Although he wrote some of the biggest hits for some of rock’s biggest recording artists, Otis Blackwell remains one of the unsung heroes of rock & roll. The list of songs is impressive…Great Balls Of Fire, Fever, All Shook Up, Breathless, Return To Sender, Handy Man, Don’t Be Cruel…are just some of the hits Blackwell write for the likes of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Willie John. Now Ace Records has put together a collection of 24 vintage tracks featuring many of Blackwell’s biggest hits, along with plenty of lesser-known gems.
Otis Blackwell was an aspiring New York City recording artist in the early 1950 who found that writing songs was more satisfying and lucrative than putting out his own recordings. He struck gold in 1956 when Little Willie Jon and Peggy Lee turned his Fever into a pop standard and Elvis Presley took a chance on Don’t Be Cruel.
After that, the hits just kept on coming, with Jerry Lee Lewis getting the benefit of frantic rockers like Great Balls Of Fire and Breathless. As this collection proves, Blackwell was covered by a wide range of artists, from doo-woppers The Five Keys to gospel queen Mahalia Jackson to British pioneer rockers Cliff Richard & The Shadows.
Ace has chosen to stay away from the well-known versions of Blackwell’s tunes, instead featuring Jerry Lee Lewis’ recording of Don’t Be Cruel, David Hill’s All Shook Up and Thurston Harris’ Hey Little Girl.
Elvis Presley leads off the set with Make Me Know It, which was the first song he recorded after returning from his stint in the army. Little Willie John’s original version of Fever is here, with the string overdubs that were added in the early 60s.
The fun is checking out the more obscure tracks. Future country star Roy Clark’s first recording is here from 1958…it’s a Blackwell tune called Please, Mister Mayor and it’s a rock-a-billy classic. Dinah Washington recorded Blackwell’s Honky Tonky under the name “The Queen”, looking for a new, younger audience. She also proved she could rock if called upon.
Otis Blackwell himself can be heard on a 1962 demo of One Broken Heart For Sale, and shows in his delivery why Elvis admired his style.
For those who are interested in the early days of rock & roll, there is plenty to enjoy here. Otis Blackwell passed away in 2002, but his legacy lives on in these wonderful songs.
Click here to listen to Please, Mister Mayor by Roy Clark: