One evening in his youth the lad from Cleethorpes, England saw older couples dancing on a newly waxed parquet floor. What elegance, what a sheen. At least I like to imagine so. Quincy Jones gave him the chance to score this masquerade. As much as “Rock With You” and “Off the Wall” took from disco, they absorbed the on-the-one precision of L.A. studio rock too. It wasn’t punk; it wasn’t even dance music; it was Cab Calloway in polyester. On Thriller he went further: a title track as scripted by Val Lewton set to sequencers and the inchoate desires of a singer for whom Method acting was as foreign as Montesquieu.
But Michael Jackson was only Temperton’s biggest client. He wrote some of the Reagan era’s sharpest and cleanest R&B crossovers. George Benson’s “Give Me the Night” is as sleek as anything on Off the Wall; the same album’s minor single “Love x Love” nearly matches it. Add Heatwave’s “Boogie Nights,” Donna Summer’s 1982 pop top ten “Love is in Control (Finger on the Trigger)” and quietly rapturous “Love Is Just a Breath Away,” Klymaxx’s “Man-Sized Love,” and Michael McDonald’s “Sweet Freedom” (crap lyrics, peppy beat, confident vocal).
As hip-hop’s influence grew, Temperton’s palliative approach lost its relevance; he was still sampled, though, and Timbaland and Missy Elliott studied his use of space when they wrote Aaliyah’s ruminative numbers. But I treasure Temperton for the gentle rebukes to contemporaries insisting on funkier and harder derivations of dance dance dance.