By Doyle M. Pace Originally published in the September 1993 Blues News
Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup should have been able to live out his last years in comfort and prosperity from the largess of royalty checks. Sadly, this was not the case. Instead, he came to his end without the recognition and recompense that was his due.
Crudup didn’t get acquainted with the contentions of the professional music business until his mid-30s. He had spent most of his life as a laborer of one kind or another, usually a farmer, but sometimes a logger, a levee worker, and even a bootlegger.
Big Boy’s father was a guitar player but he didn’t stay around long enough to have much influence on his son. Soon after, Arthur was born near the town of Forrest, Mississippi, on August 24, 1905. His Father deposited baby and mother with her parents and hit the road, rarely to be seen again, according to Crudup. His interest in music began at age six when he found a busted ukulele at the city dump; he fixed it up and learned to play. By the time he was ten he was singing with his church choir. In 1916 Crudup’s mother moved her family to Indianapolis. Soon after the move she became ill and Crudup had to leave school and childhood to take a man’s job in a foundry. Ten years later they moved back to Mississippi where Crudup got married and started farming.
It was his love for gospel music that led to Crudup’s initial performances outside the church. He started singing with a gospel quartet called The Harmonizing Four. They sang mostly in the local area but in 1940, they took a trip to Chicago to make some appearances. The group broke up while they were there, and Crudup ended up on the street with no money and no place to stay. In fact, his home was a cardboard box under the El tracks for several weeks. Somewhere he got hold of another broken-down instrument, this time an old guitar, which he tied together with baling wire and used it to accompany himself while he sang on the street.
His guitar playing was rudimentary at best and he certainly wasn’t a seasoned blues singer, but his natural talent was appealing enough to collect some coins in his hat. One day while playing at the corner of 43rd and Hawthorne, on Chicago’s Southside, he made the acquaintance of another blues musician, Doctor Clayton. After Clayton heard Crudup play a couple of numbers, he hurried off to find Lester Melrose, the famous blues promoter and talent scout, and brought him around to hear this new blues singer. Melrose was so impressed that he invited Crudup to play that night at a party at Tampa Red’s house.
What a party it was! In addition to Tampa Red there was a cadre of Chicago’s finest blues musicians in attendance. Memphis Slim, Lonnie Johnson, Washboard Sam, Big Bill Broonzy, Memphis Minnie, and Big Maceo were among the guests. They gave Crudup encouragement and appreciated his singing. Melrose saw commercial potential in Crudup’s raw Delta sound. Even if his guitar playing was weak, Big Boy made up for it with his superb singing. His voice was strangely high-pitched, incongruous for a man with a 6-foot 4-inch, 240 pound frame. Melrose wanted to record Crudup for Victor Records’ Bluebird label but at that time, he was only interested in original material and Crudup had never composed a song. However this problem was soon rectified, because the very next day after the party, Tampa Red set to work helping Big Boy put together some songs. A few days later Big Boy Crudup had his first recording session. He recorded “If I Get Lucky,” “Black Pony Blues,” “Vicksburg Blues,” and “Mean Old Frisco.” For “Frisco,” Crudup switched from the National steel guitar that he’d been using to an electric guitar. Blues historian William Barlow claims that this is the first time an electric guitar was used on a blues recording in Chicago.
“Mean Old Frisco” sold well enough for Melrose to encourage Crudup to continue to write and recording. By trading on the popularity of his records, Crudup could have done well playing the Chicago club circuit, but instead he preferred to go back home to Mississippi. He moved to Belzonia, where he supported his family by farming and running a bootleg whiskey business on the side. Sometimes he played in the local jukes around Belzonia, and made an occasional appearance on the King Biscuit Time radio show from Helena, Arkansas. But, except for a time when he teamed up with Elmore James and Sonny Boy Williamson to make appearances throughout the Delta, Crudup really wasn’t a performing artist until a few years before his death.
However, Melrose would frequently send money for Crudup to make the trip to Chicago for a recording session. The apex of his recording career was 1945-46 when there were a half dozen of his records in the Top 5 of the R&B charts. Among them was “That’s Alright Mama,” recorded by Crudup in 1946. Eight years later this number would be one of young Elvis’ first records, his first commercial success, the fillip of his career, and the impetus for the whole rock ‘n’ roll phenomenon. By 1954, when he started hearing Elvis’ version of his song on the radio, Big Boy had about given up on music altogether including recording. He contacted Melrose about royalties but never got a satisfactory answer.
Subsequently Elvis and other rock artists such as Rod Stewart Elton John, and Creedence Clearwater Revival covered material by Crudup but still no royalty checks came. The problem was that the copyrights on his compositions were held by Melrose’s publishing company Wabash Music. To further complicate matters, Melrose died and the Wabash catalog was acquired by a publishing conglomerate.
In 1955, Crudup moved to Florida and got into the business of transporting migrant workers to Virginia to pick vegetables. In the late 1960s, Crudup was “rediscovered,” and, for the first time in his career, he was playing concerts with large audiences, mostly at colleges. He played such venues as the Newport Jazz Festival and the Mariposa Folk Festival and even traveled to Europe where he was enthusiastically received. Just before he died Big Boy was touring with Bonnie Raitt. He was finally beginning to get the recognition he richly deserved, but not the money. Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup died of a stroke on March 28, 1974. He never collected his due.