American pop culture is gearing up for a golden-anniversary celebration of Elvis Presley’s first big hit, “That’s All Right Mama,” recorded in 1954. But there’s been scant attention paid to Arthur (Big Boy) Crudup, the man who wrote that song, and two other early hits for Presley — a classic blues artist whose legacy in the genre is extensive, even while the memory of him as performer and songwriter is, 30 years after his passing, marginal at best.
Information about Crudup is in some ways sketchy and anecdotal; even trying to find his photograph, while not impossible, becomes an almost archeological undertaking. It’s somewhat in keeping with the history of blues musicians: obscure in spite of their own efforts.
He was born in 1904 in Forest, Miss., about an hour’s drive from Robert Johnson’s birthplace in the heart of the Mississippi Delta. Among his contemporaries were Mississippi Fred McDowell, Bukka White, Big Joe Williams and John Lee Hooker. Crudup lived like many black men in the South in the early 20th century, working in a variety of rural occupations to survive.
Live, at the 39th Street L
The young Crudup apparently learned to play guitar about 1936 or 1937, and never really got beyond a style considered expressive but rudimentary. He reportedly left Forest because of some marital difficulty, and headed to Chicago about 1940. Some reports had him living in a packing crate at the 39th Street station for the city’s elevated (“L”) trains, at Pershing Road and State Street, playing for tips and drinks.
He was said to have been playing such a venue when he was discovered in 1941 by Lester Melrose, a blues fan and RCA/Bluebird music producer largely credited with helping to create the Chicago blues sound (and from all available evidence a producer not reluctant to take composing credits for some songs his artists actually wrote).
According to Bill Dahl, a music biographer writing in the All Music Guide, Melrose hired Crudup to play a party that night at the house of Tampa Red, a celebrated bluesman transplanted from Georgia. The party was attended by other blues stars, including Big Bill Broonzy, Lonnie Johnson and Lil Green. “A decidedly tough crowd to impress,” Dahl writes, “but Crudup overcame his nervousness with flying colors.”
Recorded in 1941
Crudup made his first recordings in September 1941. For a time he was a mainstay at smaller labels, including Victor Records, once the home of tenor Enrico Caruso. Crudup’s songs were covered, even at the early stage of his career, by Brownie McGhee, B.B. King and other blues greats in waiting.
In the ’40s and ’50s his reputation as a singer and songwriter was impressive, but — again like many blues musicians of the era — making ends meet was a difficult thing. Crudup took to the road, recording for a label in his native Mississippi, and working on the land to make a living.
While his star declined, or at least remained in a low orbit, the star of another singer, one Elvis Aron Presley, was about to rise meteorically in 1954. Presley, then a truck driver for an electric company in Memphis, went to the fabled Sam Phillips, president of Sun Records, and during his lunch hour cut a demo track of Crudup’s “That’s All Right Mama,” which Crudup wrote in 1946 or 1947. The Presley track was released in August 1954; with that song, the first intimations of the Elvis mystique emerged.
Elvis’ favorite, and others
Crudup was said to be Presley’s favorite songwriter; he went on to record “My Baby Left Me” and “So Glad You’re Mine” (both in 1956).
Others who covered “That’s All Right Mama” include Rod Stewart and, most recently, John Mellencamp. And Crudup’s compositional style — a basic but sturdy template for rock and roll — inspired other bands, his originals surfacing on other artists’ recordings from Muddy Waters to Johnny Winter, the Beatles to Slade, Led Zeppelin to the Grateful Dead, Eric Clapton to Elton John.
Not that it did much for Crudup as a way of making a living. After the burst of recognition from Presley, Crudup returned to an obscurity he’d never gotten that far away from. He recorded for the Victor label until 1954, when he went south again.
He stayed a relative unknown until 1962, when he resurfaced briefly to record an album of his early successes, and again later in the ’60s, when he was rediscovered in a period of renewed attention to the blues as foundation music for rock and roll. Biographer Dahl reports that one of the most enduring composers in blues history had by then drifted into work as a contract farm laborer.
Keeping the legacy alive
He returned to prominence, playing blues festivals, shows on college campuses and some other dates until he died in Virginia, at the age of 68, on March 28, 1974.
His three sons — George, James and Jonas — kept the Crudup musical legacy alive, recording as the Malibus and, later, as the Crudup Brothers. Their album “Franktown Blues,” released in May 2000, offers their reworking of their father’s classic blues tunes, as well as some original songs. There’s some sadness attached to this release; James Crudup, the drummer, died during its recording.
But the talents of the fathers were visited upon the sons, and bestowed more widely on a popular culture with a sometimes curiously selective memory.