Rod Temperton, Keyboardist for Heatwave, “Thriller” Songwriter

“Always and Forever”–Watch on YouTube

Who’d of thunk that a lad from Lincolnshire would grow up to be a disco/funk/soul/R&B hitmaker, catch the attention of Quincy Jones and end up writing the title track for the best-selling album of all time?

But that was Rod Temperton (October 9, 1949-September/October 2016). A keyboardist for the disco and funk band Heatwave, Temperton was tapped by Quincy Jones to contribute song ideas for Michael Jackson’s debut solo LP for Epic. The resulting “Rock With You” hit No. 1, and Jones called on Temperton for Jackson’s next album, Thriller. Temperton not only wrote the title song, but he also thought up the Vincent Price narration.

In addition to Jackson, Temperton penned songs for George Benson, Donna Summer, The Brothers Johnson and Manhattan Transfer. He received an Oscar nomination for his contributions to the soundtrack of The Color Purple. 

“Boogie Nights” on Spotify

Ben Cauley, Original Trumpet Player of The Bar-Kays

“Soul Finger” by The Bar-Kays

Ben Cauley (October 3, 1947-September 21, 2015) was a Memphis-born trumpet player who formed The Bar-Kays with fellow students from Booker T. Washington High School. The group had its own hit with “Soul Finger”–a song in which the trumpet takes center stage. The Bar-Kays became a favorite backing band for Stax recording artists Otis Redding, Albert King, Rufus Thomas, Isaac Hayes and others.

With Otis Redding on “Upbeat”

Cauley was the sole survivor of a 1967 plane crash in Madison, WI, which resulted in the death of Redding and four other members of The Bar-Kays. Cauley reformed The Bar-Kays with James Alexander (who had made other travel arrangements on the day of the crash) but left the band in 1971.

Singing “Sweet Soul Music” at Neil’s Bar in Memphis

I’ve been to the Stax Museum in Memphis and it is worth the visit–every bit as interesting (if not more so) than Sun Studios across town. While the facade of the building is a re-creation of the original Stax studio, it remains in the same spot, same neighborhood, down the street and around the corner from organist Booker T.’s house. So much music that remains fixed in our memories came from this humble spot.

Cauley and The Bar-Kays were inducted into the Memphis Music Hall of Fame in 2013.

Louis Johnson, Bassist of The Brothers Johnson

The Brothers Johnson Strawberry Letter 23

Every once in awhile my friend Jim will  single out a song for review via a YouTube link,  a copy of a CD, or when you’re a captive audience in his car. It’s a pretty random assortment–“In My Room” by The Beach Boys one time; “Bitter Sweet Symphony” by The Verve, the next.

One evening, as I rode shotgun on our way to a birthday celebration, he tested my music knowledge with a song I couldn’t name. Another friend, Brian, piped up from the backseat with the answer: “Strawberry Letter 23,” a Shuggie Otis song recorded by The Brothers Johnson. Brian and Jim are older than me–5 and 8 months respectively–so they’re entitled to have musical memories that we don’t share. What’s more, they both grew up in Minnesota, while I grew up in West Virginia, and their knowledge may reflect geographic differences in radio DJ taste.

The only flaw in those theories is the song came out in 1977, the year I moved to Minnesota.  So I guess I can’t use my “youth” or origins as excuses.

Anyway, this car-ride quiz sent me on a mission to discover the music of The Brothers Johnson and Shuggie Otis, both of whom I’ve come to love.

In the summer of ’77, The Brothers Johnson shot to #1 on the R&B charts and #5 on the Billboard charts with their cover of Otis’s single.

Louis Johnson (April 13, 1955-May 21, 2015) was a bassist, known as “Thunder Thumbs.” He and his brother George fronted an LA-based R&B/funk band, which had its heyday in the 1970s and 1980s. They backed up Bobby Womack, The Supremes, Billy Preston, and others, and were taken under the wing of Quincy Jones, who produced their debut album Look Out for #1 and its followup, Right On Time.

The group split up in the 1980s to pursue independent projects. Louis played bass on Michael Jackson’s Thriller and for a host of other artists, including Earl Klugh and George Benson. He released a gospel album with his band Passage and later, Evolution, an album under his own name.

Passage I See The Light

He is known for his slap-bass style, which he taught through a series of instructional videos.

