Otis Blackwell & Elvis Presley
March 5, 2008
Otis Blackwell : On Christmas Eve in '55, I was standing outside the Brill Building with no hat and holes in my shoes. It was snowin'. Leroy Kirkland, the arranger who worked with Screamin' Jay Hawkins, asked if I had any songs. I said, 'Yeah, I'm trying to get some Christmas money'. He took me to Shalimar Music where I met Goldie Goldmark, Al Stanton and Moe Gayle. So I said OK. Al Stanton was a friend of another fellow named Paul Cates, who was with the Elvis Presley people. He got my songs through'.I was working for Shalimar, and Elvis was with Hill & Range. So they got together to co-publish. I played seven songs for them-one of the songs was 'Don't Be Cruel'. They bought it and showed it to the Elvis company. They asked me could I write some more stuff. So I made a couple of demos. I made the demos to 'Don't Be Cruel', 'Paralyzed' and 'All Shook Up'. When Elvis recorded these songs, he was copying the vocal style on the demos. And when they heard that, they asked me would I make other demos for writers as well.
'After 'Don't Be Cruel', Shalimar said I had a chance to get Presley again, so I wrote 'All Shook Up'. Al Stanton walked in one day with a bottle of Pepsi, shaking it, as they did at the time, and said, 'Otis, I've got an idea. Why don't you write a song called 'All Shook Up?' Two days later I brought the song in and said, 'Look, man, I did something with it'. After that song, the agreement about sharing songwriting credit was washed. We had both proved how good we were and had a good thing between the two of us.
'I was surprised when I heard 'Don't Be Cruel' because it was just like I had done the demo. I used to sing all my own demos, and it just so happened that a lot of what Presley and Jerry Lee did sounded alike. I thought they did justice to the songs. They put the kind of feeling into it that I felt'. (Otis Blackwell interview excerpts o Jan-Erik Kjeseth)
Otis Blackwell was born in Brooklyn in 1932, 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 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.
His association with Elvis 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'. 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 in Nashville, Tennessee, on May 6, 2002
The Otis Blackwell Interview - Time Barrier Express Magazine - July 1979
TBE - We'd really like to take you back to the beginning. Where are you from originally, and when were you born?
OB - I'm from Brooklyn, New York, born on February 16, 1932.
TBE - When did you first get interested In music? How old were you?
OH - Well, I had an uncle who was into music. He went to a lot of shows. You know, those things at the Apollo Theatre and all the dances at the Savoy Club. He used to take me to what they called round robins, different bars. That's how we used to make a little change. I'd get up and sing a song or two, people would throw quarters. You know, the old tap-dance thing on the corners, except it was in the bars. One day he took me to a friend of his who was working for New York's Amsterdam News, a gentleman by the name of Willie Saunders. He more or less took me over; he had deals with different clubs. That's how I began singing. I was 16.
TBE - Who were some of your early influences?
OB - Tex Ritter was my idol. In my neighborhood there was a movie theatre called the Tompkins. I used to sit from morning to night watching cowboy pictures. I grew up with cowboys - Tex was my man. I would have preferred to sing country but when I went out I used to sing 'Ill Get Along Somehow,' by Larry Darnell, that was one of the songs I enjoyed doing. Larry Darnell and Chuck Willis were two other idols.
TBE - That must have been very early Chuck Willis on Okeh Records, before he became really popular on Atlantic. When did you start writing songs of your own?
OB - I started writing when I began singing. I'd sit down and doodle and fool around but I must have been 18 when I got out and hustled the songs. That was the first stuff I did when I recorded for Joe Davis. I know I was very young; I had to bring my mother to sign the contract.
TBE - I believe you made the first Joe Davis record in 1948 on RCA, not on his own label. The train record.
OB - That was a song written by Benny Benjamin, 'Nobody Met The Train'. 'Daddy Rolling Stone' was the second record.
TBE - How did you first meet Joe Davis?
