Interview with Otis Blackwell
June 23, 1989
piece together the history of contemporary North American music, you
discover composer/pianist Otis Blackwell is the rightful owner of the
title, King of Rock 'n 'Roll. Throughout the past 30 years, Blackwell's
hit songs have been recorded by Elvis Presley ( All Shook Up, Don't Be
Cruel, Paralyzed, Return To Sender, Please Don't Drag That String
(Around), One Broken Heart For Sale), Jerry Lee Lewis ( Great Balls Of
Fire, Breathless, let's Talk About Us), Little Willie John and Peggy Lee
(Fever), Dee Clark (Just Keep It Up) and Jimmy Jones, Del Shannon and
James Taylor (Handyman).
Bill King: You've been in the studio working
on some new projects. What type of sounds are you
Actually, I've been finishing up three albums. I'd been in Nashville
recording and a fellow in Baltimore is helping me start a little record
label. How is it up there?
Warm and rainy.
O.B: It's been
raining like crazy here.
It can be a problem year after year in southern Kentucky and northern
Tennessee. After the drought of '88, this must come as a
O.B: It's definitely
a wet one.
B.K: I first met you
at a club in the early '80s, when I was playing with Ronnie Hawkins and
the Hawks. I managed to get one of your promotion leaflets and was
astonished at the number of hit rock 'n' roll songs you have written.
Where did all this music come from?
O.B: I really don't know. When I was young, I
just sat down and started playing Chopsticks at the piano. I got so far
and then lost interest. Eventually, I regained it and started writing
B.K: Was there music you
heard when you were young that helped you develop a style of
O.B: I didn't play
much early on. What I really liked was cowboy movies. I was a big cowboy
fan and liked western music. You couldn't get that stuff where I lived,
so I hung out at a little theater that played Gene Autrey and Tex Ritter
movies. Tex Ritter is still my favourite singer.
B.K: Did you listen to a lot of
O.B: Yeah, but I didn't
get to listen to country music. When the radio was turned on in my
house, you had either spirituals, the news or Chuck Willis and Larry
B.K: Was it difficult
to get people interested in your songs?
O.B: When I started writing it was kind of hard
getting people to do my stuff. They' say they couldn't do my style. At
one point, I decided to open an office at 1650 The Brill Building, which
is supposedly where all the great music writers have theirs. I opened it
and down the hall was a business school. Students would pass by my door,
and, eventually, some came in. They looked around and asked, " Are you a
songwriter?" I said, "Yeah." " You wrote such and such." "Yeah, I did."
On my wall I had people like Elvis Presley, Peggy Lee, James Taylor and
six or seven other white artists and the kids said, " How come you don't
have any black artists on your all?' I told them. "That's my gold wall,
and they're the ones who sold millions. I've never had a black artist do
that with my songs.
black artists recording your songs?
O.B: No, I was getting a lot of covers, but
either they weren't getting out or just weren't clicking. I think the
one that really happened was Fever with Little Willie John. But, it only
went so far because Peggy Lee jumped on it.
B.K: Was there more interest from black
producers and artists after your first successes?
O.B: There were two gentlemen. One was Henry
Glover, he dug what I did. I got a bunch of records through him. The
other fellow, Calvin Carter, was from Vee Jay Records and he recorded a
lot of my material. Other than those two, I didn't get much
B.K: How were you
able to get you songs to Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis and
O.B: A writer by the
name of Leroy Kirkland took me to a publishing house called Shalamar
Music. A fellow there by the name of Al Stanton was a friend of another
fellow named Paul Cates, who was with the Elvis Presley people. He got
my songs through.
When Moe Gail, who owned Shalamar Music, passed
away, I moved over to another publishing company.
B.K: Did they treat you right?
you better believe it. It was slow at first. You had a lot of late
hours, but that's all part of it. Now, you don't have to wait to record.
You can spend five to eight dollars on a cassette and they don't even
listen to it. I'd hate to be a songwriter starting a career today. So
many independent publishers and they're all important. They've done a
lot of wrong things, but some good as well.
