The reclusive composer who wrote ‘Thriller’
Rod Temperton 1949–2016
Rod Temperton was known as music’s Invisible Man. The Briton wrote some of the most wildly successful funk and R&B songs of all time, including “Boogie Nights” and the Michael Jackson hits “Thriller,” “Off the Wall,” and “Rock With You.” But in an industry often marked by exhibitionism, Temperton craved anonymity and was rarely photographed or interviewed. One exception was a 2006 BBC radio docu mentary, in which he recalled composing the spooky, funky title track of Jackson’s 1982 Thriller, history’s best-selling album at 65 million copies and counting. Temperton explained how he’d finished the music, but still needed to name the tune before writing the lyrics. After some 300 tries, he had an epiphany. “Something in my head just said, ‘This is the title,’” Temperton recalled. “You could visualize it on top of the Billboard charts. So I knew I had to write it as ‘Thriller.’”
He was born in the English seaside town of Cleethorpes, where his parents ran an auto shop, said The Times (U.K.). Temperton taught himself drums while playing truant from high school, and learned to play keyboards while working as a fish filleter at a frozen-food factory. After moving to Germany, “he formed a band, playing soul covers on a secondhand Hammond organ” in clubs and bars. In the mid-1970s, Temperton joined Heatwave, a disco-funk band led by American singer Johnnie Wilder, and became the group’s principal songwriter. “Boogie Nights,” the band’s third single, reached No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, said The Guardian (U.K.). Another hit, 1978’s “The Groove Line,” caught the ear of producer Quincy Jones, who hired Temperton to work with him on Jackson’s first adult album. The two became immediate friends. “We’ve got the same junkie work ethic,” Temperton explained. “We’d smoke 160 cigarettes a night [in the studio].”
That collaboration, 1979’s Off the Wall, sold 20 million copies and enshrined Jackson as the King of Pop. On Thriller, Temperton also composed “Baby Be Mine” and “The Lady in My Life,” said RollingStone.com, and he later wrote for Aretha Franklin, Herbie Hancock, George Benson, and many other artists. A wealthy man who owned several homes around the world and an island in Fiji, Temperton claimed to enjoy simple pleasures. “When I’ve finished a record,” he said, “I watch telly, catch up on the news, and maybe the phone will ring.”
The PR executive who transformed cheerleading
Suzanne Mitchell 1943–2016
In the NFL’s early days, most teams’ cheerleaders were wholesome high schoolers who led the crowd in collegiate-style chants. Suzanne Mitchell changed all that. She was working as an assistant to the Dallas Cowboys’ general manager, Tex Schramm, when the team was inundated with calls after one of its cheerleaders winked suggestively into a TV camera at the 1976 Super Bowl. Sensing an opportunity, Schramm tasked Mitchell with sexing up the squad. She gave them skimpy costumes and hip-shaking dance routines, creating a pop culture phenomenon. The Cowboys cheerleaders appeared on TV’s The Love Boat and in shampoo ads, and inspired the 1978 porn movie Debbie Does Dallas, which led to a lawsuit from the team. “Sports has always had a very clean, almost puritanical aspect,” Mitchell said in 1978. “But by the same token, sex is a very important part of our lives. What we’ve done is combine the two.”
Born in Fort Worth, Mitchell began her career working in journalism and public relations in New York City. She went for a job interview with Schramm in the mid-’70s and “impressed the executive by force of personality,” said The Washington Post. “He asked me what I wanted to be in five years,” she recalled. “I said, ‘Well, your chair looks pretty comfortable.’” She was hired on the spot. After taking over as cheerleader director, Mitchell doubled the squad’s size to 32 and implemented strict hiring criteria, said TexasMonthly.com. An applicant had to be 18 to 26 years old and a married mother or in full-time employment; if chosen, she was forbidden from dating players or being seen in costume with cigarettes, gum, or alcohol. The squad soon became “international sex symbols as well as football’s foremost goodwill ambassadors,” going on morale-boosting trips to visit U.S. troops stationed around the world.
“They were not without their critics,” said The New York Times. In 1978, Oakland Raiders coach John Madden complained that too much sports coverage focused on “choreographers instead of coaches.” Mitchell left the Cowboys in 1989 when businessman Jerry Jones bought the team. She took branding jobs “far from football,” but remained fiercely proud of her years with Dallas. “Where little girls used to dream of being Miss America,” she said, “now they dream about becoming a cheerleader for the Cowboys.”
The speed-loving writer who created the Cannonball Run
Brock Yates 1933–2016
In the early 1970s, Brock Yates was ranting to his fellow writers at Car and Driver magazine about the imminent introduction of a 55_mph national speed limit when he came up with an idea for a new motor race. Named after cross- country driver Erwin “Can non ball” Baker, the Cannonball Baker Sea-to- Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash would see competitors race from New York to Los Angeles at any speed they deemed practical. There was no prize money, just bragging rights. At midnight on Nov._15, 1971, eight vehicles— including a motor home—set off from Manhattan on the first competitive Cannonball Run. Yates drove a Ferrari Daytona coupe with auto racer Dan Gurney, at times hitting 172_mph. The pair won the race in 35_hours and 54_minutes, thought to be a new coast-to-coast record. The motor home came in last.
After the success of the first Cannonball Run, the Lockport, N.Y.–born Yates organized four more coast-to-coast races, said The Washington Post. In one event, he and his co-driver “were at the wheel of a specially painted van outfitted as an ambulance—and capable of going 130_mph.” Three other drivers dressed as priests, hoping to secure leniency from traffic cops. “It didn’t help.”
Yates tapped his experiences to write the screenplay for the 1982 Burt Reynolds movie Cannonball Run, “a massive moneymaker” that grossed $72 million in the U.S., said HollywoodReporter.com. The following year, he published The Decline and Fall of the Automobile Industry, an influential book that berated Detroit executives for churning out boring, bloated vehicles. “There is nothing that ails the American auto industry,” he wrote, “that cannot be rectified by the presence of a few lions, preferably hungry ones, in Detroit.”