s a 100 percent chance you’ve shaken your booty to Johnnie Wilder Jr.’s vocals. Remember “Boogie Nights”? … “Groove Line?” … “Too Hot To Handle”? … “Always And Forever”?
Johnnie and his brother Keith assembled Heatwave in Europe after an Army stint in Germany. The band consisted of musicians from Spain, Czechoslovakia and the UK. Temperton, the keyboardist bloke of the band, served as a valuable chief songwriter, provided crack musicians with killer material and the band took off shortly after “Boogie Nights” was rolled out.
Other hits soon followed and the groove line rolled until tragedy hit the band at a Badfinger-ian scale: 1) the disco backlash that started at the end of the me-decade. 2) The steady loss of band members. Most importantly, Rod Temperton, who began a celebrated songwriting career that also include songs for Rufus, the Brothers Johnson and Quincy Jones – the latter of whom led him to Michael Jackson. And 3) Johnnie Wilder Jr. was involved in a horrific car wreck that left him quadriplegic.
Johnnie and Keith soldiered on, although Johnnie was limited to the studio, until the shifting trends in music forced them to disband by the mid-’80s. Johnnie had then gotten involved with a cappella Christian music, as a singer, producer and distributor, before his untimely passing.
Now, I was never a big disco fan; but it’s possible to come to appreciate some songs that get branded in your brain at a young age. Heatwave was somehow different from the other bands that were labeled “disco” at that time. As in Earth Wind and Fire good, if only for a couple of years.
Ron Temperton wrote some killer tunes for the band; they never had any more purpose than to get you on the floor and dance your ass off, but they did the job supremely well. And the band had above-average chops and snuck in all their various influences in the overall sound: Note, for instance, how “Boogie Nights” is bookended by a jazz shuffle. And “Always And Forever” is simply the best slow dance song ever written.