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Otis Blackwell

Great songwriter of the mid-1950s, one of the architects of rock & roll, penning "Great Balls of Fire" among others. 

b. February 16, 1932 in Brooklyn, NY, d. May 6, 2002 in Nashville, TN. The author of ‘Great Balls Of Fire’, ‘Fever’, ‘Don’t Be Cruel’ and ‘All Shook Up’, Blackwell was one of the greatest songwriters of the rock ‘n’ roll era. He learned piano as a child and grew up listening to both R&B and country music. Victory in a talent contest at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre led to a recording contract with Joe Davis’ Jay-Dee label. His first release was his own composition ‘Daddy Rollin’ Stone’, which became a favourite in Jamaica where it was recorded by Derek Martin. The song later became part of the Who’s ‘Mod’ repertoire. During the mid-50s, Blackwell also recorded in a rock ‘n’ roll vein for RCA Records and Groove before turning to writing songs for other artists. 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. Subsequently, ‘Don’t Be Cruel’ and ‘All Shook Up’ (first recorded by David Hill on Aladdin Records) began a highly profitable association with Elvis Presley. ‘Don’t Be Cruel’ was originally released as the b-side of ‘Hound Dog’, but went on to top the US charts in its own right for nine weeks. The rhythmic tension of ‘All Shook Up’ perfectly fitted Presley’s stage persona and it became his first UK number 1. It was followed by ‘Paralysed’ (1957), and the more-mellow ‘Return To Sender’ (1962) and ‘One Broken Heart For Sale’. There was a distinct similarity between Blackwell’s vocal style and Presley’s, which has led to speculation that Elvis adopted some of his songwriter’s mannerisms.

The prolific Blackwell (who wrote hundreds of songs) also provided hits for Jerry Lee Lewis (‘Breathless’ and his most famous recording, ‘Great Balls Of Fire’, 1958), Dee Clark (‘Hey Little Girl’ and ‘Just Keep It Up’, 1959), Jimmy Jones (‘Handy Man’, 1960) and Cliff Richard (‘Nine Times Out Of Ten’, 1960). As the tide of rock ‘n’ roll receded, Blackwell recorded R&B material for numerous labels including Atlantic Records, MGM Records and Epic. In later years, he was in semi-retirement, making only occasional live appearances. He was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters’ Hall Of Fame in 1986, and received a Pioneer Award from the Rhythm & Blues Foundation eight years later. Blackwell suffered a stroke in 1991 and remained in poor health up until his death in May 2002.