OB - A friend of mine, Cliff Martinez, had a booking agency. He used to get me little spots where I'd sing with the cocktail drummer and piano player. I didn't particularly like the idea of show business, at the time, because to tell the truth I wasn't making any money at it! I had to go to work pressing clothes. Anyway, he introduced me to Joe Davis.
TBE - How long did you stay with Joe Davis? About 3 years?
OB - Well, it was something like that. We had a little problem. He had me under contract as an artist and a writer. I was supposed to collect $50 a week as a writer and I don't remember how much for the other contract. I think I got two checks and from then on all I got was stories. You know, a lifetime contract and I got $100. Later on I had to pay a pretty good dollar to get out of it.
TBE So you left Davis around '50 and went back to work. Your next music involvement was with Eddie Cooley and 'Fever?'
OB - There was a group I became friendly with. One of its members Eddie Cooley, wasn't a singer then, we just write songs for the group. When the group broke up, he went back to the diamond business. It paid 180 dollars a week, so we had an agreement to write songs together and I would come to New York to hustle them and he would split his weekly pay with me. That enabled me to get around and meet people, the publishers, record companies, to hustle whatever songs we could a $25 advance for. A friend took me to Henry Clover at King Records to play a few songs - 'Fever' was one. We got a few dollars advance and when it became a hit it made us professional writers. I guess.
TBE Why does the song credit John Davenport instead of Otis Blackwell?
OB - Since it seemed Mr. Davis wasn't going to live up to his agreement for $50 a week, he definitely didn't want to give me a release from the contract, and I knew nothing about going to lawyers or BMI or ASCAP or any of the agencies that would have be able to help me. I began to write under my stepfather's name, John Davenport. I felt that if the publishing went through Joe Davis I wouldn't see any of the royalties.
TBE - Is it true that Little Willie John didn't want to do 'Fever?'
OB - That's what Henry Glover tells me. It wasn't the type of thing Willie was doing it the time, he didn't like the finger snapping. Finally Henry convinced him to record the song and they went in that night and did it.
TBE - Let's talk about Moe Gayle. Isn't that where you went next?
OB - On Christmas Eve '55, I was standing outside the Brill Building with no hat & holes in my shoes. It was snowin'. Leroy Kirkland, the arranger who worked with Screamin' Jay asked if I had any songs. I said. 'Yeah, I'm trying to get some Christmas money'. He took me to Shalimar Music where I met Goldie Goldmark, Al Stanton and Moe and if he didn't become big ,I really wasn't losing anything. So I said OK.
TBE - Did he give you an advance at that time against the song?
OB - Yeah, it took a little time, I guess to show how much he believed in it, he advanced me a good piece of money for it. I figured if he believed in it that much, I'd go along with it.
TBE - At that point, Elvis cut 'Don't Be Cruel'. Is it true that he asked you to write 'All Shook Up' for him?
OB - Well no, I was working for Shalimar and he was with Hill & Range. So they got together to co-publish. After 'Don't be Cruel', Shalimar said I had a chance to get Presley again, so I wrote 'All Shook Up'. THE - Didn't the idea for 'All Shook Up' come from Al Stanton?
OB - He walked in one day with a bottle of Pepsi, shaking it, as they did at the time, and said. 'Otis, I've got an idea. Why don't you write a song called 'All Shook up'. Two days later I brought the song in and said,' Look, man. I did something with it'. After that song the agreement about sharing song writing credit was washed. We had both proved how good we were and had a good thing between the two of us.
TBE - You never met Elvis Presley. Correct?
OB - I had the chance a couple of times, I was invited down by the Presley people. But, things were going so well, I Was - considered one of the top writers and was doing a lot of records. I figured that if I split, I might've lost' it, so I didn't go anywhere.
TBE - Tell us why 'Paralysed' never got off the ground as a single, even though it was on that best selling 'EP'
OB - 'The story I got was that, because of the word 'paralyzed' a lot of organizations got down on the thing, so they wouldn't release it as a single. At least that was the case here in the US - in Europe. It didn't hurt anybody.
