“Don’t Be Cruel, to a heart that’s true.”
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