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Blackwell, Otis

Otis Blackwell

Songwriter, musician

As a songwriter, Otis Blackwell played a key role in the development of rock and roll, on a par with such tunesmiths as Jerry Lieber & Mike Stoller and Chuck Berry. Composing more than 1000 songs, the former R&B performer made his greatest contributions composing memorable anthems for early rock and roll artists Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis.

Began in Amateur Shows

Born in Brooklyn in 1931 (some sources say 1932), Blackwell was exposed to both country and blues as a child. While his family sang gospel at home, Blackwell became a big fan of movie star singing cowboys such as Tex Ritter and Gene Autry. These styles would be key components in the post-World War II development of the music that became known as rock 'n' roll.

Blackwell's music career began after he won a singing contest at the Apollo Theatre when he was a teenager. "I had an uncle who was into music," Blackwell told Time Barrier Express in 1979. "He went to a lot of shows. You know, those things at the Apollo Theatre and all the dances at the Savoy Club. He used to take me to what they called round robins, different bars. That's how we used to make a little change. I'd get up and sing a song or two, people would throw quarters. You know, the old tap-dancing thing on the corners, except it was in bars. One day he took me to a friend of his who was working for New York's Amsterdam News, a gentleman by the name of Willie Saunders. He more or less took me over, he had deals with different clubs. That's how I began singing. I was 16." While trying to get his career started in local blues clubs, Blackwell also worked as a floor sweeper and clothes presser. His songwriting career started in earnest when he penned "Fever" with Eddie Cooley. Blues singer Little Willie John scored a fair-sized R&B hit with the song, but later in the decade sultry songbird Peggy Lee covered the tune and made it a top ten pop hit. On the strength of "Fever," Blackwell signed his first record deal in 1952 with RCA Victor. The following year, his contract was transferred to Jay-Dee Records, owned by Joe Davis.

Blackwell enjoyed his only hits as a solo performer in 1953 with the throbbing blues number "Daddy Rollin' Stone." To make more money in addition to the $25 per week he received from the label, he began songwriting, sometimes under his own name but also under a number of pseudonyms, including his stepfather's name, John Davenport.

Wrote Major Hits For Presley

Blackwell's biggest influence as a songwriter came during the 1950s. He sold his first batch of songs in 1955, on a demo that included "Don't Be Cruel," which was recorded by Elvis Presley. Presley's manager, the controversial Col. Tom Parker, would allow his client to record the number only if Blackwell gave Presley a writer's credit. Figuring that half of something big was better than nothing at all, Blackwell took the deal. Backed with "Hound Dog," "Don't Be Cruel" was part of the biggest selling two-sided hit in pop music history. Both sides spent an incredible 11 weeks atop the pop charts. Jay-Dee's Davis, seeking to cash in on Blackwell's success, brought several of the songwriter's recordings together for the 1956 LP Singing the Blues.

The following year Blackwell was looking to pitch another song to the King of Rock 'n' Roll, and Al Stanton, a partner at Shalamar Music, suggested a title. "He walked in with a bottle of Pepsi, shaking it as they did at the time," Blackwell told Jazz Report Magazine. "Al said, 'Otis, I've got an idea. Why don't you write a song called "All Shook Up?"' A couple of days later I brought the song in and said, 'Look man, I did something with it!'" "All Shook Up," which Presley performed while beating on his guitar case bongo style, stayed at number one for nine straight weeks. Blackwell went on to write a number of hits for Presley, including "Return to Sender," "(Such an) Easy Question," and "Please Don't Drag That String Around." Much has been made of Presley's use of Blackwell's demos, from which Presley learned the songwriter's material. Some even suggested that the rock king copied Blackwell's demos note-for-note. Since songwriters' demos from that era were never released to the public, the only guide for a comparison was Blackwell's 1977 album for Inner City, These Are My Songs. Backed by a bar band called Grand Union, Blackwell turned in raspy R&B performances that are occasionally enjoyable but almost completely dissimilar to the hits. And despite an apparent attempt to make his version of "Don't Be Cruel" sound like the Presley's, Blackwell in fact sounded like the pedestrian R&B singer that he really was. Even his original pre-rock recordings (collected on Otis Blackwell: 1953–55, 1997) demonstrated that the Brooklyn-born hit machine was a better songwriter than vocalist. His vocals did not influence Presley's style, but Blackwell's songs certainly made the rocker much more popular.