Louis Johnson bass lesson intro

The Brothers Johnson I’ll Be Good To You

Errol Brown, Singer and Hitmaker for Hot Chocolate

Talent rarely flourishes in a vacuum; it needs to be nourished by great mentors and sponsors. Without the Brian Epsteins, John Hammonds and Barry Gordys of the world, we probably would have never heard from some of our most beloved artists.

For Errol Brown (November 12, 1943-May 6, 2015) and Hot Chocolate, that role was played by two British music legends, John Lennon and producer Mickie Most.

Lennon became involved when Hot Chocolate submitted its reggae version of “Give Peace A Chance” to Apple Records. They’d recorded it with new lyrics of their own and needed permission to release the song. Assuming their version would go straight to the trash bin, they didn’t hold out a lot of hope. But a week after receiving it, Apple called to say Lennon had heard the recording, loved it and wanted to sign the band right away! The year was 1969 and The Beatles were on the brink of breaking up, so, unfortunately, the relationship didn’t last.

Mickie Most picked up the band, shortened its name from “The Hot Chocolate Band” to “Hot Chocolate” and proceeded to produce, record and release a string of hits that would last through the 1970s into the 1980s. Hot Chocolate was one of only three acts to make the charts in every single year of the 1970s. (The other two were Elvis Presley and Diana Ross.)

In an interview with Blues and Soul magazine, Brown said of Most: “…you had to have a very strong stomach to work for him…all your ego had to go out the window! But I had SO much respect for him. He’d sold millions of records, he had great ears, and I never found anyone else like him ever again.”

Hot Chocolate’s biggest hit, “You Sexy Thing,” was originally banished to the B-Side by Most. Knowing it wasn’t going to get top billing, Brown played it loose in the studio, singing it an octave higher than his normal range. A DJ in America loved it an urged the label to re-release with “You Sexy Thing” as the A-side. Brown re-recorded it in his usual vocal range, but DJs in the States pushed back. They wanted to keep the quirky original.

Released in 1975, it almost topped at #1 in the UK charts, only to be beat out by Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” It resurfaced at #6 in 1997 when it made it onto the soundtrack of the hit movie The Full Monty.

Johnny Kemp, Singer of Hit Single “Just Got Paid”

Johnny Kemp (August 2, 1959-April 2015) was a Bahamian-born R&B singer who came to fame with the 1988 hit single and “let’s party” anthem “Just Got Paid.”

Released during the Golden Age of music videos, the song rose to the Top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 1 on the Hot Dance Music/Club Play chart. It sold a million copies and was nominated for Best R&B Song in the 1989 Grammy Awards. (It lost to Anita Baker’s “Giving You The Best That I Got.”)

It is an example of “New Jack Swing,” a genre defined as a fusion between the hard beats of hip-hop and the softer, smoother singing style of R&B. The producer Teddy Riley helped to popularize the style with Kemp and other artists, notably Keith Sweat and Bobby Brown.

“Just Got Paid” began as an instrumental track that Keith Sweat brought to Kemp, who helped write the lyrics. In an effort to sell the song to producers, Kemp recorded a demo, but his version was so well liked that it was released under his name on his second album Secrets of Flying.”

The song has been covered or sampled by other artists, including ‘N Sync and Kurupt.

Other Kemp tracks to hit the charts were “Dancin’ With Myself” and “One Thing Led to Another” from “Secrets of Flying” and “Birthday Suit” from the soundtrack of the 1989 movie “Sing,” starring Lorraine Bracco of “The Sopranos” fame.

Kemp began his career in his native Bahamas, where he sang in clubs from the age of 13. It was around the time The Bahamas gained its independence as a nation and was searching to establish its own post-colonial national and cultural identity. In his book Funky Nassau: Roots, Routes, and Representation in Bahamian Popular Music, author Timothy Rommen notes the tendency of Bahamian musicians to look outside the country, to Motown and Soulsville, for sounds and styles they could identify with. It was within this context that Kemp formed and refined his musical style.

In the late 1970s, Kemp moved to New York City with the Bahamian funk/soul band Kinky Foxx. The group was a fixture of the New York Club scene, performing at venues as the Cellar Club. Kemp left the band before the recording of its single hit “So Different.”

Kemp continued to perform until his tragic death. His Twitter account shows appearances in the past few years with various Old School acts, and he was scheduled to perform on a Tom Joyner Foundation cruise.

This video shows Kemp as part of an all-star finale of “Just Got Paid” at Keith Sweat’s “Sweat Hotel Live.”