The late Johnnie Wilder, Jr. (d: May 2006) had the vision that led to the creation of the multi-ethnic 1970s band Heatwave, as well as the soft baritone and high falsetto that powered hits like “Always and Forever,” “Mind Blowing Decisions” and “Ain’t No Half Steppin’.”
The late Rod Temperton (d: October 2016) had the keyboard playing and songwriting skills that helped him create those tunes for the band along with many more for other artists.
But it was Johnny’s more soulful sounding younger brother, Keith Wilder, who provided the grittier funk lead vocals that made the songs “Boogie Nights” and “The Groove Line” Heatwave’s biggest-selling pop singles.
Keith Edward Wilder died in his sleep on Sunday, October 29, at the age of 65. Wilder was the last original voice of the energetic band whose fun yet funky disco songs and beautiful ballads from the late 1970s made them one of the most liked bands of their short-lived era. In a sad coincidence, Wilder’s older brother Johnnie died in his sleep eleven years earlier, leaving Keith to carry the torch for a band that had already endured so much tragedy during its earlier history.
The two Wilder brothers and Temperton were the essential pieces to a group that began in the mid 1970s with a mixed ethnic lineup that initially included two black Americans from Dayton, Ohio, (the Wilders), a Czech drummer (Ernest “Bilbo” Berger who was a wizard on those drums, by the way), a black Briton (rhythm guitarist Roy Carter), a Swiss man (bassist Mario Mantese), a Jamaican (Eric Johns) and an Englishman (Temperton).
In other words, Heatwave was to the late 1970s what Sly & the Family Stone was to the earlier part of that decade, except Heatwave made Sly Stone’s all-American mixed-race/mixed-gender group look almost homogenous by comparison.
Yet as progressive a band as Heatwave was during its day, what with its multicultural background and stellar dance/pop sensibilities – and despite the fact that groups like Average White Band, KC & the Sunshine Band, and Sly & the Family Stone had already paved the way for mixed-race funk and disco bands to gain widespread acceptance in the U.S. – Heatwave’s longtime label, Epic Records (GTO in the U.K.) was reluctant to market the group by its multiracial identity. In fact, none of the band’s six album covers bore Heatwave’s images, which instead were relegated to back covers or insert sleeves.
It was the first of those six albums, however, that introduced us to Keith Wilder’s gruff soulful tenor, as he kicked off “Boogie Nights” thusly: “Ain’t no doubt, we are here to party!” And it was with that convincing declaration that Heatwave started their platinum party train rolling here in America with a famous trio of singles that each sold between one and two million copies.
“Boogie Nights” just missed the No. 1 spot on the pop singles chart in late fall ‘77, while “Always and Forever” did the same on the soul list a few months later – both tunes peaked at No. 2 on those tallies, respectively. “The Groove Line,” from their second album, was an even faster climbing single, peaking at No. 3 soul and No. 7 pop within three months of its April 1978 release.
Heatwave’s first two albums, Too Hot To Handle and Central Heating – each peppered with memorable deep album cuts to go along with the successful hit singles – had impressive sales commensurate with that of the singles. Both albums went platinum in the U.S., selling a million copies each and peaking in the top five on Billboard’s R&B charts and Nos. 11 and 10, respectively, on the pop charts.
With all the band’s success in 1977-78, it seemed Heatwave could do no wrong with radio and on dance floors across America. Their fans were pumped and primed for nearly anything the funky outfit had to offer and the future certainly looked bright for one of the genre’s best new ambassadors. For their part, Heatwave could deliver well-crafted dance-pop tunes and then flip the script to turn in some of the most beautiful love songs of their day.
But the group was about to endure a series of tragedies that put all of their commercial success in a harrowing perspective and which made their lofty out-of-the-box sales levels tough to sustain, despite their most valiant of efforts.
First, original bassist Mario Mantese was stabbed by his girlfriend after attending a party one night in 1978. The near-fatal injuries he sustained (including a lengthy coma, followed by temporary blindness and paralysis) forced him to leave the band.
