Otis Blackwell

Otis Blackwell - pianist, vocalist, composer (1931 - 2002)

Otis Blackwell was a pianist and a singer whose vocal style had a strong influence on the young Elvis Presley. Yet he will be remembered best not as a performer but as a one-man song-writing factory who helped to shape 1950’s rock 'n' roll and whose most memorable compositions included “Don't Be Cruel,” “All Shook Up,” “Fever” and “Great Balls of Fire,” all prominent in annals of American popular music.

Born in Brooklyn in 1931, and brought up in New York City, he learned 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 the self-composed 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. Blackwell made further recordings for RCA Records and the Groove label which were among the earliest examples of the emerging rock'n'roll style. But all the time he was developing his songwriting and 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. 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.

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