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Sun, 05.24.1931

Otis Blackwell, Lyricist born

Otis Blackwell

Otis Blackwell’s birth in 1931 is celebrated on this date. He was a Black songwriter and musician.

He was born in Brooklyn, New York, and 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 Harlem’s Apollo Theatre. He was introduced to songwriter Doc Pomus, who encouraged him and helped him early in his career.  One of Blackwell’s early records titled Daddy Rollin' Stone was released by Jay-Dee in 1953. It was revived later in a version recorded by the rock group 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.  Elvis Presley, who did not write his own songs and who would pick songs that he liked from demos that he heard, picked it up.  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 Blackwell, "All Shook Up." It had been inspired by a shaken bottle of Pepsi Cola.

The success of "Don't Be Cruel" gave a boost to his songwriting career and talent.  He wrote more songs for Presley, among them "One Broken Heart For Sale" and "Return To Sender." The two admired each other and worked 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 styles.  Blackwell's playing was more rock-and-roll, or pop-oriented and he continued to record many records, but none of them ever managed to crack the top forty. But it was a different story for many of the songs that he wrote.

They include "Fever," for which Little Willie John took the writing credit, "Hey Little Girl" for Dee Clark, "Breathless," and "Great Balls Of Fire" for Jerry Lee Lewis.  Blackwell sometimes wrote songs under the pseudonym John Davenport. He worked steadily as a singer/songwriter and pianist through the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. He received a great deal of respect within the music industry, even though his name is not well known to the general public. When Stevie Wonder received a Grammy Award for Best Male Vocalist in 1976, he acknowledged Otis Blackwell as a magnificent songwriter. Otis Blackwell died in April 2002.

ACSAP Biographical Dictionary
R. R. Bowker Co., Copyright 1980
ISBN 0-8351-1283-1

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