TBE - How did you get involved with the film Jamboree?
OB - After a few years, I had a misunderstanding with Shalimar and left: I went to Paul Case at Hill and Range who asked me if I wanted to get involved with making a movie. I said yeah and they gave me the job of Musical Director, I don't remember who was all in the movie.
TBE - Buddy Knox, Charlie Gracie, Jimmy Bowen. Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis...
OB - But Jerry Lee wasn't originally in the movie, it was a 'low budget' and they needed to fill up some space, so they asked me to find an artist to put into the thing. I went to a friend's record store in Brooklyn and just listened to records in his back room. I must have listened to 100 records until I came across this record ... in fact he only had one copy of it ... way in the back. I took this record back to Paul Case and said. I'm gonna tell you man. I hear this dude as being one of the top artists. Maybe even bigger than Presley!' It was Jerry Lee Lewis doing 'Whole Lotta Shakin' Coin' On'. They approached him and got him, but then they wanted an original song for him to do. I said I didn't have anything at the time, but I would look around.
A few days later a writer by the name of Jack Hammer brought me a group song called 'Great Balls of Fire'. I liked the title so I said, 'Give me the title, I'll write the song'. So I wrote the song around Jack Hammer's title and they got Jerry Lee to record it. They signed Jerry Lee and were promoting 'Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On' and it was a big record, which I was happy about since I was going to have his next release.
TBE - After that he recorded 'Breathless', which is a song you wrote totally by yourself. You got a Charlie Gracie tune out of the movie too - 'Cool Baby'. And you also had Eddie Cooley The Dimples with 'Priscilla'. That was quite a successful period for you.
OB - We wrote 'Priscilla' at the same time as 'Fever'. A lot of my titles used to come from the comics. Priscilla was a little girl in the Daily News. I convinced Jack Hook, of Royal Roost, to record Eddie Cooley, He and his partner Teddy Reed were doing a jazz session and he had Eddie Cooley and the two girls and me come up at the end to record this. The musicians had never done anything like this before and Teddy didn't know what the hell was going on. But Jack dug the song and I guess he thought he could do something because he was real tight with Alan Freed. It was real funny man, 'cause when they started doing the song, Teddy said, 'God! What is this?' and got up and left!
TBE - Your next major success, during the summer of '59, came with two hits by Dee Clark. How did that come about?
OB - By this time I was back at Shalimar. They had very tight connections with VeeJay. I wrote 'Just Keep It Up' on a plane from California. I was doing a lot of heavy travelling in those days. Staying away from home a great deal. I got to thinking that it wouldn't he long before I'd be told by my wife: 'just keep this up and see what happens!' That's how it hit me -I wrote the song right there and took it to Shalimar. They sent it to Vee Jay and the next thing you know, I got a call informing me that it was recorded by Dee Clark. Shalimar also got me the follow up, 'Hey Little Girl (In The High School Sweater' which I did not originally write with that 'Bo Diddley' beat. That was added later at the session.
TBE - At what point did you start writing with, Winfield Scott? Whose big hit had been 'Tweedlee Dee' by Lavern Baker
OB - I first met Winfield Scott at Roosevelt Music - the first time I left Shalimar. When I went back, we wrote a couple of songs. Then he wanted to go back to Roosevelt and I did. We didn't have a contract it was just on a song-by-song basis and office space. Then Elvis came back on the scene and Hill & Range called. We had been doing songs for different artists but then we concentrated on Elvis. The first song was 'Return To Sender'. The movie people gave us some titles to write. The only song we wrote for the movie was 'Comin' In Loaded but we played 'Return To Sender' for Col. Parker. They recorded it and it came out in the movie. We also had 'One broken heart for sale', Such an easy question, Don't drag that string around, it was the B side of 'Devil In Disguise' and some others that were never released.
TBE - Wasn't it also during this period that you began producing Jimmy Jones?
