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Otis Blackwell, 70; Noted Songwriter

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Otis Blackwell, a songwriter who transformed such slang phrases as “all shook up” and “great balls of fire” into exuberant anthems of the 1950s rock ‘n’ roll revolution, has died. He was 70.

Blackwell died Monday in Nashville of an apparent heart attack, a spokesman for St. Thomas Hospital said.

Blackwell’s contributions to the songbooks of Elvis Presley (“Don’t Be Cruel,” “All Shook Up,” “Return to Sender”), Jerry Lee Lewis (“Great Balls of Fire,” “Breathless”) and other singers in the ‘50s and early ‘60s rank him high in the pantheon of rock and R&B; songwriters who captured the experience of the American teenager, which was emerging as a major social force.

Blackwell’s best-known hits may have less sociological substance than Leiber & Stoller’s high school sitcoms or Chuck Berry’s acutely observed rituals of adolescence. But they make up for it with their unmatched energy and enduring craft.

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Sam Phillips, the owner of Sun records who discovered Presley and produced his first recordings, once called “Don’t Be Cruel” his favorite Presley song because of the way it matched a sad lyric to a happy beat. “Great Balls of Fire” provided the volatile Lewis with his signature tune, a salacious explosion whose opening line--"You shake my nerves and you rattle my brain"--embodied youthful lust. (See accompanying lyric.)

Another Lewis hit from Blackwell, “Breathless,” revisited the theme, and “All Shook Up” let Presley describe how love could turn a healthy male into a quivering mess: “My hands are shakin’ and my knees are weak/I can’t seem to stand on my own two feet ... “

Hit Songs Reflected a Sense of the Era

“He was so on top of what people were listening to, what performers were performing, the musical tempo of the era,” Dan Del Fiorentino, curator of the Museum of Making Music in Carlsbad, said Wednesday. The nonprofit institution, affiliated with the National Assn. of Music Manufacturers, chronicles the last 100 years of American music.

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“He really did have a great sense of the time,” added Del Fiorentino, who interviewed Blackwell several times in the 1980s. “It wasn’t just Elvis Presley that was recording his songs; everybody was recording his songs.

“He didn’t get the acclaim that a lot of folks think that he should have received in terms of name recognition, but I don’t think there was a wannabe garage band in the 1950s that didn’t play at least 10 of his songs.”

Indeed, one of his most widely heard songs, co-written with Eddie Cooley under the pseudonym John Davenport, was poles apart from those high-energy hits--"Fever,” originally recorded by R&B; singer Little Willie John and later transformed into a sultry classic by Peggy Lee.

Other Blackwell-written hits include “Handy Man” (Jimmy Jones and later James Taylor) and “Hey Little Girl” (Dee Clark). The list of artists who have recorded his songs includes the Who, Billy Joel, Ray Charles and Otis Redding. It’s estimated that more than 185 million recordings of his songs have been sold.

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Blackwell was born and raised in Brooklyn and became a fan of the movies’ singing cowboys, particularly Tex Ritter, as well as such blues singers as Chuck Willis. He began performing in the early ‘50s and made some records for the RCA and Jay-Dee labels, but he wasn’t fond of the performer’s life, and he began to concentrate on writing.

He hooked up with the publishing company Shalamar Music and, in late 1955, submitted seven songs. One of them, “Don’t Be Cruel,” was picked up by Presley, whom Blackwell had never heard of at the time and whom he would never meet. Paired on a single with Leiber & Stoller’s “Hound Dog,” it became the biggest record of 1956 and a defining feature in the Elvis image.

Blackwell and Presley (who received co-writer credit on several of Blackwell’s songs, reportedly as a condition of his recording them) continued their long-distance partnership for several years.

Some pop historians have maintained that Presley patterned many of his vocals on the demonstration recordings that Blackwell made of his own and other writers’ songs, though clearly Presley had defined his style years earlier in such Sun recordings as “Baby Let’s Play House” and “Mystery Train.”

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Blackwell was well compensated for his compositions, and he was known to spend his royalty checks quickly and lavishly. His style of music faded in the 1960s, and he struggled with alcoholism and tax problems.

Blackwell released some albums in the late ‘70s and later did some touring backed by the rock band the Smithereens. He moved to Nashville in 1990 with plans to start a record label with Presley’s former manager, Col. Tom Parker, but in 1991 he had a debilitating stroke.

Blackwell was inducted into the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame the same year, and, in 1994, a group of rock and country artists, including Chrissie Hynde, Kris Kristofferson, Graham Parker and Deborah Harry, collaborated on “Brace Yourself,” a tribute album of Blackwell’s songs.

Information on Blackwell’s survivors was not immediately available.

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‘Great Balls of Fire’ Lyrics

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You shake my nerves and you rattle my brain.

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Too much love drives a man insane.

You broke my will, but what a thrill.

Goodness, gracious, great balls of fire!

I laughed at love ‘cause I thought it was funny.

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You came along and moved me, honey.

I’ve changed my mind, your love is fine.

Goodness, gracious, great balls of fire!

Kiss me baby, woo feels good.

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Hold me baby, well

I want to love you like a lover should.

You’re fine, so kind.

I want to tell the world that you’re mine, mine, mine, mine.

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I chew my nails and I twiddle my thumbs.

I’m real nervous, but it sure is fun.

Come on baby, drive me crazy.

Goodness, gracious, great balls of fire!

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Words and music by Otis Blackwell & Jack Hammer. Copyright 1957, Hill & Range Songs Inc. All rights controlled by Unichappell Music.


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