Penned Hits for Jerry Lee Lewis

After "All Shook Up," Blackwell began writing at the Brill Building in New York City, where other songwriters such as Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Bobby Darin, Neil Sedaka, and Phil Spector worked for various publishers. Another great rock 'n' roll artist for whom Blackwell wrote significant hits was Jerry Lee Lewis. A songwriter named Jack Hammer came to Blackwell with the title "Great Balls of Fire." Blackwell didn't care for the song Hammer wrote, but loved the title, and quickly changed it from a group type song to an exposition of playful joy and sexual frenzy. At first, Lewis—a former Assembly of God preacher—first balked at the idea of recording the tune, believing it to be sacreligious. Blackwell, who was the musical director of the 1957 low-budget teen musical film Jamboree, had Lewis mime his song on film, and the rest is history. The song sold five million records for Lewis, and today "Great Balls of Fire" remains the most popular number in his repertoire. Blackwell also wrote Lewis's follow up hit, the panting rocker "Breathless." Even after the piano pumping star's career went into decline, Lewis continued to record such Blackwell tunes as "Let's Talk About Us," "Livin' Lovin' Wreck," and "It Won't Happen With Me." The songwriter seemed to have his finger on what record buyers of the 1950s and early 1960s enjoyed. Blackwell's obituary in the New York Times declared, "His songs joined the sentimentality of pop, the twang of country music, and the propulsive rhythm of the blues, and his lyrics, even at their hottest, could be playful."

Demand for His Work Declined

Constantly busy, Blackwell recorded several unsuccessful singles for Atlantic, Date, Cub, and MGM. When not playing piano or producing Mahalia Jackson's early sessions, he wrote songs that were eagerly anticipated by such label executives as King's Henry Glover and Vee-Jay's Calvin Carter. He wrote hits for the underrated Dee Clark, who scored with the Bo Diddley-influenced "Hey Little Girl," as well as with "Just Keep it Up," a song featuring a happy flute hook. Blackwell also co-wrote Jimmy Jones's debut smash "Handy Man," and produced his follow-up hit "Good Timin'." But as rock evolved into a group-oriented genre with artists writing songs for themselves, demand for Blackwell's work declined. He continued to write for other leading artists, but many of his greatest successes were revivals of older material. Del Shannon hit the top 20 with his rendition of "Handy Man" in 1964, and James Taylor hit number four on the pop charts and number one on adult contemporary charts with his 1977 version. In the United Kingdom, the Who's version of "Daddy Rollin' Stone" was one of the raucous highlights of their 1965 album My Generation.

During the 1970s Blackwell returned to his first musical love—country music. By 1976 he had recorded a number of his classics for an album called These Are My Songs. He also began to tour, and in 1990 he moved to Nashville, Tennessee, where he had often recorded.

For the Record …

Born on February 16, 1932, in Brooklyn, NY; died on May 6, 2002, in Nashville, TN; married Mamie Wiggins; children: seven.

Began singing in local clubs at age 16; with Eddie Cooley, co-wrote "Fever" for Little Willie John, later a 1958 pop hit for Peggy Lee, 1950; won talent show at famed Apollo Theater in Harlem, NY; signed with RCA, 1952, and Jay Dee Records, 1953; began writing songs full-time for Shalamar Music, 1955; recorded singles as a solo artist for Atlantic, Date, Cub, and MGM, 1950s; recorded for Inner City Records, 1977; Brandon Records released posthumous set of demonstration tunes and master recordings, 2002.

Awards: Inducted into Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, 1986; Inducted into Songwriters Hall of Fame by the National Academy of Popular Music, 1991; presented with Pioneer Award by the Rhythm and Blues Foundation, 1994.

Addresses: Record company—Brandon Records, 380 Duck Pond Rd., Matinecock, NY 11560, phone: (516) 674-9066, website: http://www.brandonrecords.net, e-mail: [email protected]

Blackwell's performing and recording career ended in 1991 when he suffered a severe paralyzing stroke and had to resort to communicating via computer. He died of a heart attack on May 6, 2002, in Nashville, Tennessee, and was survived by his wife and their seven children. In 2005 a musical based on Elvis Presley's ascendency was staged on Broadway, and it used one of Blackwell's most popular songs as its title: All Shook Up!. By the looks of a quote contained in his obituary, one might suspect that Blackwell would have been well pleased by this turn of events. "It makes me feel wonderful for other people to do my songs and have them still be around."

Selected discography

"Daddy Rolling Stone," Jay Dee, 1953.
Singin' the Blues, Davis, 1956.
These Are My Songs, Inner City, 1977; reissued as All Shook Up, Shanachie, 1995.
Otis Blackwell 1953–55, Flyright, 1997.
Legendary Legend—Masters & Demos, Brandon Records, 2003.
Otis Blackwell 1952–1954, Classics R&B, 2005.

Sources

Books

Durchholz, David, and Gary Graff, editors, Music Hound Rock: the Essential Album Guide, Visible Ink, 1999.

Periodicals

Daily Telegraph, May 9, 2002.

Jazz Report Magazine, June 23, 1989.

Jet, May 27, 2002.

New York Times, May 9, 2002.

Time Barrier Express Magazine, July, 1979.

Online

"Otis Blackwell," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (August 31, 2005).

"Otis Blackwell," Nashville Songwriter Hall of Fame, http://www.nashvillesongwriterfoundation.com/fame/blackwell.html (August 31, 2005).

"Otis Blackwell," Songwriters Hall of Fame, http://www.songwritershalloffame.org/exhibit_bioasp?exhibitId=153 (August 31, 2005).

Additional information for this profile was provided by Monument/Sony Records publicity materials, 1999.

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