June 26, 2007

Who Was Otis Blackwell?

June 26th, 2007

In Jersey Boys, when Frankie Valli introduces Bob Crewe to Bob Gaudio, Frankie tells Crewe that Gaudio “is the next Otis Blackwell.” This line made me curious to find out more about Otis Blackwell. All I knew about him was that he had written some of Elvis Presley’s early hits, but I figured there was a lot more to the story.

Otis Blackwell was born in Brooklyn, New York on February 16, 1932. He first became famous by winning a local talent contest at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York. Blackwell was one of the leading figures of early rock ‘n’ roll, although he was not well- known by the public. His own records never cracked the Top 40, yet he wrote million-selling songs for Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Dee Clark and others. Blackwell was one of the most important innovators who helped invent the musical vocabulary of rock ‘n’ roll at its very beginning. Otis Blackwell died in 2002 of a heart attack in Nashville.

Below are some of the songs Blackwell composed, along with the artist(s) who made the song famous and song’s peak position on the Billboard Hot 100 and year:

  • “All Shook Up” (Elvis Presley, #1, 1957)
  • “Don’t Be Cruel” (Elvis Presley, #1, 1956)
  • “Fever” (Peggy Lee, #8, 1958; The McCoys, #7, 1965)
  • “Great Balls of Fire” (Jerry Lee Lewis, #2, 1957)
  • “Breathless” (Jerry Lee Lewis, #7.1958)
  • “Hey Little Girl” (Dee Clark, #20, 1959)
  • “Handy Man” (Jimmy Jones, #2, 1960; Del Shannon, #22, 1964; James Taylor, #4, 1977)
  • “Return to Sender” (Elvis Presley, #2, 1962)

There is a highly interesting interview with Otis Blackwell from a 1979 edition of Time Barrier Express that is posted on the Essence of Knowledge blog. Here’s what Blackwell had to say about Frankie Valli:

TBE: You didn’t seem to get production credit in those days. That wasn’t “in” at the time, right?

OB: No, there were no production deals at the time. We were doing it because the publisher had an ‘in’ with the A&R man. I also produced Frankie Valli & The Four Lovers, In fact, I wrote “Apple Of My Eye” in the bathroom because they needed a song, Frankie Valli and I got to be really good friends. I was supposed to be the best man at his wedding.


  1. Otis Blackwell. A true innnovator.

    If I may again refer the Blog readers to the Rex Woodard 1982 Goldmine article on the Four Lovers, which can be accessed on Frank Rovello’s GILG web site, Tommy DeVito tells the story of how the Four Lovers got “Apple of My Eye” from Mr. Blackwell. In short, the Four Lovers were signed by RCA Victor records, which was Elvis’s record label (after Sun Records), which had access to all the great songwriters of the day (1956) including Mr. Blackwell. RCA presented an Otis Blackwell tune to the Four Lovers to record entitled “Don’t Be Cruel.” When Elvis heard about the song, he wanted it and being Elvis in 1956 he could have anything he wanted so RCA Victor promised the Four Lovers another Otis Balckwell song which they did get, but “Apple of My Eye” fell just a little short of “Don’t Be Cruel.” According to the article, the Four Lovers rehearsed “Don’t Be Cruel” for two days but never recorded it.

    As stated above, Mr. Blackwell was a legitimate singer in his own right but never really had any hits of his own. I did get to hear his version of “Fever” on a radio show featuring early pioneers. It was every bit as good as, if not better than, the Peggy Lee hit version, a scenario very similar to the Diamonds having the hit version of “Litte Darlin’” when it was originally done by the Zodiacs, with Maurice Williams, who also wrote the song. Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs also originally wrote and recorded “Stay” but at least had a hit with that song before it was covered by many artists including the Four Seasons. “Stay” by Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs I believe holds the record for the shortest #1 song in history coming in at about a minute and a half. I should also note that the Four Seasons also cover “Little Darlin’” on the “Entertain You” album and do a fabulous job. Frankie does a great lead and Nick provides the bridge.

    Comment by David Cace — June 26, 2007 @ 12:47 pm

  2. I think that a great scene in Jersey Boys could have been Otis pulling back “Don’t Be Cruel” in exchange for “Apple Of My Eye”. It has such historical significance. There’s Frankie and his friend (Otis)
    both sruggling artists and at that point Otis caught his break. Frankie had to wait a few more years.

    It’s strange that most of the Otis Blackwell sites never mention Frankie.

    There’s a website that claims the Rolling Stones named themselves after the song “Daddy Rolling Stone” which was written by Otis. (Most sites credit a Muddy Waters song for this.

    Anyway, there they were (Frankie and Otis) in the beginning, hanging out near the Brill Building dreaming of fame.

    50 years later Jersey Boys plays just a few blocks away.

    Comment by Ray Ricci — June 28, 2007 @ 5:29 am

  3. I have thought the same thing Ray. I suppose part of the answer lies in the fact that other than mentioning the Four Lovers group name and doing “Apple of My Eye” early in the play there is no mention in the play of the Four Lovers having actually recorded “Apple” at RCA along with recording an entire album, an EP, and some other singles for RCA and having appeared on the Ed Sullivan show, twice, as the Four Lovers in 1956. There is that passing mention in the play when the character Tommy DeVito is borrowing $3,500 from Norm Waxman for the recording session (which Bob Crewe eventually gets the money from his father in any event) and Tommy says that they just signed with RCA to which Mr. Waxman responds something like that’s nice but better he should get 2 grand by next Friday.

    This all would have played nicely with the character Bob Gaudio saying that he was a one hit wonder because in reality they were all one hit wonders (albeit “Apple” was much less of a hit than “Short Shorts”) and there was just one more chance for all of them.

    Playing the actual Four Lovers appearance on the Ed Sullivan show singing “Apple” would have been a nice touch also but I guess that might have somewhat taken away from the “Dawn” appearance on Ed Sullivan at the end of the first act.

    Maybe this all comes down to placing Nick Massi in the original Four Lovers instead of Nick DeVito for “compression.”

    Recreating the Bob Gaudio story of his inspiration for “Rag Doll” also would have played nicely in the show but then that would have taken away from the dramatic “Rag Doll” performance at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction (which singing I should point out never took place).

    I think I should stop here. Mr. Brickman and Mr. Elice have done a pretty good job. “Jersey Boys” did win the Tony Award for Best Musical lest we forget and I should get back to playing Mr. CPA instead of Mr. Librettist. Let me stick to the history and leave the artistic stuff to Howard Tucker, CPA.

    Comment by David Cace — June 28, 2007 @ 12:01 pm

  4. David, you’re right! Far be it for me to comment on the world of theater-book writing. To get all these things in and make for a cohesive, fast moving play would have been impossible.

    Perhaps whoever produces/directs the movie will take notice. Then again there’s so much detail to tell that we’d need a Jersey Boys “Trilogy” to complete it.

    I guess fans like us from the old guard may never be satisfied….but what a ride so far!

    Comment by Ray Ricci — June 28, 2007 @ 4:10 pm

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