Otis Blackwell

By Gary: I am really going to switch gears tonight.  When I was a teenager, I loved the music and the artists who sang the songs, but I never questioned where the music came from.  In my senior years I have found one singer, songwriter who wrote a lot of the songs we danced too in the Fifties.  He left us in 2002 and he wrote some of the biggest hits of the 50’s so I am talking about,

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Otis Blackwell

Videos:

1987 / David Letterman / Don’t Be Cruel /

.

Songs:

There are just to many to cover, but here are some of the great hits I remember growing up

 

For Elvis / Don’t be Cruel / All Shook up / Return to Sender /

Sung by the writer

1956 / Don’t Be Cruel /

.

1957 / All Shook Up /

.

1962 / Return to Sender /

.

 

For Jerry Lee Lewis / Great Balls of Fire / Breathless

1957 / Great Balls of Fire /

.

1958 / Breathless

.

 

Fever with Eddie Cooley / Little Willie John / Peggy Lee

 

Hey Little Girl for Dee Clark

.

 

Handy Man for Jimmy Jones, Del Shannon and James Taylor

.

 

 

Few 1950s rock & roll tunesmiths were as prolifically talented as Otis Blackwell. His immortal compositions include Little Willie John‘s “Fever,” Elvis Presley‘s “Don’t Be Cruel” and “All Shook Up,”Jerry Lee Lewis‘ “Great Balls of Fire” and “Breathless,” and Jimmy Jones‘ “Handy Man” (just for starters).

Though he often collaborated with various partners on the thriving ’50’s New York R&B scene (Winfield ScottEddie Cooley, and Jack Hammer, to name three), Blackwell‘s songwriting style is as identifiable as that of Willie Dixon or Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller. He helped formulate the musical vocabulary of rock & roll when the genre was barely breathing on its own.

Befitting a true innovator, Blackwell‘s early influences were a tad out of the ordinary. As a lad growing up in Brooklyn, he dug the Westerns that his favourite nearby cinema screened. At that point, Tex Ritter was Otis Blackwell‘s main man. Smooth blues singers Chuck Willis and Larry Darnell also made an impression. By 1952, Blackwell parlayed a victory at an Apollo Theater talent show into a recording deal with veteran producer Joe Davis for RCA, switching to Davis‘ own Jay-Dee logo the next year. He was fairly prolific at Jay-Dee, enjoying success with the throbbing “Daddy Rollin’ Stone” (later covered by the Who). From 1955 on, though, Blackwell concentrated primarily on songwriting (Atlantic, Date, Cub, and MGM later issued scattered Blackwell singles).

“Fever,” co-written by Cooley, was Blackwell‘s first winner (he used the pen name of John Davenport, since he was still contractually obligated to Jay-Dee). Blackwell never met Elvis in person, but his material traveled a direct pipeline to the rock icon; “Return to Sender,” “One Broken Heart for Sale,” and “Easy Question” also came from his pen. Dee Clark (“Just Keep It Up” and “Hey Little Girl”), Thurston HarrisWade FlemonsClyde McPhatterBrook BentonBen E. Kingthe DriftersBobby DarinRal DonnerGene Vincent, and plenty more of rock’s primordial royalty benefited from Blackwell‘s compositional largesse before the British Invasion forever altered the Brill Building scene.

In 1976, Blackwell returned to recording with a Herb Abramson-produced set for Inner City comprised of his own renditions of the songs that made him famous. A 1991 stroke paralyzed the legendary song scribe, but his influence remained so enduring that it inspired Brace Yourself!, an all-star 1994 tribute album that included contributions by Dave EdmundsJoe ElyDeborah HarryChrissie HyndeKris KristoffersonGraham Parker, and bluesman Joe Louis Walker. He died on May 6, 2002 in his Nashville home.

–o–

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2 responses to “Otis Blackwell

  1. Not heard of this person before today, Interesting.

  2. Thank you so very, very much for exposing me to a very crucial piece of Rock n’ Roll history! I’m adding this one to my favorites, because of Blackwell (a name I was previously completely unfamiliar with) being responsible for some of the absolutely most important songs from the genre’s infancy.

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