The Backstory: How an unused Heatwave song became Michael Jackson's "Rock With You"

(March 17, 2021) If you grew up in the 70s and 80s as a lover of soul music, Rod Temperton has a special place in your heart. As the keyboardist and songwriter for the uber-popular band, Heatwave, Temperton had firmly secured his place in music history. But for today’s The Backstory, we tell about how a song he intended for his band languished for years until being selected as a key part of one of the most important albums in popular music history.

(March 17, 2021) If you grew up in the 70s and 80s as a lover of soul music, Rod Temperton has a special place in your heart. As the keyboardist and songwriter for the uber-popular band, Heatwave, Temperton had firmly secured his place in music history. But for today’s The Backstory, we tell about how a song he intended for his band languished for years until being selected as a key part of one of the most important albums in popular music history.

Temperton was born in the small northern town of Cleethorpes in England and began his working life at a fish processor. But he was drawn to music, his first love. After moving to Wurms, Germany, he answered an ad in music paper Melody Maker from a band looking for a keyboard player. That band became the internationally popular band Heatwave, and Rod began writing tunes for the group's first album, which was eventually released in 1976. Called Too Hot To Handle, it included the huge international hits, "Boogie Nights" and "Always and Forever." They followed two years later with another hit album, Central Heating, and the charttopper, "The Groove Line."

Superproducer Quincy Jones had been an admirer of Heatwave and briefly talked about managing the band, as he did the Brothers Johnson. Ultimately, he was too busy to take on Heatwave, but he saw a gem of a songwriter in Temperton. So Q approached Temperton to submit a song for Michael Jackson’s first “adult” LP, which Jones was about to produce. However, Quincy was recording the album in L.A., while Rod was in the middle of recording Heatwave’s third album, Hot Property, day and night in New York. But you don’t turn down Quincy Jones, and so Temperton agreed to fly out to L.A. on the weekend and would work on three songs to submit, hoping that Q would choose one for the album.

Temperton was known to always have dozens (if not hundreds) of unfinished songs in his book. He had been fiddling with one song in particular for awhile, that he had originally hoped would appear on Heatwave’s Central Heating album. But it was a bit underdeveloped, and Heatwave passed on it.

The song had no lyrics, just a melody, when Rod presented it to Quincy Jones. Here is what that demo sounded like:

Rod presented this song along with two others, and was shocked when Quincy Jones said he wanted to use all three, which would ultimately be called "Off the Wall" (the title cut for the album), "Burn this Disco Out," and the song that Heatwave turned down, "Rock with You." 

Temperton went back to New York to work on the Heatwave album, and after hours, to finish writing lyrics and arrangements for the three Michael Jackson songs. The following weekend he was back in L.A. and was making history, recording a trio of now classic tracks from what would become one of the greatest pop albums of all time. And it began more than a decade of collaboration between Jones and Temperton that resulted in classic song after classic song for Jackson, Rufus, The Brothers Johnson, George Benson and many more.

Oh, and that song that didn’t make the cut for Heatwave? Well, “Rock With You” became a #1 smash that helped catapult the Off The Wall album to 10x platinum, and helped make Michael Jackson the biggest star in the world.

Here is that memorable song, sounding as good now as it did when it was released in 1979. And that’s The Backstory.

By Chris Rizik

 

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