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Arthur Crudup: What You Need to Know About the Bluesman Who Wrote Elvis’ First Hit and Was Barely Paid for It

Arthur Crudup: What You Need to Know About the Bluesman Who Wrote Elvis’ First Hit and Was Barely Paid for It

FRANKTOWN, Va. (AP) — Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup helped invent rock ‘n’ roll.

His 1946 song “That’s All Right” would become the first single Elvis Presley ever released. Rod Stewart would sing it on a chart-topping album. Led Zeppelin would perform it live.

But you wouldn’t have expected that to see Crudup spending his final years on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, dressed in overalls and leading a crew picking cucumbers, tomatoes and sweet potatoes.

The Mississippi-born blues musician died 50 years ago, leaving behind one of the most harrowing stories of 20th-century artist exploitation. As the 70th anniversary of Presley’s recording of “That’s All Right” approaches on Friday — July 5, considered a cultural milestone — here are some key takeaways from the AP story on Crudup:

Why did Crudup make so little money?

Crudup didn’t own the rights to his own songs. His original manager did. And that was very common at the time.

Lester Melrose initially hired and managed Crudup.

“I wouldn’t record anyone unless they signed all the rights to those songs over to me,” he once said, according to Alan Lomax’s book “Mister Jelly Roll.”

Many black musicians have transferred or been forced to share their copyrights, Kevin J. Greene, a professor at Southwestern Law School, told The Associated Press.

“A lot of what we’re talking about in terms of exploitation is still under copyright,” said Greene, who testified before a California reparations task force.

In 1971, DownBeat magazine estimated that Crudup should have earned $250,000 — $2 million in today’s money — from Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “That’s All Right” and “My Baby Left Me.” High Fidelity was more conservative, writing in 1972 that Crudup’s total royalties would have been around $120,000 — still more than $900,000 today.

Did Crudup like Presley’s version?

He said he did.

“He made it into a kind of hillbilly record,” Crudup told the Los Angeles Times in 1969. “But I liked it. I thought it would be a hit. Some people like the blues, some people don’t. But the way he did it, everybody liked it.”

According to Peter Guralnick’s book “Last Train to Memphis,” Presley began playing the song during a break in his tryout session at Sun Studios.

Guralnick told The Associated Press that Presley’s recording of “That’s All Right” set him on “what would soon become his almost unimaginable path to fame.”

In 1956, Presley paid tribute to Crudup.

“In Tupelo, Mississippi, I used to hear old Arthur Crudup banging on his box the way I’m banging on it now,” he told The Charlotte Observer, “and I said, if I ever got to the place where I could feel everything old Arthur felt, I’d be a musician like no one had ever seen.”

There is much debate about who wrote the first rock ‘n’ roll song. But “That’s All Right,” a mix of elements of blues and country, makes a strong claim.

“It doesn’t sound like country, it doesn’t sound like blues, although I can hear them in it,” said Joe Burns, a professor of communication and media studies at Southeastern Louisiana University. “It’s really something new.”

What happened later in Crudup’s life?

Crudup left music in his early 50s to work on farms, eventually settling in Franktown, Virginia, on the state’s Eastern Shore, where he made a living leading groups of migrant workers who picked fruits and vegetables.

He was devastated by his experiences in the music business, his granddaughter said. But he didn’t wallow in it.

“He was a very principled man,” Prechtle Crudup Shannon said of her grandfather, who embodied the “old country values” of hard work and providing for your family.

Crudup eventually returned to music during the blues revival of the 1960s, releasing new albums, playing festivals and sharing stages with BB King, Taj Mahal and Bonnie Raitt.

But he never received the songwriting royalties that eluded him, at least not during his lifetime.

Toward the end of his life, Crudup nearly reached a settlement with the company that had acquired the rights to his songs when Melrose died. But the deal fell through at the last minute.

“Naked I came into this world and naked I must leave,” Crudup told his last manager, Dick Waterman, who described that day in his book “Between Midnight and Day.”

After his death, his family eventually received royalties from the music publisher who had acquired the rights to the songs.

How is Crudup remembered?

Although he died in 1974, Crudup has received occasional recognition in recent years.

He was briefly portrayed by Gary Clark Jr. in the 2022 biopic “Elvis” and was named last year by California’s reparations task force, which examined the long history of discrimination against African Americans.

The state of Virginia also plans to place a road marker in Crudup’s honor on the Eastern Shore.

“Among others who covered Crudup were the Beatles, B.B. King and Elton John,” the marker will state. “Crudup rarely received royalties, but supported his family as a laborer and farmhand.”

Crudup’s granddaughter and others believe he belongs in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

“It would be something if this story was unique,” ​​Shannon said. “But it’s not. We know this has happened to black artists throughout history, but specifically back then.”

Ben Finley, Associated Press