Awesome Men Throughout History: Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup
A fair amount of TSB’s Awesome Men Throughout History were underappreciated or underpaid in their lifetimes, but this week’s entry—legendary blues musician Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup—had the misfortune of being both. Crudup’s life of poverty and toil (and being screwed out of royalties for years) isn’t necessarily uplifting, but it is interesting, and he left a whole lot of good music behind when he died in 1974.
Crudup was born in rural Mississippi and scraped out a living as a migrant laborer in the South and Midwest. He didn’t learn to play guitar or sing until he was in his 30s, but that might have been for the best; he’d put in enough time stacking lumber and picking cotton by then to have plenty to sing about.
Crudup’s blues career started when he went to Chicago in the early 1940s, where he reportedly lived in a packing crate at an El train station and played on the street for tips. It’s not much different from those guys who live in storage lockers today, but it was hardly living large. Luckily, record producer Lester Melrose discovered him and introduced him to a number of established blues men, and also got him a record deal with RCA.
Crudup’s recordings were popular in their own time, and he probably played in every juke joint, dance hall, and cafe in the South to support himself. And why not? His music is simple, but very catchy and raw in a way that current popular music isn’t. It’s the blueprint for rock ‘n roll. If he didn’t use many chords, it’s because he didn’t need them to put a good song together.
His reputation as a songwriter was strong too, and a lot of his contemporaries—Elmore James, BB King, etc.—covered his songs. So did Elvis Presley, who launched his legendary career with “That’s All Right,” originally written by Crudup.
Unfortunately, Crudup didn’t have the education to parse through recording contracts, and he got totally screwed on royalties by the record labels that distributed his music. Crudup had to supplement his meager touring income with manual labor, working on farms and selling bootleg whiskey to bars in eastern Virginia, where he eventually settled for good.
Can you imagine how he felt seeing Elvis get rich off his music while he went to bed with a sore back from working all day? The same record companies who refused to pay him what he was owed, contract or no contract, were calling him “the Father of Rock ‘N Roll” in the press before his death, which he reportedly found funny in a dark way. Poor Arthur didn’t even get those few years of crazy hedonism that a lot of his peers (who were also screwed over by the record companies) got before their money ran out.
But lest we forget, Arthur Crudup did more with his life than work hard and die. He also made a lot of great music. I’ll leave you with “My Baby Left Me,” which is my favorite song of his.
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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.