After Elvis Presley recorded three of Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s songs in the 1950s, Crudup became known as “The Father of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” Crudup was recorded for RCA Victor or its Bluebird subsidiary from 1941 to 1954 and at one point was probably the country’s most popular downhome-style bluesman in terms of record sales and jukebox play. Other artists from Elton John to Eric Clapton to B.B. King covered his songs, too. But Crudup was a classic victim of music industry exploitation, and despite the commercial success of his music, was never able to even support his family from his music.
Yet those who knew Crudup say that, as an enterprising, self-made man and self-taught musician who had lived through poverty and oppression, he had learned not depend on, or even expect for, his songs to make money, and when the recording business finally got the best of him, he simply left it behind – only to return near the end of his life when the new “blues revival” audience clamored for his music. But he spent most of his musical career playing in juke joints with local musicians such as George Lee, brothers Odell and Clyde Lay, Robert Dees, his son Percy Lee Crudup, or with his legendary blues companions Elmore James and Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller) in the Delta. He worked all sorts of jobs, from stacking lumber to picking cotton to selling bootleg liquor, and finally started his own business transporting migrant workers by truck or bus between Florida and Virginia after he left Forest in the mid-1950s.
Although Crudup, who was born in Forest, Mississippi, on Aug. 24, 1905 (or 1909 according to his Social Security file), grew up singing spirituals, he did not start playing guitar until he was in his thirties, after his cousin, a string band musician named Malcolm Banks, gave him a guitar with two strings. Adding one string at a time, Crudup taught himself to play, and picked up pointers on the blues from George Lee, who was nicknamed “Tutor” for his renown as a music teacher. In 1941 Crudup took his guitar to Chicago and started playing on the streets for tips. Although he recalled that he had to sleep for three weeks in a pasteboard box under the elevated train tracks, Crudup soon got an offer from producer Lester Melrose to record for Bluebird. His unique sound, expressive voice, and memorable lyrics caught on with record buyers, and his discs not only sold well, but were reissued often, including special releases for the armed forces during World War II, and on the on the first batch of releases on a brand new 7-inch 45 rpm format that RCA introduced in 1949. His best known records included Rock Me Mama, Mean Old ‘Frisco Blues, Dig Myself a Hole, Hand Me Down My Walking Cane, and the three that were covered by Presley: That’s All Right, My Baby Left Me, and So Glad You’re Mine.
He recorded a few out-of-contract singles in the ’50s under pseudonyms on labels such as Trumpet Checker. In later years, he cut albums for Fire, Delmark, and other labels, but remained a working man who never depended on music to survive. When interviewed not long before his death, he was running a juke joint in Virginia and picking peas and strawberries to make ends meet. His booking agent during his final years, Dick Waterman, wrote a poignant piece on the trip he and Crudup took to New York expecting to finally receive a check from his publisher for long past due royalties, only to have attorneys nix the payment at the last moment. After his death, his family was able to claim his copyrights. Crudup died on March 28, 1974, in Nassawadox, Virginia.
Elvis Presley himself said in a 1956 interview: ‘The colored folks been singing it and playing it just like I’m doin’ now, man, for more years than I know. They played it like that in the shanties and juke joints and nobody paid it no mind ’til I goose it up. I got it from them. Down in Tupelo, Mississippi, I used to hear old Arthur Crudup bang his box the way I do now, 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.’
— Jim O’Neal