Otis Blackwell: 1931 to 2002
Songwriter Otis Blackwell, author of several touchstones of early rock ‘n’ roll, died May 6 in Nashville, Tennessee. He was 70.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, Blackwell briefly pursued a singing career as a young man, but it was as a writer that he discovered himself — and that he helped to invent what we now call rock ‘n’ roll. Along with writers such as Chuck Berry and the teams of Leiber & Stoller and Pomus & Shuman, Blackwell established the new music’s vernacular, also aiding in its acceptance beyond a strictly youth-oriented audience.
“Fever”, his first songwriting success, was a major hit for R&B vocalist Little Willie John in 1956, for example, but a cover of the song by jazz-pop singer Peggy Lee became an even bigger hit two years later. By the 1970s, the song had become a pop standard, via versions by everyone from Elvis Presley and teen rockers the McCoys to Rita Coolidge.
Blackwell wrote other enduring songs as well. His “Handy Man” was a hit three times — for R&B singer Jimmy Jones in 1960, Del Shannon in 1964, and James Taylor in 1977 — and his “Home In Your Heart” became soul shouter Solomon Burke’s first single in 1962. Jerry Lee Lewis had a 1958 hit with Blackwell’s “Breathless” (later covered by Los Angeles punk band X), and Elvis Presley regularly took Blackwell’s songs — “All Shook Up” and “Return To Sender” among them — to the top of the charts.
Most indelible of all, Blackwell’s trio of mid-1950s masterpieces — John’s “Fever”, Lewis’ “Great Balls Of Fire”, and Presley’s “Don’t Be Cruel” mapped out the musical and emotional terrain that rock music has explored ever since. Indeed, it seems likely that Blackwell’s songs will be remembered for exactly as long as people remember rock ‘n’ roll.