Otis Blackwell is a name many of you may not be familiar with. Otis would have t…

Written by on February 16, 2018

Otis Blackwell is a name many of you may not be familiar with. Otis would have turned 87 years old today. Otis was a songwriter, singer, and pianist, whose work significantly influenced rock and roll. His compositions include Little Willie John’s “Fever”, Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire” and “Breathless”, Elvis Presley’s “Don’t Be Cruel”, “All Shook Up” and “Return to Sender” (with Winfield Scott), and Jimmy Jones’ “Handy Man”.

He first became famous by winning a local talent contest (“Amateur Night”) at the Apollo Theater, Harlem, New York in 1952, which led to a recording contract with RCA and then with Jay-Dee. His first release was his own composition “Daddy Rolling Stone” which became a favorite in Jamaica where it was recorded by Derek Martin. The song later became part of The Who’s Mod repertoire. Enjoying some early recording and performing success, he found his first love was songwriting and by 1955 had settled into the groove that he would ride for decades. His first successes came in 1956 when Little Willie John’s R&B hit with the sultry “Fever” was an even bigger pop success for Peggy Lee. Then, “Don’t Be Cruel” began a highly profitable association with Elvis Presley.

Blackwell was one of the leading African American figures of early rock ‘n’ roll, although he was not well known by the public. His own records never cracked the Top 40, yet he wrote million-selling songs for Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Dee Clark and others. He also recruited other songwriters to write for Presley such as Winfield Scott.

From the jacket liner notes of the Elvis’ Golden Records (1958) Anne Fulchino from Radio Corporation of America wrote:

“While sipping coffee, Steve Sholes pulled out a demonstration record of “Don’t Be Cruel” and told Elvis it was a new song written by Otis Blackwell, whom Elvis had long admired as a rhythm and blues artist. It took just a few bars to convince Presley that it was a perfect song for him, and he decided to cut it right away. Presley learned the song within minutes—he has an inherent musical sense—and in short order a great master was put on tape. It isn’t often that the title of a song will create a whole new expression in Americana. “All Shook Up” did exactly that. Youngsters and adults alike have made the phrase a common part of everyday usage. The background to the song itself is a rather interesting one. Since the huge success of “Don’t Be Cruel”, Elvis had been anxious to record another song from the pen of Otis Blackwell. Eventually, Blackwell came around with “All Shook Up (first recorded by David Hill on Aladdin) .” Presley wasn’t completely satisfied with the song, and with Blackwell’s consent re-wrote part of the lyrics. Thus, as co-writer as well as artist, Presley produced his ninth consecutive gold record, his first in the year 1957.”

During an appearance on “Late Night with David Letterman,” Blackwell said he’d never met Presley in person. When he was having a contract dispute with his publishing company, he also wrote under the white-sounding pen-name of “John Davenport”.

Throughout his lifetime, Blackwell composed more than a thousand songs, garnering worldwide sales of close to 200 million records. Colonel Tom Parker, manager of Elvis asked Otis to appear in the Presley movie Girls! Girls! Girls!, for which he had written “Return to Sender,” but the superstition about meeting Elvis kept him from accepting.

In 1956 Blackwell first gave “Don’t Be Cruel” to friend Frankie Valli’s group The Four Lovers but as they were recording it he asked to take it back and in turn gave it to an up-and-coming Elvis Presley. In exchange for this song he gave them “You’re The Apple Of My Eye” which became a chart hit for the Four Lovers (Billboard #64). The song was performed on the Ed Sullivan show that same year and was probably instrumental in at least shaping events for the group to eventually becoming The Four Seasons. A shortened version of “You’re The Apple Of My Eye” is also featured in the Broadway show “Jersey Boys”.

During the 1980s, Blackwell toured and recorded with The Smithereens as his backing band for both live shows and studio recordings.The partnership produced two self-funded albums, “Let’s Talk About Us” and “From The Beginning,” which were released independently on Blackwell’s ROC-CO imprint.

In 1991, Blackwell was left paralyzed by a stroke. Three years later, Shanachie released Brace Yourself! A Tribute to Otis Blackwell. The album features 15 Blackwell-penned tracks recorded by the likes of Kris Kristofferson (“All Shook Up”), Blondie’s Debbie Harry (“Don’t Be Cruel”), The Smithereens (“Let’s Talk About Us”), Graham Parker (“Paralyzed”), and Ronnie Spector (“Brace Yourself”). Otis Blackwell died in 2002 of a heart attack and was interred in Woodlawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Nashville, Tennessee.

Otis was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1986 and in 1991 into the National Academy of Popular Music’s Songwriters Hall of Fame. His crowning moment came in the late 1980s when the Black Rock Coalition, a prominent organization of black rock musicians, led by Vernon Reid, the lead guitarist of the band, Living Colour, held a tribute for him at the Prospect Park Bandshell in his native Brooklyn. Many prominent musicians and singers took part including Blackwell himself, who performed an assortment of his best songs, including “One Broken Heart for Sale,” “Black Trail,” “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Daddy Rolling Stone.”

Blackwell was named one of the 2010 recipients of Ahmet Ertegun Award in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. This category encompasses those who primarily work behind the scenes in the music industry.

Otis Blackwell was one of the greatest R&B songwriters of all time. His songwriting style is as uniquely identifiable as that of Leiber and Stoller, Chuck Berry, or Willie Dixon and helped redefine popular music in America in the 1950s. Blackwell was one of the most important innovators who helped invent the musical vocabulary of rock & roll at its very beginning. Blackwell’s works have been recorded into immortality by a host of other major figures in the record field, including Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ray Charles, Otis Redding, James Brown, The Who, Johnny Thunders, Billy Joel, James Taylor, Dolly Parton, Conway Twitty, The Judds, Carl Perkins and Peggy Lee, among numerous others.

Here is a list of some of the songs he composed, with the performer who made them famous:

“All Shook Up” (Elvis Presley)

“Don’t Be Cruel” (Elvis Presley); inducted in the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2002

“Fever” as “John Davenport” with Eddie Cooley (Peggy Lee inducted in the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998, Little Willie John, Madonna, The McCoys, Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Over the Rhine, and countless other performers).

“Great Balls of Fire” (Jerry Lee Lewis); inducted in the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998

“Breathless” (Jerry Lee Lewis and X)

“Hey Little Girl” (Dee Clark)

“Handy Man” (Jimmy Jones, Del Shannon, James Taylor)

“Return to Sender” (Elvis Presley)

“One Broken Heart for Sale”(Elvis Presley)

Happy Birthday Otis. May you Rest In Peace and Thank You. Music fans owe you so much.

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