Unsung Rock ‘n’ Roll Architect’s Legacy Revived: Arthur Crudup’s Journey from Stardom to Farming and Back

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In the quaint town of Franktown, Virginia, resides a legacy unbeknownst to many of its residents. Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, influential architect of rock ‘n’ roll left dust on his shoe prints in the annals of music history, his role largely obscured to the masses.

It was Crudup’s magnetic rhythms and lyrical prowess, exemplified in his 1946 song “That’s All Right,” that sparked the nascent career of Elvis Presley. The song was, in fact, the first single the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll ever made public. The melody’s appeal transcended musical genres, finding itself on the lips of Rod Stewart, radiating from sold-out Led Zeppelin gigs.

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However, the latter years of Crudup’s life depicted an image far removed from the glitz and glamour of his rich musical legacy. Residents of Virginia’s Eastern Shore found him adorning coveralls, his hands sifting through soil, leading a crew harvesting cucumbers, tomatoes, and sweet potatoes.

The Mississippi-born blues musician left us half a century ago, and in doing so, also left a poignant narrative of artist exploitation in the previous century. The echoes of his life’s story resonate presently as we march towards the 70th anniversary of Presley’s rendition of “That’s All Right”—a landmark to be acknowledged on July 5.

Despite the vast popularity and influence of Crudup’s compositions, the financial rewards evaded him. This was due to a commonplace industry practice of the era, where artists signed off their rights to their songs to their managers. Crudup’s manager, Lester Melrose, was a staunch advocate of this practice; an assertion backed by his own admission in Alan Lomax’s book “Mister Jelly Roll”.

As a result, Crudup and by extension many black artists of his time, encountered exploitation, being forced to either relinquish copyrights or share them, according to Kevin J. Greene, a professor at Southwestern Law School. Such loss of rights and royalties extend to present times, further aggravating earlier acts of exploitation.

Calculations by Downbeat magazine in 1971 suggested that Crudup should have earned a considerable $250,000 (equivalent to $2 million in today’s economy) from royalties of “That’s All Right” and another of his hits, “My Baby Left Me.” A more conservative estimate suggested that Crudup’s total royalties would’ve hovered around $120,000, albeit still substantial in its day equivalent of $900,000.

Despite the financial disappointment, Crudup maintained a positive outlook. He praised Presley’s adaptation of his song and foresaw its success. The King reciprocated Crudup’s influence, acknowledging the profound impact Crudup’s music had on his own artistic development back in Mississippi, while embarking on his ascendant journey to international stardom.

Just who penned the first pop-rock song continues to accrue debate, but the distinctive blend of blues and country in Crudup’s “That’s All Right” puts it up in the running for that acclaim; a sentiment shared by Joe Burns, a professor of communications and media studies at Southeastern Louisiana University.

Yet, in spite of his musical contribution, Crudup eventually turned from music to engage in farming work in Virginia. Memories of his time in the music business soured by exploitation, yet his spirit remained unbroken. His granddaughter, Prechelle Crudup Shannon, speaks warmly of her grandfather’s work ethic, steadfast principles, and deep-seated, old-country values.

In the 1960s, lured by the blues revival, Crudup stepped back into the music scene. He released new albums, graced festival stages, and shared the spotlight with renowned musicians like B.B. King, Taj Mahal, and Bonnie Raitt. However, the royalties that had originally bypassed him continued to remain elusive. Even on the cusp of reaching a settlement with the company that had acquired the rights to his songs, the agreement startlingly collapsed.

Despite his thwarted experience, Crudup bore no resentment, famously asserting to his final manager, Dick Waterman, “Naked I come into this world and naked I should leave it.” An epilogue to his narrative reveals that his family eventually did receive some music royalties posthumously, augmenting the sweetness to the bitter tale.

Decades after his passing in 1974, Crudup’s unsung legacy is beginning to receive deserving recognition. He was immortalized in a cameo portrayal in the 2022 biopic “Elvis”. His name also featured in crucial conversations held by the California reparations task force addressing long-standing racial injustices faced by African Americans.

The state of Virginia is also set to honor Crudup’s contribution by installing a highway marker on the Eastern Shore, acknowledging his struggle and his unbeatable spirit. And as if in a final act of retribution, there are strong calls for Crudup to be granted his place in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. The tale of Crudup’s life may not be unique, but it continues to remind us of the collective injustices faced by black artists of his era.