DON’T BE CRUEL: Otis Blackwell’s Triumph

On July 2, 1956, a young Elvis Presley came to New York City’s RCA studios to record his next hit single. Presley had his young band in tow and it already had been decided by his handlers that he was going to record a song called “Hound Dog.”

On July 2, 1956, a young Elvis Presley came to New York City’s RCA studios to record his next hit single. Presley had his young band in tow and it already had been decided by his handlers that he was going to record a song called “Hound Dog.” The tune, written by the famous white rock and roll songwriting team of Mike Stoller and Jerry Leiber, had already become a hit-made famous for its hard edge by blues diva Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton. After 31 takes to get “Hound Dog” right, Presley and company moved to the ever-important task of recording a B-side.

After lunch and back in the RCA recording studio, Presley began rummaging through the piles of demo tapes that had been provided by his publishing company, Hill and Range. By that afternoon, he had stumbled across a demo containing songs recorded by an obscure African-American singer/songwriter from Brooklyn named Otis Blackwell.

Blackwell was a veteran of the hardcore East coast blues scene but also, strangely enough, was a lifelong fan of country & western music. Blackwell confessed many times over the years that as a child he would sit in the Tompkins Theatre in Brooklyn and watch the singing cowboys, Gene Autry or Tex Ritter, in movies all day. The mix of blues and country was unique for an urban, black songwriter.

Presley hadn’t ever heard of Otis Blackwell at the time, even though Blackwell had signed to Presley’s future label (RCA) in 1953 after his own success with a song called “Daddy Rolling Stone.”  And Blackwell, who worked as a clothes presser during the day to pay his rent, probably hadn’t heard of Presley. Despite Presley’s sudden success in 1954 with “That’s Alright, Mama,” he was still just a regional star.

But once Presley played Blackwell’s tape that day 51 years ago, rock and roll would be forever changed. The song that caught Presley’s ear was called “Don’t Be Cruel.”  The tune had come down from Blackwell’s connection in New York-Shalimar Music-and had made its way to Presley.

What was it about “Don’t Be Cruel” that appealed to a young Elvis Presley and eventually the world?

Some say it was the pop nature of the tune, but others insist it is the country feel that made it so appealing. Actually, it was much simpler; Otis Blackwell had written a rock and roll song that was tailored for the voice of a white singer. “Don’t Be Cruel” isn’t a hardcore rhythm and blues tune for a white singer to interpret; it is a song with blues elements but a country feel-fashioned perfectly for a softer approach. It is an important distinction.

So on July 2, 1956, Blackwell’s infectious rock and roll tune with its simplistic lyrics, country twang and catchy hit phrase (“Don’t be cruel, to a heart that’s true…”) became the B-side to Elvis’s rendition of “Hound Dog.”

Presley took 28 takes to get the song right, but it was worth the effort. When “Don’t Be Cruel” was finally released, it became the highest selling pop record of all time. And for the year 1956, according to Billboard, it was the highest selling rock and roll single-even though it was a B-side. It stayed at No. 1 twice as long as the A-side, “Hound Dog.” Blackwell and Presley shared songwriting credit, despite the fact the two had never even met.

Many years later, on January 10, 1984, the singer/songwriter from Brooklyn rode down from the great borough of his birth (1931) to Manhattan to tape a television appearance on Late Night With David Letterman. Presley had been dead almost seven years and was now bigger than life. Blackwell, who had never met Presley but had given him songs and lent important components of his singing style and voice, sang one song for the world that day. The following is an account of Blackwell’s little known interview with Letterman and his performance of the tune that changed rock and roll forever.

Otis Blackwell, who wrote over 1000 songs, died in May 2002 in Nashville.

As always, he was dressed rather ordinary, but yet, he looked like a star.  He wore wide legged tan slacks, a wide collared bright tan silk shirt and a dark, rather noticeable, vest full of colorful golden designs. His silk shirt, on close inspection, was pressed so carefully you could see the creases in the sleeves. His shoes were casual, leather zip-up boots that reached just beyond his ankles. His shoes matched his slacks and shirt almost exactly. And his hair, as it could have been seen in numerous publicity shots when he was a younger man, was short and well kept-the left side parted neatly and nondescript.  Yes, he looked like a star.

Otis Blackwell was an elusive mythical figure in the annals of rock and roll. The customary four million Late Night With Letterman viewers on January 10, 1984, who had luckily tuned in for a piece of rock and roll’s past were about to be enlightened and perhaps overwhelmed by a short, unassuming African-American man who was a legend in pop music circles.  Blackwell was not just any rock and roll singer/songwriter anyway; from 1955 to1960, it was universally agreed that he had provided rock and roll with a sacred, untouchable canon of songs.

He looked cool too. Everyone who knew him over the years always said he looked cool.  He had on his ever-present dark glasses with lenses so thick one might conjure images of Ray Charles.  They were appropriate too. Though Otis was not completely blind like Charles, he wore the thick glasses precisely because his sight was poor.  In fact, rhythm & blues legend Jimmy McGowan says that in 1979, Otis told him that he was legally blind.

