Thursday, August 16, 2012

Elvis Presley and Otis Blackwell's "All Shook Up": The Story Behind the Song

Posted By on Thu, Aug 16, 2012 at 10:11 AM

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Elvis Presley died on August 16, 1977, 35 years ago today. A lot of incredible things have happened since then: political stuff and science stuff, mostly. But the post-Elvis development that wows us every time we're reminded of it is the launch of a little S.F. music blog called All Shook Down, whose roots can be traced back, via the title, to an album by the Replacements, to the 1957 smash "All Shook Up" -- a song co-written and made famous by The King.

The Replacements' song "All Shook Down" was penned by Paul Westerberg. In it, he turns Elvis's (and co-songwriter Otis Blackwell's) phrase on its head to comment on what it's like to be a hot-shit band with the music industry and journalism establishment at your feet. Westerberg warbles: "The praises they sing / The register rings / . . . They shake my hand as I drown / We're all shook down." Nothing captures rock 'n' roll's slow transformation from excitable pup to jaundiced hound quite like Westerberg's play on the famous title.

To pay tribute to both Elvis and ourselves on this otherwise bummer of an occasion, here's the story -- with nifty video enhancements -- of how "All Shook Up" came into the world. 

The story of "All Shook Up" begins with "Don't Be Cruel." Recorded in the spring of 1956, "Don't Be Cruel" was the first song written by Otis Blackwell, a Brooklyn-born pianist and R&B-obsessive, that Elvis made into a hit. Blackwell quickly became one of Elvis's favorite writers. Associates close to the pair later noted how Elvis even began to pattern some of his newly-acquired city boy languor -- or what would become known as Elvis's cool -- on Blackwell.

As Blackwell later recalled in countless interviews, "All Shook Up" began as a challenge. Blackwell often joked to colleagues he could write a pop song on any theme or around any phrase. "Great Balls of Fire" is an example of a hit Blackwell wrote on such a dare. In the autumn of 1956, one Blackwell's bosses at his publishing offices dropped an unopened bottle of Pepsi on the ground. When he removed the cap, the soda exploded all over his white shirt. In frustration, Blackwell's boss slammed the half-emptied Pepsi bottle on Blackwell's desk. "There," he said, tersely. "Write a song about that."
Blackwell studied the bottle closely for about a couple of seconds before finally shaking it again. Legend (corroborated by Blackwell, one assumes) says he wrote the lyrics to "All Shook Up" before the bubbles had completely settled back into the beverage.

The song was an instant smash and by the summer of 1957 was inescapable. In October that year, Elvis gave an interview that suggested another possible origin to the song:

Q: Elvis, do you read music? 

A: No. And I can't play the guitar, either. 

Q: What do you do with it if you don't play it? 

A: [Laughs] I use it as a brace. 

Q: Well, your name is listed on the credits of several hit tunes as the author. How do you write music if you don't read it? 

A: It's all a big hoax, honey. I never wrote a song in my life. I get one-third of the credit for recording it. It makes me look smarter than I am. I've never even had an idea for a song. Just once, maybe. 

Q: When? 

A: I went to bed one night, had quite a dream, and woke up all shook up. I phoned a pal and told him about it. By morning, he had a new song, 'All Shook Up.'

Three weeks before Elvis's version appeared, Aladdin Records issued the first rendition of the song to reach the public. It was by David Hill and was titled "I'm All Shook Up."

When Elvis recorded his version, on January 19, 1957, it was the last song in a marathon session Elvis and a vocal group, the Jordanaires, booked primarily to record material for a gospel EP due to RCA that winter. "All Shook Up" was recorded as a lark and to break up the intensity of the gospel sessions. This is why even today "All Shook Up" retains a looser, one might even say cathartic and whimsical, feel relative to the other Elvis hits of his early RCA period. Maybe where Elvis's personal admiration of Blackwell made the most indelible impression on his work was in the artfully slapdash vocal style Elvis adopts on "All Shook Up." He copied it nuance-by-nuance from Blackwell's original demo.

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