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Friday, March 27, 2009

ARTHUR BIG BOY CRUDUP


Arthur Crudup, 1971
photo © Stan Livingston

Tomorrow (March 28) is the 35th anniversary of the death of Arthur Crudup in Nassawadox, Virginia. Here's his Bob Dylan Encyclopedia entry:

Crudup, Arthur ‘Big Boy’ [1905 - 1974]
Arthur William Crudup was born into rural poverty in Forest, in southern Mississippi, on August 24, 1905 and was singing in church by the age of 10. He worked as a labourer before taking up the guitar at the unusually late age of 32 but was soon playing at local parties. In the depths of the Depression he struggled to stay in music but in 1940 joined gospel group the Harmonizing Four, moved to Chicago with them in 1941 (living, to begin with, in a wooden crate under the ‘L’ station) and then quit the group and turned back to the blues. Discovered by a Victor talent scout, he was asked to perform that same evening in front of towering figures like TAMPA RED, BIG BILL BROONZY and LONNIE JOHNSON. His guitar playing was simple but he was a strong songwriter with a spare, field-holler voice, and after impressing this intimidating audience he was signed up. He recorded over 80 sides between 1941 and 1956, scoring 78rpm successes with a handful.

His fame in the wider world rests on the fact that ELVIS PRESLEY’s first record, the immortal ‘That’s All Right’, recorded in July 1954, was a revolutionary revival of an Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup song. (When Presley moved from Sun to RCA at the beginning of 1956, he swiftly recorded another old Crudup 1940s record, ‘So Glad You’re Mine’.)

Yet it’s an example of how timeless Elvis Presley’s exciting new transmissions could be that the line ‘That’s alright, mama, that’s alright for you’ figures in a much earlier blues classic than the Crudup song. It’s a stanza from BLIND LEMON JEFFERSON’s seminal ‘Black Snake Moan’ (cut in Chicago as ‘That Black Snake Moan’ in 1926 and re-cut in Atlanta as ‘Black Snake Moan’ in 1927). The lines ‘Mama that’s alright, sugar that’s alright for you / That’s alright mama, that’s alright for you / ... just the way you do’ then recurred the following year in one of the two takes of Ishman Bracey’s terrific ‘’Fore Day Blues’. Then, on the early Crudup side ‘If I Get Lucky’, in 1941, he not only tried out the lines ‘That’s alright mama, that’s alright for you / Treat me low-down and dirty, any old way you do’ for the first time but did it with a style of hollering that admits a debt to Bracey as much as to Jefferson.

The connection makes sense: Crudup hung out in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1940s, when Ishman Bracey was the city’s most popular and active musician. In turn, it was 150 miles up Highway 55, in Memphis, that Elvis saw Crudup perform. Somewhere there’s an interview with Elvis in which he’s asked, when he’s the ultimate star, if he had imagined that kind of fame and success for himself when he started out. Elvis replies: ‘No. When I started out I just wanted to be as good as Arthur Crudup was when I saw him live in ’49.’

One of the Crudup records Presley surprised Sam Phillips by knowing was ‘Rock Me Mama’, and this is the other Crudup song besides ‘That’s All Right’ that Dylan recorded. He tried ‘That’s All Right’ fairly early in his own career, at the session of October 26, 1962 that yielded both the Freewheelin’ and the slightly different single-release version of ‘Corrina Corrina’, and again at the session of November 1; these have circulated but remain unissued. A little over ten years later Dylan tried Crudup’s ‘Rock Me Mama’ at the sessions for Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid in 1973, to no especially significant avail. It’s a simple song, anonymous in character and Dylan does nothing much with it - or at least, you’d say so until you find that in 2004 the group Old Crow Medicine Show include the song under the title ‘Wagon Wheel’ and credit this title partly to Dylan and his music publishing company. (And don’t credit Crudup at all.) The two known Dylan takes have never been released but have circulated in rather poor quality.

