Born and brought up in New York City, he learnt the piano as a child and listened on the radio to rhythm and blues (then known as “race” music) and to country music in films starring such singing cowboys as Gene Autry and Tex Ritter. They were the two elements that were eventually to combine in the early 1950s to create the hybrid that was rock’n’roll.
On leaving school in the late 1940s, he worked first as a lowly floor-sweeper at a New York theatre and then as a clothes-presser in a laundry. In 1952 he won a local talent contest at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem and secured a recording contract with Joe Davis’s Jay-Dee label. It was at Davis’s suggestion that he began writing his own songs. “I was thrown into it,” he later said.
His first release was his own composition “Daddy Rolling Stone”. It failed to reach the charts but later became a big hit in Jamaica where it was recorded by Derek Martin, and was also covered by The Who in their early “mod” period. which became a favorite in Jamaica where it was recorded by Derek Martin. The song later became part of The Who’s Mod repertoire. Blackwell made further recordings for RCA Records and the Groove label, which were among the earliest examples of the emerging rock’n’roll style. Yet, with all the time he was developing his songwriting, on Christmas Eve 1955, he sold the demos of six songs he had written for $25 each. They included “Don’t Be Cruel”, which featured him singing over an accompaniment of piano and a cardboard box for a drum. He found his first love was songwriting and by 1955 had settled into the groove that he would ride for decades as he became one of the greatest R&B songwriters of all time whose work significantly influenced rock ‘n’ roll. Yet his first big hit as a writer came not with “Don’t Be Cruel” but with the sultry and atmospheric “Fever”. Originally an R&B hit in 1956 for Little Willie John, it became an even bigger pop hit for Peggy Lee and has since been covered several hundred times by other artists.
His vocal style was said to have had a strong influence on the young Elvis Presley, he is remembered best not as a performer but as a one-man song-writing factory who helped to shape 1950s rock’n’roll and whose most memorable compositions included Don’t Be Cruel, All Shook Up, Fever and Great Balls of Fire.
His association with Presley began around the same time, when the singer covered “Don’t Be Cruel”. Originally released as the B-side of Hound Dog, the song had topped the American charts in its own right by September 1956. It simultaneously headed both the R&B and Country charts. Next, Presley recorded Blackwell’s “Paralysed”, which fared less well, although it later reached No 8 in the British charts.
But by April 1957 a version of “All Shook Up”, originally recorded by the little-known David Hill, had not only restored Presley to the top of the charts but also become the biggest selling single of the year. The song was written after Blackwell’s publisher, “Goldie” Goldhawk, had shaken up a bottle of Pepsi and said to him: “You can write about anything. Now write about this!” Blackwell provided Presley with further hit songs, including “Return to Sender” and “One Broken Heart for Sale”. But “All Shook Up” and “Don’t Be Cruel” have remained in the record books as the two songs which stayed at No.1 for longer than any of Presley’s other hits.
There has been considerable speculation over the relationship between Blackwell and Presley, who never met. “We had a great thing going and I just wanted to leave it alone,” Blackwell said in an interview in 1989. Their two names often appeared together on records as co-writers, but in truth Presley’s role as a writer was negligible. It was common practice at the time to sell part or all of the rights of a song and Presley’s astute manager, Colonel Tom Parker, was well aware of the value of the publishing royalties. It has also been said that Presley borrowed many of his vocal mannerisms from Blackwell. Certainly it was the singer’s method at the time to copy wholesale the writer’s demo of a song, arrangement and all. As Presley used Blackwell’s demos to learn the songs, the debt was probably considerable.
A prolific writer, who sometimes used the white-sounding pseudonym John Davenport, Blackwell copyrighted more than a thousand compositions in his career. Among them was Jerry Lee Lewis’s signature tune “Great Balls of Fire”, as well as further hits for Lewis in “Breathless” and “Let’s Talk About Us”. There were more 1950s rock’n’roll hits with “Hey Little Girl” and “Just Keep It Up” by the now almost-forgotten Dee Clark, and Cliff Richard recorded his “Nine Times out of Ten”. Jimmy Jones had a hit in 1960 with Blackwell’s “Handy Man”, which was revived by James Taylor in the 1970s, and Neil Diamond, Billy Joel and Tanya Tucker also recorded his songs. So, too, did Ray Charles and Otis Redding, although Blackwell was disappointed that few black artists ever had hits with his compositions.
He continued writing and performing and enjoyed some success in 1976 with the comeback album “These Are My Songs!” on the Inner City label. He also recorded the tribute The No.1 King of Rock’n’Roll on his own Fever label when Presley died in 1977. In 1991 he was inducted into the National Academy of Popular Music’s Songwriters Hall of Fame. Three years later, Chrissie Hynde, Graham Parker and Deborah Harry were among those contributing cover versions of his songs to the album “Brace Yourself: A Tribute to the Songs of Otis Blackwell”.
Otis 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.
His crowning moment came in the late 1980s when the Black Rock Coalition, an 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.
Although there were many other generous acknowledgements to his role and influence down the years, his style essentially belonged to an earlier era and he was never to repeat the scale of success he had enjoyed in rock’n’roll’s first decade.
Otis Blackwell died from a heart attack in Nashville, Tennessee, on May 6, 2002 at age 69.