Gave Elvis and the world "All Shook Up" and "Don't Be Cruel"
Songs helped redefine America's popular music in the early and mid-1950's.
Brooklyn-born Otis Blackwell is without question one of the select songwriters whose songs literally helped redefine America's popular music in the early and mid-1950's. Probably best known for the smash hits Elvis Presley made out of a number of his songs, Blackwell's works have been recorded into immortality by a host of other major figures in the record field, including Jerry Lee Lewis, Ray Charles, Otis Redding, James Brown, The Who, Billy Joel, James Taylor, Dolly Parton, Conway Twitty, The Judds, Carl Perkins, and Peggy Lee, among numerous others.
Blackwell, whose more than 1,000 songs have sold nearly 200 million records, began his career in the late 40's, tinkering around with writing songs while making a living as a pants presser in a tailor shop. He was a singer as well and, in the early 50's, he actually performed in various clubs and theaters in Brooklyn, eventually deciding to soft-pedal the performing and to focus on writing. He actually recorded a song for producer and label executive Joe Davis, called "Daddy Rolling Stone." This became a minor rhythm and blues hit for Blackwell and years later it was recorded by The Who.
Though he gave up public performances, Blackwell possessed a basic singing style and manner that was highly effective. He performed on his own demo recordings, some of which caught the ear of colorful music publishing personality, Aaron "Goldie" Goldmark, who was associated with Shalimar Music Publishing. Goldmark, who was already well-known in the Elvis Presley inner circle, managed to get Presley's people to hear some of Blackwell's demos, which became the great door opener every songwriter dreamt about.
Ultimately, Presley recorded such Blackwell songs as "Don't Be Cruel," "Return to Sender," "All Shook Up and "Paralyzed," among others. These songs, it's safe to say, helped launch the Presley legend to the heights of the stratosphere (and then some), and it's certainly equally accurate to say that these initial successes with Presley quickly secured Blackwell's place in the Who's Who of American pop songwriters.
But Blackwell never rested on these early laurels. Much more productivity was still to come. For example, an early Sun Record label mate of Presley's, the hard-rocking Jerry Lee Lewis, enjoyed one of his biggest hits with the Blackwell song, "Great Balls of Fire." A key star for VeeJay Records, Dee Clark, found major chart success with Blackwell's "Hey Little Girl" and “Just Keep It Up." Alternately, another Blackwell composition "Handy Man," was recorded by the falsetto star, Jimmy Jones in the 1960’s, and covered by James Taylor in the 1970’s. In a similar sequence, Little Willie John, a leading R&B star of the late 50's, enjoyed a top chart hit with "Fever," and years later, Peggy Lee enjoyed a revival hit with the song on the pop charts.
At other times in his career, Blackwell has also been successful as a record producer, having helped turn out hits with artists as diverse as Connie Francis, Mahalia Jackson, and Sal Mineo.
Already an inductee of the Nashville Songwriters Association, Blackwell's crowning moment came in the late 1980’s when The Black Rock Coalition, a prominent organization of black rock musicians, led by Vernon Reid, the lead guitarist of the band, Living Color, 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."