Other Crudup records have Dylan connections. His ‘Death Valley Blues’ (see the entry on Dylan’s song ‘Dignity’) tells a story that takes place out on Highway 61; his ‘Mean Old Frisco Blues’ is one of the very few pre-war records to use the phrase ‘special rider’, which Dylan took as the name of his most important music-publishing company; Crudup made a record called ‘That’s Your Red Wagon’ in 1945; his 1941 revisit to CHARLEY PATTON territory on ‘Black Pony Blues’ includes the phrase ‘she fox-trot and pace’, which Dylan echoes in his own ‘New Pony’ blues on Street Legal in 1978; and Crudup recorded a ‘Dirt Road Blues’ in 1945.

Presley had always credited Crudup, both in interviews and on the record label; but royalties paid never reached the musician and he remained in poverty even while being labelled ‘the father of rock’n’roll’; in response he liked to refer to his most famous fan as ‘Elvin Preston’. He had returned to southern Mississippi by the end of the 1940s - like BLIND WILLIE McTELL, his sound had become passé in Chicago - and though he made the occasional foray into Memphis, he was back to playing rural juke joints by the early 1950s. It is a bellowing irony that the same year Elvis Presley shot to national prominence and that undreamt-of fame, 1956, Arthur Crudup gave up music and returned to farmwork.

However, he was still only 50 years old, and he survived long enough to receive an eventual $60,000 in back royalties when ‘rediscovered’ in 1965 by Dick Waterman, who pointed him towards the folk revival movement. He toured the US East Coast and Europe as a rightly valued survivor of the pre-war country blues world, recorded with British musicians on a UK trip in 1970 and back in the US even went out as the support act to Bonnie Raitt.

Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup suffered a fatal stroke and died while still a working musician, in Nassawadox, Virginia, on March 28, 1974.

[Arthur Crudup: ‘If I Get Lucky’, ‘Death Valley Blues’ & ‘Black Pony Blues’, Chicago, 11 Sep 1941, the 1st on King of the Blues Vol. 3 (EP), RCA RCX204, London, 1962; the others on Bluebird Blues, RCA LPV-518 (Vintage Series), NY, 1965; ‘Mean Old Frisco Blues’, Chicago, 15 Apr 1942, The Rural Blues, RBF FR-202, NY, 1964; ‘That’s Your Red Wagon’ (unreleased till 1983) & ‘Dirt Road Blues’, Chicago, 22 Oct 1945, the latter on Victor 20-2757, NY, 1947; ‘That’s All Right’, Chicago, 6 Sep 1946, known by Presley from the 78rpm Victor 20-2205 (c/w ‘Crudup’s After Hours’), NY, 1946.
Bob Dylan: ‘That’s All Right’, NY, 26 Oct 1962; ‘Rock Me Mama’, Burbank CA, Feb 1973; both unreleased. Elvis Presley: ‘That’s All Right’, Memphis, July 5-6, 1954, Sun 209, Memphis, 1954. Blind Lemon Jefferson: ‘That Black Snake Moan’, Chicago, c.Nov 1926, Black Snake Moan: Blind Lemon Jefferson, Milestone MLP-2013, NY, 1970. ‘Black Snake Moan’, Atlanta, 14 Mar 1927, Jazz Vol. 2: The Blues, Folkways FP55 & FJ-2802, NY, 1950. Ishman Bracey: ‘The ’Fore Day Blues’ (alternate take), Memphis, 31 Aug 1928, Jackson Blues 1928-1938, Yazoo L-1007, NY, c.1968, CD-reissued YAZCD1007, NY, c.1988. (The lyric fragment quoted is not on the better-known take, issued on The Famous 1928 Tommy Johnson-Ishman Bracey Session, Roots RL-330, Vienna, 1970; both takes are CD-reissued on Ishman Bracey & Charley Taylor, Document DOCD-5049, Vienna, c.1991.) Old Crow Medicine Show: ‘Wagon Wheel’, Old Crow Medicine Show, Nettwerk, US, 2004.
Main sources: Michael Gray, Song & Dance Man III: The Art of Bob Dylan; Rick Anderson, entry in The Blues Encyclopedia, New York: Routledge, 2005, pp. 240-243, and Tony Russell, The Blues From Robert Johnson to Robert Cray, London: Arum Press, 1997, p.105.]

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