The Songwriters – Rod Temperton

Songwriters could be  considered among the back-room boys of the hit single. They don’t have to have an image, they don’t have to be cool, they just need to have the gift of plucking words and tunes out of the air, or putting on paper and recording musical ideas that come into their brain from who knows where. Which is a long-winded way of saying Rod Temperton was an unlikely-looking figure in the glamorous world of pop music.

Temperton’s songs, though, were as cool and funky as a summer’s day in a sharp suit.

The first fruits of Temperton’s talent came with Heatwave, the UK-based multinational funk band that spread quality pop over the 70s and early 80s, and they announced themselves with a solid gold Temperton composition, Boogie Nights, which should be put in one of those time capsules for future generations or aliens to discover. From the second it bursts out of the swirly introduction it sums up the world of disco with an irresistible dance groove and the vocals singing the title in imitation of the guitarist’s riff. It’s not just hip, it’s happy, and it set the mood for much of the writer’s work, which brims with the enjoyment of life.

Although Temperton didn’t write  all of Heatwave’s material, he did contribute two more of their best, in the tear-inducing love song Always and Forever and a sort of Boogie Nights mark II: The Groove Line.

The sheer quality caught the attention of producer Quincy Jones, and soon enough Temperton was writing songs for Michael Jackson. And not just album tracks, but some of the wayward entertainer’s biggest hits, like Rock With You, Off The Wall and Thriller. Again, the sheer exuberance of the songs provides the energy, with singer and producer just needing to do their bit.

The Jackson connection brought the name of Rod Temperton well and truly into the limelight, and commissions rolled in: Stomp for The Brothers Johnson, Give Me The Night and Love x Love for George Benson, Baby Come To Me for Patti Austin and James Ingram and Love Is In Control for Donna Summer.

James Ingram and Michael McDonald had a big hit with Yah Mo Be There, in which Temperton had a hand along with Ingram, McDonald and Quincy Jones.

Songwriting royalty, then: that’s Rod Temperton, who died in 2016 after what seems like a whirlwind 40 years as a conduit of beautiful, life-affirming songs.

 

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The Songwriters – Berry Gordy and (separately) Mickey Stevenson

 

And so back to Motown, that cornucopian family of singers, musicians and writers. Few labels have had such a volume of great acts on the books at the same time, and that meant they needed not just a steady stream of material but a fast-flowing river, and fortunately the writers were there just like the singers, many being performers themselves.

Berry Gordy is world famous as the founder of Motown, but why did he want to start a record company anyway? Was he just a businessman?

The answer is he was a songwriter, so while his business skills were vitally important in the company’s success, he knew  a good singer and a great songwriter when he heard them, because he had aspirations in that direction himself.

Not just aspirations, in fact, but hits in the late 50s and early 60s. Gordy often wrote with his sister Gwen and her then-boyfriend Tyran Carlo (real name Roquel Davis), a jingles writer, beginning with the catchy if uncool Reet Petite for Jackie Wilson. He followed that with Lonely Teardrops, also for Wilson, and You Got What It Takes for early Motowneer Marv Johnson, who somehow missed the boat of megastardom. Here is a cover of Lonely Teardrops by Michael McDonald from the 1995 Nicolas Cage film Leaving Las Vegas.

Then there was  a raucous piece of tosh entitled Money, originally recorded by Barrett Strong, which appealed to the Beatles and has spawned a host of cover versions including a truly nauseating take in 1979 by The Flying Lizards, complete with snobby English-accented vocals by a girl who sounded as though she meant it.

Another one adopted by the British beat groups was Do You Love Me, which the Dave Clark Five, The Hollies and Brian Poole & The Tremeloes all recorded. David Hasselhoff sang it on Baywatch and Bruce Springsteen used to use it as a late-set stormer. So it may not bewidely regarded as one of the great Motown songs, but it certainly had something.

After Gordy had assembled his startling roster of singers and writers, he took a back seat on thatside of things until the late 60s when The Jackson Five appeared. Gordy’s name appears on the credits for I Want You Back, ABC and, as part of The Corporation (with Freddie Perren, Deke Richards and Fonce Mizell), The Love You Save and I’ll Be There.

