Thursday, July 17, 2014

The mysterious Charlie Blackwell and "Midnight Oil"

Charlie Blackwell

Charlie Blackwell was a one-hit wonder whose one hit didn't even crack the Top 40. The hit was "Midnight Oil," a whistling tune on Warner Bros. Records that was composed by Walt Disney's Sherman Brothers. It peaked at #55 on the Billboard pop chart in 1959.

It's hard to find any information about Blackwell, and little was said about him even during his brief heyday as a pop semi-star. The ads for his records never pictured him or gave any information about him other than his name and the titles, and Billboard never profiled him or reported on his doings other than to mention that he used to be a jazz drummer of some note. 

Blackwell was born in Seattle in 1921, the Billboard chart books say, and played drums with numerous jazz bands, including those of Count Basie, Kid Ory, Shelly Manne, Stan Kenton, Dave Brubeck, Monte Easter, and Eddie Heywood. Blackwell shouldn't be confused with British bandleader Charles Blackwell or Tulsa drummer Chuck Blackwell.

Blackwell cut five pop and rock singles in the '50s: one for Decca in 1958 and four for Warner Bros. in 1959. The Decca single was a vocal number, a rock 'n' roll cheating song called "KX2 Secret Spy." The flip side, "Glory," was the "Pick of the Week" at KDAY in Los Angeles.

Blackwell moved to Warner Bros. the next year and bowed with "Midnight Oil," which was a strong seller in some regions—especially San Francisco and St. Louis, where it reached the Top 20. Warner Bros. advertised Blackwell alongside its other hit artists of the time, such as Tab Hunter and Don Ralke.

Unlike Blackwell's other singles, "Midnight Oil" is vaguely jazzy. It features simple instrumentation—a piano, upright bass, and drums—and Blackwell's whistling. 

Billboard's review of "Midnight Oil"

"Whistlin' Dixie," a whistling followup to "Midnight Oil," got some airplay in Boston but didn't reach the national charts. The flip side, a teen rocker called "Kath-A-Leen," did well in Albany, New York, and San Francisco. 

Billboard's review of "Whistlin' Dixie"

Billboard gave Blackwell's third Warner Bros. single, "Blue Bird of Happiness," a three-star review and said, "Blackwell has an attractive, mild rock version of the old Jan Peerce ork. Lush horns assist. Side starts with a spoken intro." Billboard gave the flip, "Josephine," three stars too and said, "Peppy vocal by Blackwell on a charming ditty with bright chorus and ork support." The latter side competed with recordings of the same song by Bill Black's Combo, Wayne King, Johnny Maddox, Russ Morgan, Lloyd Mumm, and Lawrence Welk.

Blackwell's fourth and final Warner Bros. single wasn't a hit at all but has attracted as much attention as "Midnight Oil." The single, "Choppin' Mountains," is notable because of its B-side, "The Girl of My Best Friend." The song was later recorded by Elvis Presley and then covered by Elvis sound-alike Ral Donner, for whom it became a hit. Blackwell's recording is the first version of the song, though. He recorded it with Warner Bros. label-mate Don Ralke.

Billboard's review of "Choppin' Mountains"

The image at the top of this page is from the cover of a privately released album that Blackwell cut in 1975. It was issued on Chafay Records of Foster City, California, and coincided with Blackwell's regular performances as the Charlie Blackwell Trio at the Villa Hotel in San Mateo, California.

Larry Hatch, who used to maintain a popular database of discredited UFO sightings, played in the Charlie Blackwell Trio and says that drummer Tom Widdicombe was the third member. Hatch said that Blackwell "had a terrific voice, something like Nat King Cole only more powerful," and was "kind of bull-headed, but not a bad guy." Hatch also said that Blackwell claimed to be of Native American descent.

Tommy Widdicombe, by the way, played with Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey and appeared on Jimmy Dorsey's Dot album So Rare. He was featured in an ad for Ludwig drums in the '50s.

An ad for Ludwig drums that features Tommy Widdicombe

That's as far as I got in uncovering the Charlie Blackwell story. Here is Blackwell's minor hit, "Midnight Oil."


  1. Thanks for posting this. I've had "Midnight Oil" in my collection for decades and always liked it, but I had no idea there was so much more to the story; thank you for doing the research. I am "re-interested" because I just discovered Blackwell's original version of "Girl of My Best Friend" tonight. He sounds like a bit of a slicked-up version of Ricky Nelson on it, but it's good; the version I found is in stereo, too! Might it be from that album you cite?

    Also, I saw a YouTube comment suggesting that Bumps Blackwell, the producer/arranger/composer/badleader, was Charlie's brother. I always though Bumps was at least part African-American, but you note that Charlie claimed to be Native American. Any further clarity on this?

  2. Charlie is my dad and Uncle Bumps is most certainly his brother. Yes, we are of African American heritage. Unfortunate to read that anyone would say my dad wasn't smart...on the contrary, he was a well read man and quite knowledgeable. Happy to know his music still carries some interest.

  3. What became of your father, Charlie Blackwell, after the mid-1970s?