B.K: When the movie Breathless came out, did
things begin to turn around again?
O.B: Oh yeah, I've noticed it usually turns
around every nine or ten years.
B.K: Years ago, I met Don Covey, Tommy Tucker
and Johnny Nash in a New York studio called A-1 Sounds. They were all
selling songs to the owner, Herb Abramson, who held the publishing on
High Heel Sneakers. It seemed every few years his fortune would increase
when Elvis or Jose Feliciano would record the tune.
O.B: I talk to herb every time I go to
California. We hung out a lot and had many a good time. He's still
driving, but he can't see right; he drives that car like he's
B.K: He's the first
producer I met in new York when I was there in 1967. I was down and out,
had a couple of songs and he bought them.
O.B: he was the original partner and founder of
Atlantic along with Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun. They all started it
B.K: I always
wondered why Herb and the others parted ways.
O.B: I think he went into the service and, by
the time he got out, things had changed. I really like doing that old
stuff and he's got a good ear for that. That's the way he wants to
record. His thing is rhythm 'n' blues.
B.K: His door was always open to black
O.B: He understood the
music. We're all in it to make money, but hew really loved it. He talks
it all the time.
B.K: How did
Peggy Lee get hold of Fever?
O.B: I used to be with a publishing house
called Roosevelt Music. A gentleman there told me he had seen Peggy Lee
perform Fever in Las Vegas and I found out later she wanted to record
B.K: Did you ever meet
O.B: No, I didn't meet
her, but came close about three years ago - it was too crowded. I was to
meet her after the show, bit I didn't want to hang around and deal with
B.K: Did you ever
attempt to talk to any of the artists that had considerable success with
O.B: I never really
wanted to meet them because there's the problem of getting between the
artist and the manager. It can get kind of funny at times. I always
figured it was best if I write my songs, take them to my publisher and
just lay back. There used to be so many things going on - getting to the
artist, getting to the publishers - you know, politics. I just didn't
want to get mixed up in all of that.
B.K: Did you ever do anything with Sun
O.B: I met what's his
O.B: Yeah, I met him
a couple of times when I went down to Memphis. That's as far as it
I used to go down every year for the remembrance of Elvis'
birthday. Memphis State College invited me to sit in the auditorium and
speak to the people for one of those Elvis days.
B.K: When are they going to have an Otis
O.B: I don't
know - it might be nice. I'm very low-keyed. There have been many times
when I've been asked to appear and I'd say to myself, "What am I going
to talk about?' Early on, when I did interviews, I'd tell everyone,
"Don't ask me about dates. I don't even remember what I did
B.K: How did you
come up with those wonderful bass lines that were at the core of the
O.B: I started as one of
those two-fingered players, then graduated to three and four fingers and
, eventually five. I played a little boogie-woogie and the shuffle, so I
wrote over that. Then the Beatles came over and knocked that
B.K: Where did you grow
O.B: I was born in Brooklyn
and still live right around the corner from where I was
Everybody used to tell me to go to Nashville, and I'd say, "OK,
where is it?" I started coming here years ago to hang out, and now I
B.K: Any plans for the
O.B: I've decided to
run back in forth between Brooklyn and Nashville. I like this town, it's
really great. They've put me in The Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.
This town is about music. It's about the kind of music I like. I've also
started a small record label, so I've done an album. People always talk
about what I've done, but this is what I'm doing now. I got behind that
pencil and nothing happened for many years, but since they put me in the
Songwriters Hall of Fame, I've turned around. I took a good look at
myself and said, " I think it's time to get back at
B.K: How has your
O.B: You know
my thing was always about I Love You. Your Feets Too Big and that kind
of stuff, so I figured I'd sit down and write something different. One
of the new songs deals with the situation with guns, and another one
deals with the homeless. I've got two or three rock 'n' roll tunes. It's
the best stuff I've done in a long time. I've taken my time and worked
on them for a couple of years.