Not a bad track record for someone who had  serious responsibilities when not messing around with tunes.

And Mickey Stevenson

Another man with a proper job who found the time to write a few Motown hits was William “Mickey” Stevenson, Motown’s first A&R man. That means his principal occupation was “artistes and repertoire”: finding and looking after stars in both the performing and writing fields.

While Holland Dozier Holland and the others “just” had to write hits all day long, Stevenson had to squeeze that in as and when he could, and he succeeded to the extent of co-writing Dancing in the Street (many versions including Martha and the Vandellas), It Takes Two (for Marvin Gaye and Stevenson’s girlfriend Kim Weston) and What Becomes of the Brokenhearted (David Ruffin).

 

 

 

 

The Songwriters – Leiber and Stoller

So far in this series we’ve seen some pretty impressive catalogues in terms of numbers, but Leiber and Stoller make everyone else look like slackers. To mention every hit they have written would amount to a list, rather than an article, so you will find some notable ones missing and the ones I mention might be included because I like them, not because they’re more important.

They got their big break through Elvis Presley with Hound Dog, followed by Jailhouse Rock, Treat Me Nice, King Creole, Trouble and more.

For other people there was Poison Ivy (The Paramounts, including future Procol Harum members), Yakety Yak, Kansas City, Along Came Jones, Love Potion No. 9 and Charlie Brown – and that was all before the end of the 1950s. At that point many of us might have  pushed off to the Bahamas to live off the royalties for the rest of our lives, but whatever was driving Leiber and Stoller just kept them turning up at the coalface every day. And so to the 60s and Stand By Me (Ben E. King and everyone from Cassius Clay in 1964 to John Lennon in 1975). On Broadway by The Drifters, Some Other Guy (Beatles album track) and I Who Have Nothing (Ben E. King again, and in the UK Shirley Bassey).

The sheer coverability of these songs was illustrated to me in 2013 in a bar on the Caribbean island of Tobago, when a 20-something local guy did a karaoke reggae version of I Who Have Nothing. We were the only two singers – the only two customers – and I was trying to choose material that didn’t age me too much, but he blithely came up with that wizened old thing.

In 1968 a Leiber and Stoller song called Is That All There Is was a US hit for Leslie Uggams, a one-hit wonder whose  existence has eluded me until now. The song was also recorded by singing sex bomb Peggy Lee and crooner Tony Bennett, and it is interesting lyrically, being the bored, seen-it-all reminiscences of someone too cool for school. In the light of that, it’s hard to understand what Bennett saw in it, but there was a much more satisfying take on it in 1980 by a sneering American rich kid called Cristina, who added a masochistic verse about being beaten up by a man. Leiber and Stoller were not amused, sued her and had her version banned for several years. I like it.

On a completely different note there is Pearl’s a Singer, a 1977 hit for Elkie Brooks (Dino and Sembello in the US) and then the divine I Keep Forgetting, sung by the exceedingly earnest-sounding Michael McDonald.

The tune cropped up again in 1994 when rappers Warren G and Nate Dogg used it to tell a sordid tale of gangs and sex. For those who maintain that in rap the c is silent, it’s melodic refrains such as this that make the motherf***ing things bearable, and indeed Regulate is quite nice as long as you don’t listen too closely.

Now, what Leiber and Stoller gems have we missed? They wrote Spanish Harlem, a fabulous tune that makes the setting sound more romantic than it perhaps is, and Jackson, the stomping, riotously funny argument between a frustrated man and his cynically realistic wife. Johnny Cash and June Carter did it, but in my opinion Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood did it better.

And Leiber had a hand in Past Present and Future, a heartbreakingly wistful song based on Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. The singer seems to be carrying some terrible secret, possibly more than the emotional distress of a broken relationship and even having been sexually assaulted. It’s hardly conventional pop  material, and the lyrics don’t make it clear, but it’s haunting and thought-provoking.

The song was originally recorded by the Shangri-Las and there was a version in the late 80s but I’m damned if I can find it. It was  just about note-for-note like the original, but sung less theatrically, I seem to recall. Not Agnetha Faltskog of Abba – that was 2004. If you happen to know it, please let me know. In the meantime, here’s the Shangri-las.