Otis Blackwell

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Otis Blackwell
Also known as John Davenport
Jack Hammer
Born (1931-02-16)February 16, 1931
Brooklyn, New York, United States
Died May 6, 2002(2002-05-06) (aged 71)
Nashville, Tennessee, U.S.
Genres East Coast blues, rock and roll, R&B
Occupation(s) Singer, pianist, songwriter
Instruments Piano
Years active 1950s–2002
Labels RCA, Groove, Atlantic

Otis Blackwell (February 16, 1931 – May 6, 2002) was an African-American songwriter, singer, and pianist, whose work significantly influenced rock and roll. His compositions include Little Willie John's "Fever", Jerry Lee Lewis' "Great Balls of Fire" and "Breathless", Elvis Presley's "Don't Be Cruel", "All Shook Up" and "Return to Sender" (with Winfield Scott), and Jimmy Jones' "Handy Man".[1] He should not be confused with another songwriter and producer Robert "Bumps" Blackwell.


Otis Blackwell was born in Brooklyn, New York, United States, and died in Nashville, Tennessee. He learned piano as a child and grew up listening to both R&B and country music.

He first became famous by winning a local talent contest ("Amateur Night") at the Apollo Theater, Harlem, New York in 1952,[2] led to a recording contract with RCA and then with Jay-Dee. His first release was his own composition "Daddy Rolling Stone" which became a favorite in Jamaica where it was recorded by Derek Martin. The song later became part of The Who's Mod repertoire. Enjoying some early recording and performing success, he found his first love was songwriting and by 1955 had settled into the groove that he would ride for decades.[3] His first successes came in 1956 when Little Willie John's R&B hit with the sultry "Fever" was an even bigger pop success for Peggy Lee. Then, "Don't Be Cruel" began a highly profitable association with Elvis Presley.

Blackwell was one of the leading African American figures of early rock 'n' roll, although he was not well known by the public. His own records never cracked the Top 40, yet he wrote million-selling songs for Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Dee Clark and others. He also recruited other songwriters to write for Presley such as Winfield Scott.[4]

From the jacket liner notes of the Elvis' Golden Records (1958) Anne Fulchino from Radio Corporation of America wrote:

"While sipping coffee, Steve Sholes pulled out a demonstration record of "Don't Be Cruel" and told Elvis it was a new song written by Otis Blackwell, whom Elvis had long admired as a rhythm and blues artist. It took just a few bars to convince Presley that it was a perfect song for him, and he decided to cut it right away. Presley learned the song within minutes—he has an inherent musical sense—and in short order a great master was put on tape. It isn't often that the title of a song will create a whole new expression in Americana. "All Shook Up" did exactly that. Youngsters and adults alike have made the phrase a common part of everyday usage. The background to the song itself is a rather interesting one. Since the huge success of "Don't Be Cruel", Elvis had been anxious to record another song from the pen of Otis Blackwell. Eventually, Blackwell came around with "All Shook Up (first recorded by David Hill on Aladdin) ." Presley wasn't completely satisfied with the song, and with Blackwell's consent re-wrote part of the lyrics. Thus, as co-writer as well as artist, Presley produced his ninth consecutive gold record, his first in the year 1957."

During an appearance on "Late Night with David Letterman," Blackwell said he'd never met Presley in person. When he was having a contract dispute with his publishing company, he also wrote under the white-sounding pen-name of "John Davenport",[2] Throughout his lifetime, Blackwell composed more than a thousand songs, garnering worldwide sales of close to 200 million records.[5] Colonel Tom Parker, manager of Elvis asked Otis to appear in the Presley movie Girls! Girls! Girls!, for which he had written "Return to Sender," but the superstition about meeting Elvis kept him from accepting.[6]

In 1956 Blackwell first gave "Don't Be Cruel" to friend Frankie Valli's group The Four Lovers but as they were recording it he asked to take it back and in turn gave it to an up-and-coming Elvis Presley. In exchange for this song he gave them "You're The Apple Of My Eye" which became a chart hit for the Four Lovers (Billboard #64). The song was performed on the Ed Sullivan show that same year and was probably instrumental in at least shaping events for the group to eventually becoming The Four Seasons. A shortened version of "You're The Apple Of My Eye" is also featured in the Broadway show "Jersey Boys".