But on that night, poor eyesight didn’t mean anything to Blackwell. He was back where it all began. He had ventured over the bridge from his home borough of Brooklyn into Manhattan as he had done countless times during his life to play, record or promote his music. And this, he knew, was an important night. Late Night With David Letterman was a television show on the rise in American popular culture, and it had a particular strong, cult-like following amongst young people (18-35).  These were the people who were apt to love and worship rock and roll music, its culture, stars icons and most importantly, its mythological figures and their lost stories.

Letterman, the veteran comic from Indiana, was an amiable host as always as Blackwell’s segment began.  He had already dazzled the audience with two popular, regular features on his program: “Stupid Pet Tricks” and “Small Town News.” By the time Blackwell’s moment arrived, there was a certain energy looming, despite Letterman’s seemingly innate ridiculousness. Behind his wooden desk at NBC’s Rockefeller Center, Letterman was beaming.

He was adorned in a conservative blue-gray sports coat with a striped tie. His now famous flop of hair looked thick and more pronounced; it was probably the only part of him more distracting than his legendary gap-toothed smile that will always invoke the cover of Mad magazine.

“He has been referred to as the most influential songwriter in the history of rock and roll…I mentioned some of these songs earlier…it is unbelievable,” Letterman announced forcefully in his strange squeaky voice when he called Otis to the stage.  “…‘Great Balls of Fire,’ ‘Handy Man,’ ‘Breathless,’ ‘Return to Sender,’ ‘Fever’…and we are delighted to have him on the show tonight. Please folks, give a nice welcome to Mr. Otis Blackwell.” The crowd clapped feverishly.

Blackwell, who was 51 years old at the time, eased around the corner from backstage towards Letterman’s desk and looked confident although he seemed to be lumbering along slowly. He was much heavier than he had been as a young man laboring on the tough New York rhythm & blues scene in the 1940s, but he was ready. He had never been afraid of the stage once he made the decision to take the stage; it was making the decision that had always seemed to haunt him over the years.

Blackwell met Letterman at the edge of the stage and graciously gripped his hand.  He walked in front, waved his hand lightly up to the crowd to acknowledge their applause. He was always gracious, and he was in his element.

He had stopped performing his brand of rhythm & blues back in the ‘50s. This was before rock and roll took off and became the music that would unite and define a generation.  In the years after that choice, he devoted most of his energy to songs for others. But in the ‘70s, as a different kind of rock and roll surged to the forefront, he had returned to familiar haunts in New York and along the east coast club corridor to become a singer again.  He wasn’t seeking the limelight in returning to doing live performances either; you would think he would, after so much time behind the scenes.

From the distant recesses of America’s music publishing industry and record making machinery that sold millions of records each year, Blackwell had hitched rock and roll music to his back from 1955 to1960 and set the country ablaze with his words, lyrics and bouncy, bass-driven tunes. It was not at all different from Chuck Berry’s run in the 1950s, but even more impressive because he had done it as a songwriter exclusively and had spread his oeuvre across the spectrum of the genre.

For the King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley, the gifts had been lucrative and legendary:  “Don’t Be Cruel,” “All Shook Up,” “Return to Sender,” “Paralyzed” and “One Broken Heart for Sale,” just to name a few.  For Jimmy Jones, who hadn’t had many hits in the industry, he co-wrote “Handy Man” (made famous again later by James Taylor).  For Jerry Lee Lewis, another white singer who had changed the face of rock and roll, Blackwell delivered the Pentecostal rock and roll fusion tune “Great Balls of Fire.” And for Little Willie John, Peggy Lee and countless other rock and rollers over the years, his immortal hit “Fever” had delivered the goods. Few non-performing rock and roll figures had ever amassed so many important popular songs. And that’s where Letterman began the interview-back in the day.

“Was ‘Don’t Be Cruel’ the first song of yours that Elvis recorded?” Letterman asked instantly. He asked the question so quickly you could tell he didn’t want the interview to digress anywhere else.  He knew this audience would respond to that because it had long been suspected that Elvis Presley had been drinking from some secret creative well.

“Yes it was,” Blackwell said. He leaned in towards Letterman and shifted in his seat. His face looked serious, yet it exuded an uneasiness about the topic.

“How did that come about?”

“Well, it’s a hard story,” he said. It was almost as if the answer had escaped him suddenly. He had been asked that question dozens of time over the years from all kinds of writers and interviewers. The story was the stuff of legend now. And in a way, as he began to speak to Letterman and to the nation for that matter, he seemed to stumble with nervousness-like that magical tale of Duke Ellington penning “Mood Indigo” while his mother made supper, or the one about Robert Johnson disappearing from Mississippi only to return with the key to the Delta blues in his heart and soul.

