By Ralph E. Moore, Jr.,
Special to the AFRO
Otis Blackwell is one of the most famous songwriters, but most folks never heard of him.
Blackwell wrote several bestselling songs for Elvis Presley. And admittedly, I never heard of Blackwell until Stevie Wonder received a Grammy Award for Best Male Vocalist in 1976 and acknowledged Otis Blackwell as a magnificent songwriter. Wonder accepted the award during the televised ceremony and used the moment to educate the public and honor the little-known artist, Blackwell.
There is a new movie out entitled, ‘Elvis’ referring in the biographical musical drama to the rock and roll performer, Elvis Presley. Tom Hanks is the biggest name in the 2-hour and 49-minute film. There is no mention of the Black songwriter in the motion picture.
Some call Presley the “King of Rock and Roll” and I admit to never being much of a fan, however, Dana Moore and I once visited his home, Graceland, in Memphis, Tenn. The place was a little “over-decorated” but what is most striking is that he is buried on the property next to his mansion. Folks were there crying real tears at his gravesite. Elvis had died over 30 years earlier when we happened to visit.
Blackwell on the other hand, born in Brooklyn, NY in 1931 played the piano, sang and wrote successful tunes for Elvis including, “Don’t Be Cruel,” “All Shook Up” and “Return to Sender.” The songs Blackell wrote helped launch Presley’s career.
Blackwell, himself, tried to become a performer and thought he was on his way when he won an amateur talent contest in 1952 at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. But he never caught on from the stage wherever he tried. “When you hit them with your best stuff and they just look at you, well it’s time to go home,” Blackwell said back then.
But once he turned completely to songwriting, his success was overwhelming with the several million-selling songs written by him. Incidentally, he also wrote “Great Balls of Fire” for Jerry Lee Lewis. The world may have ‘little-noted him,’ but Stevie helped us all ‘long remember’ him. Due to a contract dispute with his publisher, Blackwell eventually wrote under the pseudonym (fake name), John Davenport. He composed more than a thousand songs over his lifetime.
Presley was not well known when he started recording Blackwell’s music. It was Blackwell’s songs that kept Presley on the top ten charts the longest. “Hound Dog” was a big hit that stayed on the Billboard Chart much longer than “Don’t Be Cruel,” which was on the B Side of Presley’s “Hound Dog” record.
Presley did not list Blackwell as lead head writer of his early songs, but that Black man wrote songs that contributed mightily to the so-called “King of Rock and Roll’s” success. Instead, Presley listed himself as a co-writer on songs he never actually wrote.
Reflecting on the way the recording industry operated in the 1950s and 1960s, Blackwell noted of Presley, “He got famous, and I got rewards. That’s fair.”
Still, one can’t ignore how similar the men sound. Some believe the demo tapes that Blackwell created and sent around to various record companies fell into the hands of Presley. Blackwell believed Presley heard his songs and learned how to use the Black man’s singing style for his future recordings. He stated as much on David Letterman’s Late Night Show, January 10, 1984. If you listen to and watch videos of Blackwell on YouTube, you will notice Presley sounds a lot like him. As of the date of that show, Otis Blackwell and Elvis Presley had never met.
After suffering a stroke in 1991, Otis Blackwell died in 2002 in Nashville. He was 71 years old at the time. A tribute album to Blackwell entitled, “Brace Yourself” by various artists was recorded and released in 1994.
For those who think of Elvis Presley as the ‘King of Rock and Roll,’ just remember, Otis Blackwell was the power behind the throne.
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