Respected singer-songwriter Otis Blackwell composed many rock 'n' roll standards in the 1950s and 1960s. Born in Brooklyn in 1932, Blackwell grew up admiring country-western singer and actor Tex Ritter. Otis became a staff writer for Shalimar Music in early 1956 after he sold six songs to that company for $25 each, including 'Don't Be Cruel'. Blackwell had been standing in front of the Brill Building (home to rock 'n' roll music publishing) in New York City on Christmas Eve when an arranger asked him if he had any songs to sell. He then took Otis to meet Shalimar's owners, who purchased the songs and hired him after the holidays.
Elvis recorded ten Blackwell compositions including 'Fever' (written with Eddie Cooley), 'All Shook Up', 'Paralyzed', and 'Return to Sender' (rewritten with Winfield Scott). Among Blackwell's other rock 'n' roll classics are Jerry Lee Lewis' 'Great Balls of Fire' and 'Breathless'. Blackwell sang on the demos of his songs for Elvis and Jerry Lee and imitated their styles, but Blackwell and Elvis never met.
Dubbed the 'the Song Painter' by Glen Campbell, Mac Davis is well known for composing songs that use concrete imagery to paint a picture or tell a story. In the 1970s, Davis teamed with Billy Strange, and Elvis recorded several Davis-Strange compositions. The pair provided Elvis with the theme song to Charro!, the tune 'Nothingville' from the television special Elvis, a reflective ballad titled 'Memories', and a couple of light pieces called 'Clean Up Your Own Back Yard' and 'A Little Less Conversation'.
Alone, Davis wrote two of Elvis' biggest hits of the 1970s, the socially conscious 'In the Ghetto' and the sentimental ballad 'Don't Cry Daddy'. During the late 1960s and 1970s, Davis' compositions were recorded by major artists, including Lou Rawls, Bobby Goldsboro, Glen Campbell, Kenny Rogers, Andy Williams, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Dolly Parton. Davis ventured into acting in the 1970s and costarred in a handful of major Hollywood movies, including North Dallas Forty and Cheaper to Keep Her.
Leiber And Stoller
Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller adapted aspects of blues and R&B when writing for rock 'n' roll performers. Their integration of these musical genres in the 1950s expanded the commercial possibilities of rock 'n' roll. The pair met in Los Angeles in 1950 when they were just 17 years old. Stoller the musician and Leiber the songwriter found they shared an interest in blues and R&B, so they spent the summer writing songs in those styles.
Sill, sales manager for Modem Records, took them under his wing and introduced them to performers and industry reps. Despite their youth, the pair fared well because the prominent Tin Pan Alley songwriters of the day thought rock 'n' roll was beneath them. Leiber and Stoller are noted for structuring their songs like playlets. That is, they tell a story -- usually with wit or satire -- within the three-minute length of a popular song. Elvis recorded about two dozen Leiber and Stoller tunes, including 'Hound Dog' and 'Jailhouse Rock'.
Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman
Brooklyn-born Doc Pomus and native New Yorker Mort Shuman teamed to write 15 songs for Elvis, including some that were used for his movie soundtracks. The unforgettable title song for Viva Las Vegas was composed by Pomus and Shuman especially for the film. Other movie songs included earlier Pomus-Shuman compositions that were then recycled for the soundtracks. Pomus cowrote a few other soundtrack tunes with other songwriters, including 'Girl Happy', 'I Feel That I've Known You Forever', and 'She's Not You'.
The team's best work was for Elvis' nonsoundtrack recordings, including the million-selling 'Little Sister'. Other significant Pomus-Shuman compositions include 'Surrender,” based on the Italian ballad 'Come Back to Sorrento', and 'Suspicion'. Pomus and Shuman also penned several rock classics for other artists, including 'This Magic Moment' and 'Save the Last Dance for Me' by the Drifters and 'A Teenager in Love' by Dion and the Belmonts.
Born in Atlanta, Georgia, on March 20, 1937, country singer-songwriter Jerry Reed Hubbard composed four songs recorded by Elvis. Though this is only a handful in comparison to other songwriters who wrote for Elvis, two of the tunes included 'Guitar Man' and 'U.S. Male'. These songs were recorded just prior to the surge of creativity generated by the television special Elvis. The songs represented a move away from the soundtrack recordings and toward better-quality material with a contemporary feel.
Reed also played guitar for Elvis on 'Guitar Man'. Reed was one of several Southern musicians who had been influenced by Elvis and later ended up working with him. In 1967, Reed recorded 'Tupelo Mississippi Flash', an Elvis novelty record that was a comic tribute to his idol. Reed's career as a performer accelerated in the 1970s. He profited from his rowdy good-old-boy image when a vogue for things Southern hit Hollywood. He costarred with Burt Reynolds in four films, including the popular Smokey and the Bandit.
Reed was voted Musician of the Year by the Country Music Association in 1970 and 1971. In 1970, he won a Grammy for 'Me and Jerry', his first duet album with Chet Atkins. Musicians from all over the world would try to copy his incredible country finger-style of guitar playing, which often includes playing rhythm and lead simultaneously!
Born in 1921 in Providence, Rhode Island, Ben Weisman wrote or cowrote more than 50 songs for Elvis -- more than any other songwriter. Weisman began his prolific association with Elvis with 'First in Line', which was recorded in 1956. He was often teamed with Fred Wise, but he also composed with Aaron Schroeder and Randy Starr.
Many of Weisman's compositions were written for Elvis' movie soundtracks, so they were intended to fit into the story-line or advance the plot. Most were in the smooth, pop-flavored style that defined Elvis' soundtrack recordings. Within those limitations, Weisman sometimes came up with some memorable runes. Some of his best include 'Crawfish' from King Creole, the title tune from Follow That Dream, 'Rock-a-Hula Baby' from Blue Hawaii, 'I Slipped, I Stumbled, I Fell' from Wild in the Country, and 'Got a Lot o' Livin' to Do' from Loving You. In his later career, Weisman had a recurring role on the CBS soap opera The Young and the Restless as a pianist in the Club Allegro.
If you like reading this article, you will love the book; Writing For The King - a 400 page Book with more than 140 interviews with songwriters like Paul McCartney, Leiber & Stoller, Pomus & Shuman, Red West, Mark James and Tony Joe White. Included are two CDs, the first contains previously unreleased RCA recordings of Elvis performing live in Las Vegas (1969 through 1972), the second a selection of the original demos submitted to Elvis.
The demo CD takes us from Heartbreak Hotel through classics like Teddy Bear, Trouble, Burning Love and Way Down.
'Writing for the King' by Ken Sharp is a fascinating behind-the-scenes story of politics, money, inspiration and great trivia about Elvis and the songs he turned into classics.