Then, while visiting family in Dayton in 1979, lead singer Johnnie Wilder was involved in a car accident that left him paralyzed from the neck down. Bound to a wheelchair, the elder Wilder brother continued recording with the band, although he would be replaced during concert tours and TV performances by J. D. Nicholas (who was also Lionel Richie’s replacement in the Commodores a couple of years later).
Johnnie Wilder’s car accident occurred on the heels of the band’s third album release, 1979’s Hot Property, a less successful (but still gold-certified) collection that contained a moderate top-30 soul chart entry, the underrated single “Eyeballin’,” and its quirky follow-up, “One Night Tan,” an uptempo disco number that missed the charts altogether. (“One Night Tan” was a guilty pleasure of mine though; it even topped my personal charts in the summer of ‘79.)
While both Wilder brothers remained with Heatwave during the 1980s, other personnel changes would occur as the band’s popularity began to wane. Changing tastes in music were partly to blame for the group’s increasing difficulty to reach larger audiences – particularly the decline of disco and the rise of hip-hop, British pop and ‘80s techno music. This changing landscape stacked the odds against Heatwave, which wasn’t able to navigate the changing musical tide as well as other late-‘70s staples like Donna Summer or Earth, Wind & Fire.
It also didn’t help that the band’s creativity seemed stifled after their first couple of albums, both musically and thematically. In keeping with their name, for instance, all their album’s titles were simple variations on the same theme… heat: Too Hot to Handle, Central Heating, Hot Property, Candles, Current, The Fire.
The songs from the later albums didn’t ignite the fire that earlier efforts did. Their 1982 single “Lettin’ It Loose,” from the Current album, incorporated elements of rap but even that seemed contrived against the backdrop of the song’s kiddie-like chorus. The ballad “Look After Love” from that same album tried but failed to capture the magic that its more evergreen predecessors “Always and Forever” and “Star Of A Story” had earlier.
Ultimately their 1988 set, The Fire, a nine-track collection released only in the U.K., would be Heatwave’s last studio album. As a recording act, the group called it quits shortly afterwards.
But it was Keith Wilder, that one remaining original member, who kept Heatwave’s fire burning on-and-off for decades as a touring band long after the hits stopped coming. Despite his own health setbacks, in a way, he was keeping his big brother’s dream alive after Johnnie could no longer tour with the band following his paralyzing car accident and after he died at the age of 56 in 2006.
Now, with his own passing, Keith Wilder joins his brother Johnnie and their legendary songwriter Rod Temperton in that proverbial rock-and-roll heaven. They leave behind a small, but memorable legacy of tunes that some might consider mere timepieces – songs that are defined more by their era than by any enduring qualities.
Heck, some pundits might even argue that Heatwave was nothing more than a ‘70s disco/funk band who couldn’t evolve with the changing musical styles of the 1980s, hence their quick demise.
But for Heatwave fans, nothing could be further from the truth. For us, “Boogie Nights” and “The Groove Line” were collectively a partying call-to-arms (along with the funk classic “Ain’t No Half Steppin’”) that had us shaking our booties wildly for months, while “Always and Forever” was the love song of a lifetime – one that helped launch many marriages over the four decades since its release.
For those reasons we will always forever love Heatwave, and we will miss its co-lead vocalist Keith Wilder.
In honor of the late Keith Wilder, as well as his brother Johnnie, I’ve ranked what I consider to be Heatwave’s 10 best songs, and djrobblog is counting them down in order from No. 10 to No. 1.
Hope you enjoy the memories. Scroll through the list below.
Not only did this second single from their 1979 album Hot Property not chart very high, it didn’t chart at all! However, it was a guilty pleasure of mine...so much so that it reached No. 1 on my personal Top 40 charts during that summer. See Keith Wilder lead the group through some hot dance moves on a June 1979 episode of Soul Train in the above link.