Forefather of Rock and Roll Became a Moonshine Bootlegger
“If I had any ambition, it was to be as good as Arthur Crudup,” Elvis Presley once said of the man who wrote “That’s All Right,” his first commercial record release.
In a 1972 conversation in what is now referred to as the “Jungle Room” of Presley’s Memphis home, Graceland, he decided to honor Crudup during his live performances.
“I want to begin each show with That’s All Right Mama,” he announced to friend Charlie Hodge. “If it weren’t for Big Boy, I might not be here today.”
“Big Boy” was Crudup. Elvis had grown up in Tupelo, Mississippi and spent his teenager years listening to many of the Delta Blues singers of his youth.
It was common for Elvis to bestow on friends and relatives special nicknames, perhaps as ordinary as it was for Blues artists to be labeled by their industry.
Riley B. King became B.B. King by WDIA radio, short for “Blues Boy.” Other examples include:
McKinley Morganfield = Muddy Waters
Ellas Bates McDonald= Bo Diddley
Chester Arthur Burnett = Howlin’ Wolf
Eddie Jones = Guitar Slim
Lizzie Douglas = Memphis Minnie
Arthur Dwight Moore = Gatemouth
Samuel Maghett = Magic Sam
John Luther Jones = Casey Jones
Booker T. Washington White = Bukka White = Washington White
Bernard Williams = Bunny Williams
Robert Walker = Bilbo Walker
Thessex Jones = Johnny Drummer
David Edwards = Honeyboy Edwards
Robert Potts = Dr. Feelgood
Richard Harney = Hacksaw Harney
Calvin Jones = Fuzz Jones
Curtis Williams = Mississippi Bo
George Buford = Mojo Buford
Gus Cannon = Banjo Joe
Joe Lee Williams = Big Joe
John Wesley Macon = Mr. Shortstuff
Walter Horton = Shakey = Big Walter
Walter Lewis = Furry Lewis
“During Elvis’s teen years in Memphis he could hear blues on Beale Street, just a mile south of his family’s home,” states the Elvis Presley and the Blues marker at his birthplace in Tupelo.
Elvis recorded two more Crudup songs: “My Baby Left Me” and “So Glad You’re Mine.”
Replacing the introduction song “C.C.Rider,” with “That’s All Right” became as much of a fan pleasing standard as ending each concert with “Can’t Help Falling in Love” until his final 1977 appearance.
Crudup, also known throughout his career as Elmer Crudup and Percy Lee Crudup, was 30 years old when Elvis was born in 1935. He died in 1974 at age 68, not long after Elvis honored him with his opening song.
Born into a family of traveling workers in Forrest, Mississippi, he returned to his birthplace at age 26 to sing Gospel music.
With lessons and mentoring by Papa Harvey, like many musicians from the Delta Blues region, he went to Chicago in 1940.
He’d been a singing member of the Harmonizing Four in Clarksdale, Mississippi and when they travel to Chicago in 1939, he became excited about the developing opportunities.
As a solo artist singing in the streets, record producer Lester Melrose discovered him just in time. Crudup had been living in a packing crate at the 39th Street L Train elevated track.
He was introduced to Tampa Red who advised him to “do what you can do. What you can’t do, forget about it?”
According to Bill Dahl, a music biographer writing in the All Music Guide, Melrose hired Crudup to play a party one night at the house of Red, a celebrated bluesman from Georgia. The party was attended by other blues stars, including Big Bill Broonzy, Lonnie Johnson and Lil Green.
“A decidedly tough crowd to impress,” Dahl writes, “but Crudup overcame his nervousness with flying colors.”
Red signed him to a contract with the RCA Victor Bluebird label.
“That’s All Right,” along with “Mean Old Frisco Blues” and “Who’s Been Fooling You” became more popular in the South than in Chicago.
Elvis likely first heard “That’s All Right” at age 11, at is peak, in Tupelo. The Presley’s lived adjacent to African-American neighborhoods and often heard the sounds of blues and gospel streaming out of clubs, churches and various venues.
“The lack of prejudice on the part of Elvis Presley,” said Sam Phillips, the Sun Records founder who first recorded Elvis and many Black blues artists before him, “had to be one of the biggest things that ever happened. It was almost subversive, sneaking around through the music, but we hit things a little bit, don’t you think?”
Crudup stopped recording in 1954 before Elvis’s first single appeared, realizing “I was making everybody rich, and here I was poor.”
Some in the business (and music historians) called Crudup “The Father of Rock and Roll,” others said he was “The Forefather of Rock and Roll.”
Working as a laborer to get by, he returned to the studio and touring in 1965. After royalty disputes, he went back to Mississippi and became a bootlegger.
Later he moved to Virginia to be with family. He worked as a field laborer, sang some and supplied moonshine to juke joints.
There were battles for his royalties the remainder of his life. By 1971, he’d collected about $10,000 in overdue royalties.
His last professional engagements, at blues festivals and college campuses, were with singer Bonnie Raitt.
Besides Elvis, others who covered Crudup’s songs include Rod Stewart,
John Mellencamp, Muddy Waters, Johnny Winter, the Beatles. Slade, Led Zeppelin. Grateful Dead, Eric Clapton and Elton John.
“Down in Tupelo, Mississippi,” Elvis once told a white reporter for The Charlotte Observer in 1956, he used to listen to Crudup, who used to “bang his box the way I do now, and I said if I ever got to the place where I could feel all old Arthur felt, I’d be a music man like nobody ever saw.”