According to the story that became official by the late 1970s, Blackwell had written “Don’t Be Cruel” around Christmas in 1955 when it was snowing and wet in New York. He was, as he told Letterman, grinning, “writing songs…freelancing” and working “any old job that came along where I could make me a dollar or two…as long as it was honest.”  His smile was as broad as his explanation.

But through connections on the New York music scene he had developed from his years of toiling as a blues singer, Blackwell told Letterman and his audience that he had sold “Don’t Be Cruel” and several other songs for $150 that day to a music publishing company called Shalimar Music.

“I received $25 for each song,” he said. He held up his hands to indicate money. “One of those songs was ‘Don’t Be Cruel.'” Eventually, Blackwell’s now famous demo tape that included “Don’t Be Cruel” made its way to a young Elvis Presley. He too had come to New York in 1956 to record his follow-up to his smash hit “That’s Alright, Mama.” Presley recorded Blackwell’s “Don’t Be Cruel” as a B-side to “Hound Dog”.

Letterman adored controversy, and at times he enjoyed asking his guests uncomfortable questions. In this interview, however, Blackwell was not his target. Letterman was going after the giant named Elvis Presley.

“Now, Otis, on the sheet music here, it says, ‘words and music by Otis Blackwell and Elvis Presley,'” Letterman pried as he held up the sheet music to ‘Don’t Be Cruel.’ “Now, did he work you on the song with you at any time?”  You can tell Letterman is asking a question that Blackwell has been asked so many times over the years.  He almost lets a smile escape and pretends to act as if it is all new to him, as if he is not so sure.

But though it is no longer important to him, others still want to point it out. Blackwell didn’t have anything against Presley. In fact, as he would tell Letterman later in the interview, he thought that he and Presley had “a good thing going.” And though they never met, he felt that because he made tapes for Presley to listen to, “in a sense, we had met.” Letterman however, in his sly way, had boxed in Blackwell to answer the question.

“No, he didn’t,” Blackwell said, as if rehearsed. “Then how does his name get there?” Letterman continued. “That seemed to have been the practice,” Blackwell replied. And it was, at the time, the practice. Presley was such a huge star that his publisher-Hill & Range-could command a songwriting credit for their writer. The songwriters knew they would stand to make a lot of money from a Presley recording, so if Presley wanted half of the songwriting credit, he could get it. Blackwell had told other interviewers that he was reluctant to provide Presley with credit for writing the songs at first, but like most of the other writers who encountered the Presley phenomenon, he acquiesced.

After Letterman led Blackwell through more questions about Presley, it came time for the performance. That was why he was there anyway. He harbored no ill will about the past. That was business; as for the singing part, the performance-now that was different. That was the beauty of it all.

Music director and keys player, Paul Shaffer’s nimble fingers dropped down powerfully onto his keyboard and the familiar boogie-woogie piano intro that served as the linchpin for the song erupted into the audience. It was just as the song had been written in 1955 with the piano introduction. It is a simple song too. And in American popular music, simplicity is good. In fact, it is usually the key to commercial success. It helps that millions of record buyers remember the hook-the phrase that clinches the tale. If the hook can be remembered, an epidemic of listening, dancing and purchasing can be commenced in every neighborhood in the land.

By now NBC studio at Rockefeller Center was bopping. Blackwell had turned the place into a sock hop.  It was a preachy brand of rock and roll too; it wasn’t Bill Haley and the Comets. It had a singular distinction-a strong sense of story, however simple it was.  The camera zoomed in on Blackwell. He seemed to be a different person now on stage. Just moments ago he was sitting on stage and had stumbled through answers to questions he had been answering for years.  Many have described this quality about Otis over the years. Jimmy McGowan, who sang with the rhythm & blues standouts, The Four Fellows, met Blackwell in the 1940s in Brooklyn at Pope’s recording studio on Fulton Avenue.  He remembers the clear dichotomy between the Otis who loved to sing music and the Otis who was quiet and reserved.

“He seemed to be two different people,” McGowan said. “On the one hand you wouldn’t recognize him in a crowd, but when he began to sing and perform, Otis Blackwell was a commanding presence. There was no one else in the room or on stage but that man.” Otis clearly rocked with the best of ‘em, just as McGowan described, on this particular night. His voice got emotional and his hands began to move and stress his feeling for the music.

And then it was over-Otis Blackwell “live” in New York City. Back to the place where it began for him three decades ago.  Millions had seen him that night.  The moment had a Warhol-ian quality to it too. But it wasn’t 15 minutes as Warhol would have insisted upon; it was almost eight minutes. Some small talk, history and then a song that barely lasts more than two minutes, but a song that changed lives.  Otis didn’t need a Warhol moment though; he had been living in the moment since before the day he sold the demo tape Christmas of 1955.

Blackwell was before the world completely now. He knew who he was and what he had done. There was the business, there was society and there was Elvis Presley. He knew Elvis would always be there, but it would not bother him. There was no need to cry the blues about it; Elvis had done what he had done and Blackwell had done what he had done.  No one could ever take that away.  At last, Otis Blackwell was a star.