OB - yeah. Jimmy came to me with an idea for a song called' Handy Man', which Just needed a little work on it, a few words here, a few words there. We went into the studio and made a demo of it, which Goldie played for Arnold Maxim at MGM. They put it out, and it was the demo that they released, with a few little things added to it
TBE - What that Jimmy Jones' very first solo record? You know that earlier he had been in a group called The Pretenders. We almost got into a 'court thing' over that! I didn't know that Jimmy had been in a group and that they had already recorded a song called 'Whistlin' Man'. What made it so ironic is that 'Handy Man' had whistling in it, which I did.The only reason I did that was because the flute player didn't show so I whistled the flute part. When I finally did hear 'Whistlin' Man' some years later, I had to admit that the two songs were pretty close.
TBE - You went on to produce Jimmy Jones' 'Good Timing' and Roy Hamilton's 'Don't Let Go', neither of which you wrote, correct?
OB Don't let go was a Jesse Stone song, which Jesse had arranged a little lower. When I came to the session, Jesse was kind of despondent 'cause Roy couldn't seem to get it the way he wanted it. So I said, 'lets pick it up' and told Roy to holler 'uh uh' every time I tapped him on the shoulder. That was the 'thing' at the time, everyone moaning and groaning.
TBE - Who were some of the other artists you produced? With whom did you moat enjoy working?
OB - What got me off the most was producing Mahalia Jackson, Before Arnold Maxim came to MGM, he was at Columbia- I was introduced to Mahalia and john Hammond, who was recording her. He asked me if I wanted to work with Mahalia and went over to the hotel where she was staying, played her a tape of a couple of tunes and she picked 'For My Good Fortune', which was also done by Pat Boone. I wrote that song with Bobby Stevenson with whom I'd written 'Hey little girl'. He was also playing drums with me during the $3 per 'gig' days way back when I worked with Johnny Ray who I produced for Shalimar. It was the beginning of them using outside people to come in and produce.
TBE - You didn't seem to get production credit in those days. That wasn't 'in' at the time, right?
OB - No, there were no production deals at the time. We were doing it because the publisher had an 'in' with the A&R man. I also produced Frankie Valli & The Four Lovers, In fact, I wrote 'Apple Of My Eye' in the bathroom because they needed a song, Frankie Valli and I got to he really good friends. I was supposed to be the best man at his wedding.
TBE - One thing everyone is always interested in is the similarities between the demos you did for Elvis and Jerry Lee and the final recordings they did of your songs.
OB - I used to sing all my own demos, and it just so happened that a lot of what Presley and Jerry Lee did sound alike. I thought that they did justice to the songs. They put the kind of feeling into it that I felt.
TBE - The death of Elvis must have affected you. How did you first hear of Elvis' death and what were your thoughts?
OB - I was in a friend's studio when a buddy of his called and told him. He said 'I got some news for you. It's bad news in one respect and good news in another. Do you want me to tell you now or later?' I said later because I was in the studio when President Kennedy was killed and also when Martin Luther King was killed. I know the effect bad news can have on a session. When the session was over he told me and I thought he was joking. It didn't hit me until I lay down to sleep. The one other time that I experienced that was when my mother died and my son. It wasn't because he wouldn't he doing any more of my songs. It was lï¿½ke a piece of the whole business. I mean some people you just figure are never going to die. Inside man, they'll always live. When they're gone, a certain piece goes and you just can't believe it.
TBE - There were lots of younger people who only became aware of Otis Blackwell when Elvis died, after they read how much of his early material you had written. What are your feelings about that? What prompted you late in '77 to go out on tour with Elvis' songs?
OB I thought it was time to step out of the shadows. Before he died! I had already started an album of all my stuff. I had planned on meeting him when he opened up in Vegas. So we had started rehearsals, gotten a band together. I felt well there are all those singer-songwriters now - 'what the hell, let me try it. So I got a few fellows together and did a few spots and I found that I really liked it.
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