Otis Blackwell

Otis Blackwell worked as a singer/songwriter/pianist in the 50's, 60's and 70's. Although his recordings never met with much success, many of the songs that he wrote went on to become very well-known, million-selling songs.

Otis was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1931. He grew up listening to cowboy songs, particularly those by Tex Ritter, and R&B songs by artists such as Chuck Willis. As a teenager he entered and won a contest at the Apollo Theatre in New York City. He was introduced to songwriter Doc Pomus, who encouraged him and helped him early in his career. One of Otis' early records titled Daddy Rollin' Stone was released by Jay-Dee in 1953. It was revived later in a version recorded by The Who.

Things changed for Otis Blackwell on Christmas Eve, 1955. That night he sold six songs that he had written for a total of $150. One of the demos included in these six had been recorded with Otis playing piano and the drummer using a cardboard box. It was picked up by Elvis Presley, who did not write his own songs and whose style at the time was to pick songs that he liked from demos that he heard and then use the same arrangement that he had heard on the demo. The song was Don't Be Cruel, which went to number one in 1956, as did another Presley song the following year that had been written by Otis, All Shook Up. It had been inspired a shaken bottle of Pepsi Cola.

The success of Don't Be Cruel gave a jolt to the songwriting career of the talented Otis Blackwell. He wrote more songs for Presley, among them One Broken Heart For Sale and Return To Sender. Blackwell admired Presley, and Presley looked to Blackwell for inspiration on the arrangements of some of his early pop songs. Most of what Presley had done to that point had come from the R&B or country fields of music. Otis Blackwell's compositions were more rock-and-roll, or pop-oriented.

Otis Blackwell continued to record many records, although none of them ever managed to crack the top forty. But it was a different story for many of the songs that he wrote. One of these was Fever, for which Little Willie John took the writing credit, and which became a hit for both Little Willie John and Peggy Lee. There were many other hits written by Otis, such as Hey Little Girl for Dee Clark, and Breathless and Great Balls Of Fire for Jerry Lee Lewis.

Otis Blackwell sometimes wrote songs under the pseudonym John Davenport. He met with a great deal of success as a songwriter and has received a lot of respect within the music industry, even though his name is not well known to the general public. When Stevie Wonder received an award for Best Male Vocalist in 1976, he acknowledged Otis Blackwell as a magnificent songwriter.

In 1977 Blackwell was working on a score for a film about the life of Elvis Presley. During this time, Presley died, and Blackwell was inspired to record The No. 1 King Of Rock'n'Roll as a tribute on his own Fever label. He also recorded some albums in the late 70's, These Are My Songs and Singin' The Blues.

Following a lengthy illness, Otis passed away on May 6, 2002 in Nashville. Otis Blackwell had a very successful run as a prolific writer of nearly 1,000 songs. His legacy includes a number of top-selling rock-and-roll records.

Most Recent Update: May 7, 2002

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Send email to the author, Tom Simon tsimon@tsimon.com.