(October 29, 2017) There was a time in my life when Heatwave was THE band. Two albums into their meteor-like career, I was all in. And even though tragedy after tragedy fell upon the group, they remained a personal favorite to this day. So it is particularly sad to report the death of Keith Wilder, who co-founded and led the group along with his brother Johnny.
Though their time in the spotlight was relatively short, Heatwave remains one of the most beloved groups of the 70s. That they even made it as far and as long as they did was the result of an amazing ability to overcome even the most horrific obstacles, including the death of one member and two incidents that left other members paralyzed or severely injured.
Heatwave was formed in the early 70s by a group of U.S. servicemen stationed in Germany. The band went though various changes in personnel and finally settled in England as a septet featuring the Wilder brothers and keyboardist/songwriter Rod Temperton. It became the first true international dance group, with members from the U.S, England, Czechoslovakia and Spain .
After gaining a strong following in Europe as a result of its energetic, often acrobatic shows, Heatwave began recording its first album, Too Hot to Handle, in 1976. In the first of many tragedies the group would face, guitarist Jesse Whittens was killed. He was replaced and the group finished Too Hot. After a couple of moderately successful cuts were released from the album in Europe, the album's lead single, "Boogie Nights," was issued and became an international #1 hit and one of the definitive songs of the disco era. They followed it with the equally memorable ballad, "Always and Forever," which has continued to be one of the most popular wedding songs of the last three decades. Too Hot introduced the world to the funky, full beats that would become a Heatwave trademark, as well as to the songwriting of Rod Temperton, who developed into one of the most important songwriters of the next decade.
1978's Central Heating continued Heatwave's winning streak, nabbing a top 5 spot with the scorching "Groove Line" and landing another popular hit with "Mind Blowing Decisions." The next year, however, would be the most trying for the group. At a time when their Hot Property LP was getting ready for release, bass guitarist Mario Mantese was stabbed by his girlfriend after an argument, leaving him in a coma for weeks and permanently disabled. He would never again play in the group. And a few months later lead vocalist Johnny Wilder was in a tragic auto accident in his home town of Dayton that ultimately left him paralyzed from the neck down.
While Heatwave was facing a series of issues, group writer Temperton was just hitting his stride. In 1979 he began a decade-long role as the writing force behind Quincy Jones' greatest productions. He penned such smashes as "Off The Wall" and "Thriller" for Michael Jackson, "Stomp" for the Brothers Johnson and "Give Me The Night" for George Benson. His steady work as a writer caused him to leave his active role playing with Heatwave, though he continued writing for the group. Ironically, some of his big hits for others, including Michael Jackson's smash "Rock With You," were originally written for Heatwave but were turned down by the group.
Heatwave recruited solid new vocalist JD Nicholas (later a member of the Commodores) to replace Johnny Wilder on tour. Amazingly, Wilder, while paralyzed, came back to handle production and lead vocals on the group's next album, Candles. Particularly poignant was his work on the ballad "All I Am," which began "Who do you think you see when you look at me? Is it somebody strong? Somebody you could admire?" Candles was a wonderful outing for the group and featured the minor hits "Gangsters of the Groove" and "Posin' til Closin'." They followed it up in 1982 with Current, their last album on Columbia Records and the swan song for Heatwave as a musical force.
Heatwave broke up in the late 80s as their popularity waned. Johnny Wilder used his experience as a spiritual awakening and became a noted producer of a cappella gospel in the 90s. He released two gospel albums, My Goal and One More Day, and produced a number of gospel albums for other acts. Sadly, he died on May 13, 2006 at his home near Dayton.
Keith Wilder re-formed Heatwave with some old and some new members in the early 90s, and the group toured regularly, also recording a 1997 disc, Live and the Greek Theater, a mostly live rehashing of their hits but which also included a couple decent new studio tracks. Heatwave, in various compositions (but always with Keith Wilder up front), continued to appear, summer after summer, well into this decade.
With the death of Keith Wilder, we take a loving look back at a group that seemed to fly by like a comet, but which left a tail behind that still shines today. Rest in peace, Mr. Wilder.
By Chris Rizik