Even though we live in a full throttle information age I am often surprised at how many gaps still remain in how we think about music - especially the blues. I was listening to a late night radio show the other day citing the influence of “race music” [meaning, the important, totally innovative and unspeakably cool music that was being played in the early forties by African-Americans: jazz, blues, bebop etc.] and how it has contributed to the evolution of rock and roll. Although this is not exactly a startling new sound byte to anyone – I get that – it’s still quite humbling to consider the number of black artists who either wrote or performed the songs that propelled the careers of so many, yet remain largely unknown to this day.
One artist amongst the many who has been credited with introducing this kind of music to the general public is Elvis Presley. And let’s remember that this music really was cutting edge in its time. My generation only caught the tail end of the Elvis phenom when he had already become a bit of a parody of himself in exaggerated collars and those dreadful Vegas pantsuits. I could not understand the appeal or the gravity of his influence. But I now realise this kind of ignorance is simply inaccurate. Whether you are a fan or not, Elvis presented a style that was completely new. The material was often overtly sexual both in content and presentation and the sound unlike anything that most [white] audiences had ever experienced.
And they liked it. A lot.
But even though he may have brought the music forward, Elvis didn’t write these early tunes. Many people I would venture are not aware that three of Elvis’ early hits – That’s Alright, My Baby Left Me and So Glad You’re Mine – were all written and indeed, often performed by Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup a hugely talented black musician hailing from the Delta. And if you listen to Crudup's original versions of the very same songs - there is no mistaking the similarity.
Arthur Crudup became a musician fairly late in life since he did not even begin playing guitar till he was in his thirties, although he had always enjoyed singing. He also excelled at song writing and many other artists would go on to record his songs. In the early 1940s, Arthur was scouted by a recording label while playing on the streets in Chicago and signed to record for RCA on their ‘Bluebird’ label.
Despite this impressive coup – and the fact that he went on to become of the top blues men of his time - Arthur would never be able to survive on the royalties he earned from the music industry. Like many black artists at the time, he was treated unfairly and he continued to pick cotton and perform general laborers’ duties in order to make a living. Although he played with the likes of Elmore James and Sonny Boy Williamson his own musical career remained limited to smaller venues like the ever-popular juke joints. Arthur did enjoy a brief period of recognition when the blues revivalists of the early seventies hailed him as ‘The Father of Rock ‘n Roll” and he toured more extensively at that time but never really gained the true recognition that was owed to him.
Arthur Crudup passed away in 1974.
Check out these samples below to hear the original songs as performed by Arthur ‘Big Boy’ himself. Youtube has lots of versions too and it’s cool to listen to Elvis’ versions back to back. Enjoy!