Arthur Crudup: What to know about the bluesman who wrote Elvis's first hit and barely got paid

FRANKTOWN, Va. — FRANKTOWN, Va. (AP) — Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup helped invent rock ‘n’ roll.

His 1946 song “That’s All Right” would become the first single Elvis Presley ever released. Rod Stewart would sing it on a chart-topping album. Led Zeppelin would play it live.

But you wouldn’t have known it if you saw Crudup living out his later years on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, dressed in coveralls and leading a crew picking cucumbers, tomatoes and sweet potatoes.

The Mississippi-born blues musician died 50 years ago, leaving behind one of the starker accounts of 20th century artist exploitation. As the 70th anniversary of Presley’s recording of ”That’s All Right” approaches Friday — July 5, considered a cultural milestone — here are some key takeaways from the AP’s story on Crudup:

Crudup didn’t hold the rights to his own songs. His original manager did. And that was common practice back then.

Lester Melrose had initially signed and managed Crudup.

“I wouldn’t record anybody unless he signed all his rights in those tunes over to me,” he once said, according to Alan Lomax’s book “Mister Jelly Roll.”

Many Black musicians signed over copyrights or were forced to share them, Southwestern Law School professor Kevin J. Greene told The Associated Press.

“A huge chunk of what we’re talking about in terms of exploitation is still under copyright,” said Greene, who testified before a California reparations task force.

In 1971, Downbeat magazine estimated that Crudup should have earned $250,000 — $2 million today — from “That’s All Right” as well as “My Baby Left Me,” which Creedence Clearwater Revival recorded. High Fidelity was more conservative, writing in 1972 that Crudup’s total royalties would’ve been around $120,000 — still more than $900,000 today.

He said he did.

“He made it into a kind of hillbilly record,” Crudup told the Los Angeles Times in 1969. “But I liked it. I thought it would be a hit. Some people like the blues, some don’t. But the way he did it, everyone liked it.”

Presley had started playing the song while on a break during his tryout session in Sun Studios, according to Peter Guralnick’s book, “Last Train to Memphis.”

Guralnick told The Associated Press that Presley’s recording of “That’s All Right” set him off “on what would soon become his almost unimaginable path to stardom.”

In 1956, Presley paid homage to Crudup.

“Down in Tupelo, Mississippi, I used to hear old Arthur Crudup bang his box the way I do now,” he told The Charlotte Observer, “and I said if I ever got to the place I could feel all old Arthur felt, I’d be a music man like nobody ever saw.”

Arguments abound over who wrote the first rock ‘n’ roll song. But “That’s All Right,” mixing elements of blues and country, stakes a strong claim.

“It doesn’t sound like country, it doesn’t sound like blues, although I can hear them in there,” said Joe Burns, a professor of communications and media studies at Southeastern Louisiana University. “It really is a brand new thing.”

Crudup left music in his early 50s to work on farms, eventually settling in Franktown, Virginia, on the the state’s Eastern Shore. He earned a living by leading crews of migrant workers to pick fruits and vegetables.

He was heartbroken by his experience in the music business, his granddaughter said. But he didn’t wallow.

“He was an extremely principled man,” Prechelle Crudup Shannon said of her grandfather, who embodied “those old country values” of working hard and supporting one’s family.

Crudup did eventually return to music, during the 1960s blues revival. He released new albums, played festivals and shared stages with B.B. King, Taj Mahal and Bonnie Raitt.

But he never got the songwriting royalties that eluded him — during his lifetime, at least.

Near the end of his life, Crudup almost reached a settlement with the company that acquired the rights to his songs when Melrose died. But the deal was called off at last minute.

“Naked I come into this world and naked I should leave it,” Crudup told his final manager, Dick Waterman, who recalled that day in his book, “Between Midnight and Day.”

After his death, his family did eventually receive some royalties from the music publisher that took over the songs’ rights.

Even though he died in 1974, Crudup has received flashes of recognition in recent years.

He was briefly portrayed by Gary Clark Jr. in the 2022 biopic “Elvis” and mentioned last year by the California reparations task force examining the long history of discrimination against African Americans.

The state of Virginia is also planning to install a highway marker honoring Crudup on the Eastern Shore.

“Among others who covered Crudup were the Beatles, B.B. King, and Elton John,” the marker will state. “Rarely receiving royalties, Crudup supported his family as a laborer and farm worker.”

Crudup’s granddaughter and others believe he should be in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

“It would be something if this story was unique,” Shannon said. “But it’s not. We know this has happened to Black artists throughout time, but specifically back then.”

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