As the tide of rock 'n' roll receded, Blackwell recorded R&B material for numerous labels including Atlantic, MGM and Epic. In later years he was in semi-retirement, making only occasional live appearances. Otis Blackwell is the grandfather of Torian Brown.

During the 1980s, Blackwell toured and recorded with The Smithereens as his backing band for both live shows and studio recordings.The partnership produced two self-funded albums, "Let's Talk About Us" and "From The Beginning," which were released independently on Blackwell's ROC-CO imprint.

In 1991, Blackwell was left paralyzed by a stroke. Three years later, Shanachie released Brace Yourself! A Tribute to Otis Blackwell. The album features 15 Blackwell-penned tracks recorded by the likes of Kris Kristofferson ("All Shook Up"), Blondie's Debbie Harry ("Don't Be Cruel"), The Smithereens ("Let's Talk About Us"), Graham Parker ("Paralyzed"), and Ronnie Spector ("Brace Yourself").[7] Otis Blackwell died in 2002 of a heart attack and was interred in Woodlawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Nashville, Tennessee.[8]

Awards and recognitions[edit]

Otis Blackwell was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1986 and in 1991 into the National Academy of Popular Music's Songwriters Hall of Fame.[2] Blackwell's crowning moment came in the late 1980s when the Black Rock Coalition, a prominent organization of black rock musicians, led by Vernon Reid, the lead guitarist of the band, Living Colour, 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."

Blackwell was named one of the 2010 recipients of Ahmet Ertegun Award in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.[9] This category encompasses those who primarily work behind the scenes in the music industry.


Otis Blackwell was one of the greatest R&B songwriters of all time.[10] His songwriting style is as uniquely identifiable as that of Leiber and Stoller, Chuck Berry, or Willie Dixon and helped redefine popular music in America in the 1950s.[5] This is true even though he often collaborated with such partners as Winfield Scott, Eddie Cooley, and Jack Hammer. Blackwell was one of the most important innovators who helped invent the musical vocabulary of rock & roll at its very beginning.[1] Blackwell's works have been recorded into immortality by a host of other major figures in the record field, including Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ray Charles, Otis Redding, James Brown, The Who, Johnny Thunders, Billy Joel, James Taylor, Dolly Parton, Conway Twitty, The Judds, Carl Perkins and Peggy Lee, among numerous others. 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.[11]


Songs he composed, with the performer who made them famous, include:

Selective discography[edit]

Year Title Genre Label
1955 Otis Blackwell 1953-55 Blues, Rock & Roll, R&B Flyright
1978 These Are My Songs Blues, Rock & Roll, R&B Inner City
2005 1952-1954 Blues, Rock & Roll, R&B Classics R&B


  1. ^ a b "Otis Blackwell - Biography". allmusic. Retrieved 2006-11-20. 
  2. ^ a b c "Otis Blackwell (1931–2002)". Spectropop. Retrieved 2006-11-20. 
  3. ^ Trager, Oliver. Keys to the Rain: The Definitive Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, Billboard Books (2004), page 700 - ISBN 0-8230-7974-0
  4. ^ "Winfield Scott". Elvis.com.au. Retrieved 2006-11-20. 
  5. ^ a b "Otis Blackwell - Biography". Songwriters Hall of Fame. Archived from the original on 2006-10-01. Retrieved 2006-11-20. 
  6. ^ Giddins, Gary. Riding on a Blue Note: Jazz and American, Da Capo Press (2000), page 37
  7. ^ Billboard: Songwriter Otis Blackwell Dies
  8. ^ Find a Grave: Otis Blackwell
  9. ^ "Congratulations to the 2010 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductees!". Retrieved 2009-12-15. 
  10. ^ Holly George-Warren &, Anthony Decurtis (Eds.) (1976). The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll (3rd ed.). New York: Random House. p. 27. ISBN 0-679-73728-6. 
  11. ^ Song Writers Hall Of Fame info

Sources and further reading[edit]

  • Wilmer, Val. "Rock and Roll Genius" [interview with Otis Blackwell]. Melody Maker. 5 February 1977, Vol. 52: pp. 8, 44.
  • Wilmer, Val. "'I'm Happy as All Hell that the Man Took My Songs'" [interview with Otis Blackwell]. Time Out. 6–12 March 1981, pp. 12–13

External links[edit]