Otis Blackwell, 1931–2002

Otis Blackwell, the prolific songwriter who helped propel the careers of Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, died Wednesday, May 9 in Nashville. The cause of death was an apparent heart attack, according to a spokesman for St. Thomas Hospital. Blackwell was 70.

He had been in the St. Thomas emergency room several times recently, the Nashville Tennessean reported. Blackwell had been in ill health since suffering a debilitating stroke in 1991, the year after he moved to Nashville to establish a new record label with Col. Tom Parker, Elvis Presley's former manager.

Blackwell is credited with writing or co-writing over 1000 songs that sold more than 185 million records throughout his career. His compositions were recorded by a wide range of artists, including Billy Joel, Otis Redding, The Who, and James Taylor, but he is best known as the songwriter who helped put Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis on the musical map with "Don't Be Cruel" and "Great Balls of Fire" (a collaboration with Jack Hammer), which were #1 and #2 hits, respectively, on the pop charts in 1956 and 1957.

Blackwell also penned Presley's hits "All Shook Up" and "Return to Sender" with Winfield Scott. "Fever," made immortal by torch singer Peggy Lee, was composed by Blackwell (under the pen name John Davenport) in collaboration with Eddie Cooley. Other well-known Blackwell songs include Dee Clark's 1959 hit "Hey Little Girl," and "Handy Man," a hit by Jimmy Jones in 1960 that was covered by Del Shannon in 1964 and James Taylor in 1977.

Blackwell began his career as a performer. He had a hit record, "Daddy Rollin' Stone," on the Jay-Dee label in 1952, but his performing soon took a backseat to songwriting. He was the personification of the concept that creative fertility arises at the crossroads of divergent cultures. Born in Brooklyn in 1931, Blackwell grew up hearing and playing gospel music in his African-American household, but became enamored of the cowboy songs of Tex Ritter, whom he saw onscreen at a local theater where he worked as a janitor. The narrative freedom of country and western music was especially appealing to Blackwell, who once remarked that "like the blues, it told a story, but it didn't have the same restrictive construction. A cowboy song could do anything." He combined many musical influences to create brash, arresting pop songs that defined the early years of rock'n'roll.

His songwriting career took a downturn in the mid-'60s, as popular tastes turned toward singer-songwriters and pop groups who performed their own material. His prodigious output had been covered by so many performers that he was guaranteed a comfortable income for life, but financial mismanagement led to tax problems. He attempted a comeback as a performer in the 1970s, recording some albums and touring backed by rock group The Smithereens. For the past decade, Blackwell's affairs had been handled by Nashville attorney Sawnie R. Aldredge.

Otis Blackwell was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Foundation Hall of Fame in 1986. Brace Yourself! - A Tribute To Otis Blackwell, recorded in 1993, includes performances by Chrissie Hynde, Graham Parker, Joe Ely, Tom Verlaine, Deborah Harry, Kris Kristofferson, and many others. Blackwell is survived by his wife, Mamie Wiggins Blackwell of Nashville, and seven children: Otis Jr. and Leslie, of Nashville; Odette, of Manhattan; and Kimberly Scott, Michael Scott, Timothy and Ellen, all of Las Vegas.