Arthur Crudup was an innovator whose accomplishments are still being felt by the music industry in 2023.
Born to a family of migrant workers in Mississippi in 1905, he was exposed to Gospel music at an early age through his church and soon began singing in the church choir. His love for singing eventually snowballed into playing guitar. His guitar teacher was none other than Papa Harvey Hull of The Down Home Boys fame, playing alongside guitarists “Long Cleve” Reed and Sunny Wilson. The trio rose to fame in the early Blues era of the late 1800s. Working with Papa Harvey gave him the confidence to pursue music. His passion and accumulative skill set eventually secured him local gigs in and around the Forest, Mississippi area.
In the early 1940s, Arthur moved to Chicago to pursue his dream, starting out playing in the streets. Eventually, he was discovered by Lester Melrose, a local talent scout and one of the first American Blues producers in the Chicago area. Lester worked for several record labels, notably RCA and Columbia. He was known for bringing several Blues artists in this era to the forefront including Sonny Boy Williamson, Big Joe Williams, and Leroy Carr, among others. Crudup’s talent so impressed Melrose that he hired him to play at a party at the home of Tampa Red, a fellow Chicago Blues musician.
The Blues scene was fully established at this point, and Melrose had a vested interest in having hits recorded and produced in a quick manner. He offered Crudup a recording contract with RCA Victor’s Bluebird label and stepped in as his manager.
In addition to recording music, Crudup would tour the Blues clubs and continue to increase his profile in the Chicago area. His biggest hits included “Mean Old ‘Frisco Blues” and “Who’s Been Foolin’ You.” He played the guitar, and harmonica, and sang vocals.
Crudup recorded “That’s All Right” in 1946 and released it as a single a year later. The song was not as successful as some of his previous records. It remained that way until 1954 when Elvis Presley recorded it as his debut single. After that, the original song was recognized as the “first rock and roll song”, specifically by rock historian Joseph Burns, who adds that “this song could contain the first ever guitar solo break.” Despite the original version’s lack of commercial success, it remains Crudup’s most recognized song to this day due to Elvis’ cover. It was the song that kicked off the most legendary and vital music careers of all time, though the Presley version was not an exact duplicate of Crudup’s in terms of style. This new version had a much faster tempo. It nearly felt like a brand-new song entirely.
Though Crudup was credited as the composer of Presley’s single, ongoing legal battles regarding royalties continued after Crudup claimed he never received any payments. He was set to receive $60,000 in back royalties after a settlement but it never came to fruition. Ongoing royalty disputes forced him to stop recording in the mid-50s. As he put it, “I realized I was making everybody rich, and here I was poor.” His royalty cheques since signing with Melrose were minimal and due to the financial instability, he stopped recording music, only returning in 1968 due to the influence of his friend Dick Waterman.
At this point in his career, he was dubbed The Father of Rock and Roll because of his influence on the now world-famous Elvis Presley. Presley would later acknowledge his importance to rock and roll when he said, “If I had any ambition, it was to be as good as Arthur Crudup.”
Dick Waterman, Crudup’s friend, and collaborator was influential in the Blues music scene throughout the 60s and would help in getting Crudup’s career up and running again, including fighting for back royalties Crudup had never received. As for producer Lester Melrose, he would end up selling his interests to a publishing company, Hill & Range, before he retired. It’s a shame that Crudup never got to see any of his royalty money and was a victim of corruption that the industry can be known to bring.
Arthur Crudup died in March 1974 after complications of heart disease and diabetes. After some additional legal matters, and the sale of Hill & Range, he was finally awarded a healthy royalty check, though at this point he had already passed away and the money went to his estate.
After his passing, he was honoured by Elvis during live performances. “I want to begin each show with “That’s All Right Mama,” he announced to friend Charlie Hodge. “If it weren’t for Big Boy, I might not be here today.” His career influenced several artists that came after him including Sade, Elton John, and Rod Stewart who recorded some of his songs including “Rock Me Mama”, “So Glad You’re Mine”, and “My Baby Left Me.”
The Blues Hall of Fame would also recognize him as “The Father of Rock ‘n’ Roll’ after Elvis Presley recorded his music.
His legacy continues to live on in 2023. In January, the box-office smash biopic Elvis was nominated for eight Oscar’s including Best Picture.