Far more famous and successful as a songwriter for hire, penning some of the biggest and most enduring hits of the 1950’s and early 60’s, Otis Blackwell was also a talented vocalist whose failure to connect as an artist despite some good efforts resulted in his changing his focus and hitting big.

Blackwell was born in Brooklyn in 1932 and his affinity for music spanned all genres, including country music, which would help give him the stylistic diversity perfect for a songwriter during the initial crossover years of rock ‘n’ roll, able to pen songs for a wide array of artists with different attributes.

Yet it was as singer and pianist that Blackwell first tried gaining entry into the music world, competing in the infamous Amateur Nights at The Apollo Theater before turning twenty years old.

Upon meeting Doc Pomus, still one of the only white rock singers to have cut records, Blackwell was encouraged to also develop his songwriting as Pomus had done of late. It was Pomus who introduced Blackwell to music publisher Joe Davis and it was Davis who got the aspiring singer a contract with RCA-Victor in the fall of 1952, a rare opportunity for a black rock act with only one record to his name, a co-lead (and co-write) with non-rock singer Viola Watkins on Jubilee which was released the same month as his first – and only – RCA session.

Taking matters into his own hands, Davis believed enough in Blackwell’s potential to put him on his own label – Jay-Dee Records – where he had some of his best releases including a least one song which would become something of a cult favorite and recorded (and also effectively re-written) by a number of interesting artists over the years.

Though he had yet to have a breakthrough as a writer, by spring 1954 he made it back to RCA, albeit put on their Groove subsidiary which itself was an attempt to court the rock market. He had just one release for them before being dropped. Had they kept him for a few years their investment would’ve paid off, as he turned full-time to writing and scored with their own artist Elvis Presley, who hit #1 with “Don’t Be Cruel”. He then gave Frankie Valli’s group, still known as The Four Lovers, their initial chart entry with “You’re The Apple Of My Eye”, immortalized Little Willie John as a rock legend with “Fever” and gave The Five Keys “My Pigeon’s Gone”, the latter two under the name John Davenport as he was looking to escape Joe Davis’s publishing control.

More hits followed in rapid succession in 1957 including two of his biggest with Presley’s “All Shook Up” and Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Great Balls Of Fire”. The next year he got The Killer his follow-up Top Ten smash “Breathless” and before the decade was out notched hits with Dee Clark with “Hey Little Girl” and Jimmy Jones’ oft-covered “Handy Man”.

By the early 1960’s however the role of freelance songwriter pitching material had diminished outside of the girl group idiom and Blackwell, though still scoring some hits and coming up with an occasional gem such as Solomon Burke’s “Home In Your Heart”, was no longer in demand.

As an artist he was certainly a capable singer with a unique and identifiable voice notable for the thin echo he naturally possessed. Maybe with his drooping left eye and more retiring personality he wasn’t cut out for stardom as a performer but he left his mark as one of rock’s most impactful songwriters and was eventually rewarded for it with a 2010 induction into The Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall Of Fame.

Unfortunately Otis Blackwell wasn’t around to celebrate it, having died in 2002 at the age of seventy.
OTIS BLACKWELL DISCOGRAPHY (Records Reviewed To Date On Spontaneous Lunacy):

(Jubilee 5095; September, 1952)
Co-writing and singing this in a duet with Viola Watkins, Blackwell shows talent in both areas, his answering lines are effective and the overall ambiance of the song is good, but the lack of a sensible explanation for the plot makes this too ambiguous to fully connect. (5)

(RCA 20-5069; December, 1952)
A well-crafted story and a really strong arrangement, though one that could’ve used a good solo to break up the vocal patter, highlights Blackwell’s first solo release showing better writing ability than singing talent, but still handled well enough to suffice. (6)

(RCA 20-5069; December, 1952)
With a much less compelling theme which runs counter to the intended audience’s outlook on their growing independence, and a more routine arrangement that still is in need of an instrumental break, Blackwell’s whining voice is more of a drawback here. (3)