Arguments over who the greatest rock’n’roll songwriter is will abound long after those reading this have gone to meet their maker. But surely near the top of everyone’s list of contenders would have to be Otis Blackwell, a one-man hit factory whose catalogue includes more classic rock’n’roll songs than any other single songwriter of his time. His compositions for Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis alone would guarantee his entry into every music Hall Of Fame.
“Handy Man”, named after the song that brought worldwide chart fame to Jimmy Jones in 1959, is a worthy tribute to a man who, if he’d only written ‘Fever’, would still be regarded as one of the foremost composers of the rock’n’roll era.
Compiled in the spirit of previous entries in our songwriter series, it’s much more than merely a collection of Otis’ 24 greatest hits, sung by those who recorded them first. We like to mix it up a bit, so the title track is heard in Del Shannon’s stomping 1964 version, while Jimmy Jones is represented with another fine Otis Blackwell song. Those interested enough to purchase will have more than a passing familiarity with Elvis’ version of ‘All Shook Up’, so rather than reissue that for the gazillionth time, we instead bring the song to you by David Hill, whose rare original makes its first legitimate CD appearance here. Likewise ‘Don’t Be Cruel’: rather than Elvis we bring you Jerry Lee Lewis’ uproarious take, in preference to any of the Otis Blackwell compositions generally associated with him. As for Elvis, being spoilt for choice made us opt for his first, and one of his very best, post-Army recordings; ‘Make Me Know It’ reignited his recording career and was deemed potent enough to kick off his “Elvis Is Back” album.
The songs featured in “Handy Man” cover roughly from around 1953 to 1963. Later offerings by Solomon Burke and Sam Butera show that, unlike some of his peers, Otis easily adapted to the changes in music as the 1960s unfolded. How durable his compositions were are demonstrated by Derek Martin’s classic 1962 cut of ‘Daddy Rollin’ Stone’, which Otis had recorded as a menacing blues almost a decade earlier. Via Martin, the song became a boastful declaration of intent for a new generation of sharp boys, and of English mods in particular.
Brace yourself for a masterclass in rock’n’roll songwriting by a man who was much more than merely handy with a pen and paper.
By Tony Rounce