There are no historic markers along Virginia’s Route 13 noting that the “Father of Rock ’n’ Roll” lived and died here. No signs point toward his gravesite in Franktown, Va., which, until the late 1990s—25 years after his death in 1974—wasn’t even marked by a headstone.
Ask many in this close-knit region if they’ve heard of Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup and they’ll shake their heads. If you had asked that same question 40 years ago, many people—at least in the white community—would have responded that Crudup was the tall, soft-spoken crew leader who oversaw migrant laborers picking vegetables on the Nottingham Brothers farm. But a blues legend who wrote Elvis Presley’s first-ever hit and whose work was covered by everyone from Eric Clapton to Creedence Clearwater Revival to Elton John? Not a chance.
The truth is, unless you’re a fan of the blues, you’ve probably never heard of Arthur Crudup either. (And likely don’t realize his name is pronounced “Crood-up” not “Crud-up.”) Like many African-American blues musicians of the 1930s and ’40s, he was cheated out of royalties for his compositions while music publishers, record companies, and the white artists who covered his music got rich.
But there’s something even sadder about Crudup’s story. No other blues artist can boast such a strong connection to Presley, who recorded two other Crudup songs—“My Baby Left Me” and “So Glad You’re Mine.” And, at the end of his life, Crudup, who was born into poverty in Forest, Miss., came tantalizingly close to finally receiving those back royalties, only to be denied at the last second by a calculating music publishing executive.
Arthur Crudup may have been dubbed a king, but he spent all his days living as a pauper.
FINDING TRACES OF ARTHUR CRUDUP on the back roads of Northampton County is like following a trail that isn’t marked. Crudup, his wife, Annie, and their five children lived in a variety of glorified shacks, none of which remain standing.
The Malibu Inn, Crudup’s legendary juke joint, where the bluesman and his musical sons, Jonas, James, and George, held court and made and sold moonshine is long gone.
So I’ve enlisted a local, Billy Sturgis, to take me around. Sturgis, 53, may be Crudup’s biggest fan on the Shore. A blues fanatic who co-hosts a radio show every Saturday night on WESR-FM, he produced an album featuring the three Crudup brothers in 2000. The record, “Franktown Blues,” features Big Boy’s sons performing their father’s hits as well as original tunes. Sturgis, also a devotee of the Blues Brothers movies, owns one of the “Blues mobiles” from the second film, but it has a flat tire, so we step into his slate-colored Mercedes instead.
We drive past old farms and small, tidy houses,. . . (Click here to read more)