Special thanks to ThisDayinMusic.com.

Although he might not be as well known as Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Willie Dixon or Buddy Holly, Otis Blackwell should be considered alongside those greats as one of the architects of rock and roll. A remarkably talented songwriter, Blackwell penned many of the songs that shaped rock music – including “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Fever,” “All Shook Up” and “Great Balls of Fire.” Blackwell died on this day in 2002, but his songs will live on forever.

Otis was born in 1932 in Brooklyn, New York and grew up playing piano and listening to R&B and country tunes on the radio. “When I was young, I just sat down and started playing Chopsticks at the piano,” Blackwell later remembered. “I got so far and then lost interest. Eventually, I regained it and started writing songs.”

At the age of 20, he won the famous “Amateur Night” contest at New York City’s Apollo Theater. As a result, he landed a record contract, first with RCA and then Jay-Dee. His first single was a song he wrote, “Daddy Rolling Stone,” which went on to become pretty popular in Jamaica, where it was covered by Derek Martin. A decade later, it would become a regular selection in The Who’s early performances.

Before long, Blackwell realized that, between performing, recording and writing, he most enjoyed writing songs. It wasn’t the easiest situation in the beginning. “When I started writing it was kind of hard getting people to do my stuff,” he said. “They say they couldn’t do my style.”

His first huge success came in 1956, when Little Willie John took it to #1 on the R&B charts. Of course, the name Otis Blackwell was nowhere to be found on the 45. That’s because Otis had used the pseudonym John Davenport for the song, because the name was more “white-sounding.” “Fever” went on to have even greater success as a pop hit, first by Peggy Lee in 1958, and then countless other artists in the 50 years since – including Madonna, Beyonce and Elvis Presley.

Of course, Elvis and Otis would have much more fruitful and famous collaborations. “Don’t Be Cruel” was the first, recorded and released by Presley in 1956. Blackwell, who used his real name on the song credit, yielded half of the writing royalties to Elvis (credited as a co-writer) to ensure the “hottest new singer around covered it.”

“I was surprised when I heard ‘Don’t Be Cruel’ because it was just like I had done the demo,” Blackwell later said. “I used to sing all my own demos, and it just so happened that a lot of what Presley and Jerry Lee did sounded alike. I thought they did justice to the songs. They put the kind of feeling into it that I felt.”

Blackwell’s decision paid off. “Don’t Be Cruel” went to #1 on the pop, R&B and country charts, with the song and its B-side (“Hound Dog”) staying at the top spot on the pop charts for 11 weeks – a record that stood until the early ’90s. By the end of the year, the single had sold more than 4 million copies.

Because Presley was such a fan of Blackwell’s earlier R&B material and because “Don’t Be Cruel” had proven a runaway hit, The King recorded another of Otis’ songs in early ’57. Blackwell had written “All Shook Up” the previous year at Shalimar Music. One of the company’s owners was shaking a bottle of Pepsi and suggested Otis write something with the phrase “All Shook Up.” Blackwell did just that and David Hill recorded the tune, before Elvis took his crack at it (and altered a few lyrics, with Otis’ consent). It proved to be another #1 for Blackwell and Presley, topping the charts for eight weeks. It also became Elvis’ first U.K. #1.

While Elvis would do well with more Blackwell songs in the future (including “Fever” and “Return to Sender”), the two music greats would never actually meet each other. This was due to a superstition that Blackwell had in regard to their success. Although he was invited by Presley’s manager, Col. Tom Parker, to appear in the Elvis flick Girls! Girls! Girls!, Blackwell respectfully declined.

I had the chance [to meet Elvis] a couple of times,” Blackwell remembered in a 1979 interview. “I was invited down by the Presley people. But, things were going so well, I was considered one of the top writers and was doing a lot of records. I figured that if I split [went to see Elvis}, I might’ve lost it, so I didn’t go anywhere.”

Blackwell’s success didn’t rise and set with Elvis, though. He also wrote “Great Balls of Fire” taken to #2 on the pop charts and #1 on the country charts by Jerry Lee Lewis, “Hey Little Girl” by Dee Clark and “Handy Man” – a big hit for co-writer Jimmy Jones in 1960, Del Shannon in 1964 and James Taylor in 1977.

As rock and roll changed in the ’60s, and many artists began writing their own songs, Blackwell continued to pen songs for R&B musicians. Over time, he transitioned into semi-retirement and moved to Nashville.  In 1986, he was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. Not long after, a tribute concert was thrown for him by the Black Rock Coalition – a group lead by Living Colour’s Vernon Reid. The Brooklyn show even featured performances from Blackwell – who played “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Daddy Rolling Stone.”

Tragically, in 1991, Blackwell suffered a stroke and was left paralyzed. A little more than a decade later, in 2002, he died after having a heart attack. He was 70 years old.

Blackwell’s amazing legacy and famous songs continue to endure. In his lifetime, he wrote more than 1,000 songs, which collectively sold more than 200 million copies worldwide. In 2010, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with the Ahmet Ertegun award, designed for behind-the-scenes figures important to music history.