Born 2 February 1932 *, Brooklyn, New York City, New York
Songwriter / singer / pianist
Otis Blackwell is one of the greatest rock n roll songwriters. He wrote over 1,000 songs that were recorded by artists as diverse as Elvis Presley, Peggy Lee, The Who, Billy Joel, James Taylor and Otis Redding. His songs, which redefined popular music in the 1950s, have sold some 185 million copies worldwide.
Unusual for an Afro-American, Blackwell was influenced as a child by musical cowboy films starring Gene Autry and Tex Ritter. Blues singers Chuck Willis and Larry Darnell also made an impression. Ambitious to become a singer, Otis won a singing contest at the Apollo Theatre in New York in early 1952. While working in the day as a floor sweeper and clothes presser, Blackwell began to write songs and attempted to pursue a singing career. His first single was "Wake Up Fool"/"Please Help Me Find My Way Home" (RCA 47-5069) in 1952, produced by veteran A&R man Joe Davis. Then he switched to Davis's own Jay-Dee logo, for which Otis recorded seven singles in 1953-1954. The most successful of these was "Daddy Rolling Stone", though it didn't chart nationally. From 1955 on, Blackwell started to concentrate on songwriting, though he would still make the occasional record as a singer for a variety of labels (Gale 1955, Atlantic 1957, Date 1958, MGM / Cub 1960-62, Epic 1970).
His first big success as a songwriter came in the spring of 1956. The song in question was "Fever", a big hit for Little Willie John (# 1 R&B, # 24 pop), co-written with Eddie Cooley. Technically, Otis was still contracted to Jay- Dee, both as a singer and a songwriter. But Joe Davis hadn't paid him for some time and Blackwell was afraid that if the publishing of "Fever" went through Joe Davis, he wouldn't see any royalties. That's why he used a pseudonym, John Davenport, which was his stepfather's name. Next, Otis sent a tape with demos of six of his songs to Hill and Range, the publishing company that handled Elvis Presley's material. Elvis listened to the tape, was knocked out by the song "Don't Be Cruel" and recorded it on July 2, 1956, exactly as he had heard it on the demo. He even imitated Blackwell's singing style. Col. Tom Parker demanded that Presley would be listed as co-writer to share in the writing royalties. (The same happened with "All Shook Up".) Coupled with "Hound Dog", "Don't Be Cruel" became the most successful double-sided hit in history. Both sides made # 1 and spent a total of eleven weeks at the top spot. Blackwell ended up working for Elvis Presley Music, whose offices were at 1650 Broadway. Presley would go on to record nine other songs by Otis, including "All Shook Up" (another # 1), "Paralysed", "Make Me Know It", "Return To Sender", "One Broken Heart For Sale" and "(Such An) Easy Question".
Blackwell chose never to meet Presley. "We had a great thing going and I just wanted to leave it alone", he later recalled. "I always figured it was best if I write my songs, take them to my publisher and just lay back." In 1957 Blackwell wrote one of the immortal classics of rock n roll, "Great Balls Of Fire", which Jerry Lee Lewis took to # 2 on the Billboard pop charts (also # 1 country and # 3 R&B). The song was co-written with Jack Hammer for the movie "Jamboree". Blackwell was hired as musical director of the film, for which he also wrote "Cool Baby", performed by Charlie Gracie. Jerry Lee's follow-up, "Breathless", also came from Blackwell's pen and went to # 7. In 1958 Peggy Lee recorded "Fever" and scored an even bigger hit with the song than Little Willie John (# 8 pop). She rewrote part of the lyrics without taking a co-writing credit. Dee Clark had two Top 20 hits in 1959 with Otis Blackwell compositions : "Just Keep It Up" and "Hey Little Girl". Johnny Restivo's "The Shape I'm In" also deserves a mention, though it peaked no higher than # 80 in 1959. A much bigger hit (# 2) was "Handy Man" by Jimmy Jones, based on Jones's own composition, but reworked by Blackwell, who also contributed the whistling on the record. "Handy Man" was not produced by Otis, but he did produce the follow-up, "Good Timin"" (# 2 US, # 1 UK, 1960), and many other Cub recordings by Jimmy Jones. (A revival of "Handy Man" by James Taylor was a # 4 hit in 1977.) Other artists who were produced by Blackwell include Sal Mineo, Connie Francis and Mahalia Jackson.
Apart from remakes such as "Handy Man", Blackwell scored no further hits after Presley's "(Such An) Easy Question", which made # 11 in 1965. The British Invasion changed everything. But some British groups recorded his older songs, like "Daddy Rolling Stone" (The Who). Meanwhile, Blackwell continued to reap enormous royalties, which he spent as soon as they came in. In 1976, Blackwell returned to recording and released a collection of renditions of his own best-known rock n roll songs. The album, "These Are My Songs", included one composition by others, the Leiber-Stoller classic "Searchin'". The real surprise of the collection is the jumping "Back Trail", the only song that wasn't a hit.
Otis was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1986 and into the Songwriters Hall of Fame (of the National Academy of Popular Music) in 1991. In that year, one year after relocating to Nashville, Blackwell suffered a stroke which left him paralyzed. Three years later, the album "Brace Yourself" was released as a tribute to Blackwell's contribution to rock n roll. It featured fifteen of his songs recorded by various artists, such as Dave Edmunds, Joe Ely, Kris Kristofferson and Deborah Harry.
Otis Blackwell died of a heart attack on May 6, 2002 at his Nashville home. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2010 (in the category non-performer).
- Official website (with discography) :
Acknowledgements : Bill Dahl (All Music Guide), Wikipedia, Eric LeBlanc.
Dik, August 2013
* (Date of birth) This is the date mentioned by Bob Eagle and Eric LeBlanc in their 2013 book "Blues : A Regional Experience" (p. 261). In a footnote on page 465 they add : "Other dates of birth given include February 2, February 16, February 26, and 1931".
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