He was a pianist and singer-songwriter born in Brooklyn, New York, who learned to play the piano when he was very young and after leaving school he became a floor-sweeper in a local theatre and a clothes-presser in a laundry.
His first claim to fame was winning a talent contest held at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York, in 1952 and from there he was given a contract on the Jay-Dee label by Joe Davis. He began as a musician who helped pave the way for rock and roll, while remaining largely un-noticed and with his single releases never achieving Top 40 success.
He began concentrating on songwriting and his first release, “Daddy Rolling Stone” was unsuccessful initially, but later became a hit for Derek Martin and then later by The Who. Using the pseudonym John Davenport while undergoing contractual problems with his publishers, he wrote his first ever songwriting success, “Fever”, which became a huge hit for Little Willie John, Madonna, The McCoys and Peggy Lee through the years.
He became highly sought after by popular artists such as Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis where his songs would reach No. 1 status on the charts again and again. These songs include “Great Balls of Fire”, “Return to Sender”, “Don’t Be Cruel”, “Fever”, “All Shook Up” and “Handy Man” and all these have seen such huge success that they have been recorded by numerous artists time and time again and have remained favourites.
Several of his songs for Elvis Presley, whom he never met, were co-written by writers he had asked to assist him and these included Winfield Scott, Jack Hammer and Eddie Cooley. It has also been said, “Presley borrowed many of his vocal mannerisms from Blackwell”. Many times his work had other credits added to it as the recordings artists and producers would often add their names to ensure of receiving royalties, but he would never argue with this and tended to stay in the background.
Regarded as one of the finest R&B songwriters in history, his unique style heard on over 1,000 songs, helped shaped the face of rock and roll music in the 1950s and the legacy has carried on with numerous artists performing his work.
In the world of television and film his songs have appeared in more than 60 movies and TV programmes up until the 2000s and they will possibly continue to be used again and again.
Recognised for his achievements he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1991 after having previously been inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1986.
In 2002 in Nashville, Tennessee, he had a fatal heart attack at 70 years of age, and he left behind him one of the finest collections of songs in 20th century music.
Don’t Be Cruel recordings