July 23rd, 2024

Arthur Crudup wrote the song that became Elvis’ first hit. He barely got paid

By Ben Finley, The Associated Press on July 2, 2024.

FRANKTOWN, Va. (AP) – Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup helped invent rock “˜n’ roll.

His 1946 song “That’s All Right,” an easygoing shrug to a lover, 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.

Despite being dubbed “the father of rock “˜n’ roll,” Crudup received scant songwriting royalties in his lifetime because of a recording contract that funneled the money to his original manager. Crudup died 50 years ago, leaving behind one of the starker accounts of 20th century artist exploitation.

“Of course materialistic things don’t mean everything,” says Prechelle Crudup Shannon, a granddaughter. “But they took so much more than just money. They left him with all of the burdens of a poor Black man. And even more so because they left him with a broken heart.”

In recent years, Crudup has received flashes of recognition. He was briefly portrayed by Gary Clark Jr. in the 2022 biopic “Elvis” and mentioned last year by a California reparations task force examining the long history of discrimination against African Americans.

The 70th anniversary of Presley recording “That’s All Right” is Friday – many historians consider July 5 a cultural milestone – and comes as the state of Virginia plans a highway marker honoring Crudup.

“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.”

“˜A brand new thing’

Crudup was born in 1905 in Forest, Mississippi, and started singing the blues when he was about 10, he told Blues Unlimited magazine. By 14, he was working in a foundry. It wasn’t until his 30s that he took up the guitar. Self-taught, he played parties and nightclubs in the Mississippi Delta.

In Chicago, seeking a better job, he busked and slept in a crate under an L station. One evening on a street corner, Crudup met Lester Melrose, a white field agent for Bluebird Records.

“He put a dollar in my hand and asked me to play,” Crudup told High Fidelity magazine.

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,” says Joe Burns, a professor of communications and media studies at Southeastern Louisiana University. “It really is a brand new thing.”

Crudup recorded some 80 songs for Bluebird between 1941 and 1956, including “That’s All Right,” “My Baby Left Me” and “So Glad You’re Mine.” He held the rights to none.

His original manager had them.

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

Crudup spent years off and on in Chicago, recording songs there and returning south by bus to work jobs in Mississippi. One was hauling trash for $28.44 a week.

“I had the family to take care of, a car note to pay off, a gas bill, a light bill,” Crudup said. He left music in his early 50s to work on farms.

“˜A kind of hillbilly record’

In 1954, Presley was on a break during his tryout session in Sun Studios when “this song popped into my mind that I had heard years ago,” according to Peter Guralnick’s book, “Last Train to Memphis.”

Sam Phillips, the studio’s legendary founder, immediately recognized Crudup’s song. Phillips was amazed the 19-year-old knew it and felt his version “came across with a freshness and an exuberance.”

A Memphis, Tennessee, radio station soon broadcast Presley’s recording. The response was “instantaneous,” with phone calls and telegrams asking the station to replay it, Guralnick wrote.

“It was by far Elvis’s biggest seller on the Sun label and set him off on what would soon become his almost unimaginable path to stardom,” Guralnick tells The Associated Press.

Although Crudup is often elided from accounts of Presley’s rise, the singer did publicly credit the songwriter.

“Down in Tupelo, Mississippi, I used to hear old Arthur Crudup bang his box the way I do now,” Presley told The Charlotte Observer in 1956, “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.”

Crudup himself liked Presley’s interpretation.

“He made it into a kind of hillbilly record,” Crudup later told the Los Angeles Times. “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.”

In the early 1960s, Crudup finally got a sizable royalty check – for $1,600. But Melrose refused to turn over the copyright.

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

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

In 1971, Downbeat magazine estimated that Crudup probably should have earned over $250,000 – nearly $2 million today – from “That’s All Right” as well as “My Baby Left Me,” which Creedence Clearwater Revival recorded.

The American Guild of Authors and Composers even tried to collect royalties on Crudup’s behalf. But its then-managing director, John Carter, told High Fidelity in 1972 that Crudup had been paid “at most $2,500″ from the guild’s efforts.

Playing in a packing shed

By his mid-50s, Crudup had settled in Franktown, Virginia. He was heartbroken by his experience, his granddaughter says. But he didn’t wallow.

“One of the things that my father emphasized was that he was an extremely principled man,” Shannon says of Crudup, who embodied “those old country values” of working hard and supporting one’s family.

Etna Nottingham Walker, whose family owned the Virginia farm where Crudup worked, says that “if you didn’t know that it was Arthur Crudup and he was a musician, you wouldn’t have singled him out.”

Butch Nottingham, Walker’s cousin, worked on the farm too. During breaks, he says, Crudup sometimes pulled out a guitar and sang in the packing shed where they washed and waxed cucumbers.

Crudup did eventually return to music, during the 1960s blues revival. Music producers from two labels, Fire and Delmark, tracked him down. He released new albums, played festivals and shared stages with B.B. King, Taj Mahal and Bonnie Raitt.

But Crudup continued to live on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, a narrow peninsula between the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean. Shannon remembers her silver-haired grandfather holding her as a toddler on his Franktown porch, a cigarette dangling from his lips.

“He had these very, very long limbs,” recalls Shannon. “He just seemed like a giant to me.”

Tim Prettyman worked at the pharmacy where Crudup often picked up insulin, coffee and Camel cigarettes. One time, a suit-clad Crudup arrived with a guitar case, bound for a bus to New York and a plane to England.

“He said, “˜I’m going to play music for the Queen,’ and winked at me and smiled,” Prettyman remembers.

“˜Ain’t meant to be’

Near the end of his life, Crudup almost got a settlement for $60,000, over $400,000 today.

Melrose was dead. A deal had been arranged with Hill & Range, the company that had acquired Crudup’s publishing rights.

But when Crudup and four of his children arrived in New York, they learned the deal was off, according to the book “Between Midnight and Day,” written by Crudup’s final manager, Dick Waterman.

They were told a settlement would cost the company more money than a potential lawsuit would yield. And suing meant “going after an old white widow who lives in Florida,” Waterman wrote. “We wouldn’t have a chance.”

“It just ain’t meant to be,” Crudup told Waterman. “Naked I come into this world and naked I shall leave it.”

Indeed, a settlement came only after Crudup’s 1974 death. Chappell Music refused to go forward with buying Hill & Range until the Crudup matter was resolved. The first check was slightly more than $248,000, Waterman wrote, with Crudup’s estate receiving around $3 million over the following decades.

Now Warner Chappell Music, the publishing company declined to comment because the events were so long ago.

Jeanette Crudup, the widow of Crudup’s son Jonas, says the payments to the musician’s children paled in comparison to what he should have received during his lifetime.

“They got the crumbs from it,” she says.

Crudup still remains relatively unknown, even on the Eastern Shore, says Billy Sturgis, a local resident who produced an album by Crudup’s sons. Sturgis hopes the historical marker will help. But, he says, Crudup belongs in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, alongside Presley and the many others who sang Crudup’s songs.

Crudup’s granddaughter agrees.

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

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