Sunday, November 29, 2009

Shook Up

“Don’t Be Cruel, to a heart that’s true.”
Otis Blackwell
In 1985 I was living in a closed-up storefront in Brooklyn I called: “The Bunker;” an idea stolen from Williams S. Burroughs and songwriter Pat Garvey. I thought I was living in a bohemian garret – Paris in the 30’s and all that. The rent was $150 a month and the landlord was an old Italian lady named Vera who made rot gut, bathtub wine. She bottled it in plastic half-gallon coca cola containers. I’m still picking the grape skins out of my teeth. She sat on the sidewalk in the late afternoons, reading Botticelli from an old beat-up paperback; when she finished a page she tore it out and let the wind carry it into the gutter. “You shoulda’ try an read this, Mr. Rosseli,” she laughed. “It’s feelthy stuff. Ha ha!” Her teeth were purple from the homemade wine. Her cackle of a laugh was charmingly evil. Before Vera died (and all of it died)…before the new money moved in, and the Italians moved out…Otis Blackwell showed up one day at my Bunker. He was half-blind from working years as a dry cleaner, and the toxic solutions had destroyed his eyes. His wife led him around. Otis, you might know, wrote “All Shook Up,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Return to Sender,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “Fever,” and dozens of other rock classics. The early book of rock n roll. The Old Testament. (Dylan wrote the New Testament.) Otis was born in East New York, a section they call Bedford Stuyvesant. The Badlands. There’s a street there named Malcolm X Boulevard, and all retail business in Bed-Stuy is conducted through bullet-proof Plexiglas. As a young kid, Otis went to the Saturday afternoon Cowboy matinees at the local theater; he was always first in line so he could get a free cowboy plate. The first 20 kids inside got gifts. His favorite actor-singer was Tex Ritter. “Man I loved that cat’s voice,” Otis said, “so dark and groovy.”
(The shadow of Tex Ritter is very long. I later met a Japanese Countess in the Alps of Switzerland whose favorite singer was Tex Ritter. She was the widow of the painter Count Balthus.) Back to Brooklyn…Otis began to form his early songs from comic books and cartoons and “those weird little funny things I saw at the cowboy matinees.” Otis, like Leiber and Stoller, worked that cartoon-cowboy-street-lingo styled humor into early rock and roll history. Otis graduated to the Brill Building, helping to create the foundations of Tin Pan Alley rock. One day a record producer came into Otis’s cubicle and shook up a bottle of Coca Cola, which sprayed all over the wall. He challenged Otis to write a song about that in ten minutes….Otis wrote “All Shook Up.”Elvis Presley heard the demo and recorded it. Elvis not only copped half the song publishing, he copped Otis’s burping-chugging vocal style. Trust me. Otis was not offended; he was honored. When Elvis died, Otis gave me an LP Called “Otis Blackwell Sings His Hits”….he took a marking pen off my desk and re-titled if “The King Is Not Dead!” and signed it to me. “I was too shy to ever meet Elvis, “he told me, “I had the chance in Vegas once, but I was too shy. “
And there you have it; a little touch of rock n roll history from my bunker days.
“I wrote my songs, I got my money, and I boogied.” Otis Blackwell


Saddle Tramp said...

Tom ... Another priceless exhibit in your " Museum of Memories " . Price of admission: Respect for the past.

-saddle tramp

Via: Vail, CO en route to Rancho Cucamonga, CA from the old red brick clock tower factory town of Belding, MI.

canadiankayte said...

This took me back to the mid-fifties when Elvis pics covered my walls and echos of my mother "You play that thing once more and I can promise you'll be more than ALL SHOOK UP." That and Hank moaning the blues drove her right up the wall. Shame that Otis didn't get to meet Elvis. I hope I not to shy to approach you when you play at Hugh's in Toronto next April. Got my ticket in my hand and counting down the days. Just finished reading Tough Company....definitely a keeper.

editor said...

“I wrote my songs, I got my money, and I boogied.” Otis Blackwell

That's one of the best epitaphs I've ever seen. Besides, "No Comment" of course.

I Witness said...

In the mid-Sixties I was working at a Safeway near the UW campus in Seattle. One day Tex Ritter came in accompanied by a middle-aged woman and a younger one, a teenager. I wasn't sure, said nothing, but several times after that the two women came in alone, and one day I asked. Answered they were Ritter's wife (probably ex-, I've forgotten) and daughter. We'd chat after that, and I found an old Tex LP that included the High Noon song and some other good Western items. But Tex never reappeared, and the women eventually disappeared too.

Mind you, this same store, another old lady looked me over one day and remarked, "There is no safe way." Then sauntered out.