Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup: Complete Recorded Works Vol. 2 (1946-49)



First of all, don't even ask the reason for this, of the four volumes in this collection I've discovered I seem to own numbers two and three only, perhaps because they were all I could find about ten years ago when I looked. Could've set out to correct that, but in trying to learn about Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup, the second volume of this exhaustive Complete Recordings series is the one to jump to immediately, as it includes one of those shot-heard-round-the-world sides so rare in rock & roll and blues alike, "That's All Right." Of course, as you know, it was made an important record not by its own composer and performer, Crudup, but by one Elvis Presley a decade later.

Presley was always a champion of Crudup and had a world opened up by his records, which has turned out to be arguably his major claim to fame -- though "That's All Right" is hardly the only song he wrote to become a blues standard, it's certainly the one that rings loudest outside of circles familiar with the American blues of the '40s. Crudup never returned Presley's affection and mostly was bemused by the extra exposure, which couldn't and didn't translate into money and personal success for those cursed by the royalties system in those days.

To one who is not Presley, even one who is a bit of a budding aficionado for this music, Crudup can initially seem an indistinct performer in the Delta blues universe. Listening to this compilation front to back one is struck by the sheer sense of repetition; every song he recorded on the day in the late summer of 1946 that produced "That's All Right" has the same melody, as do many of those presented from later sessions (stretching over the following three years). Beyond his limits as a composer -- his moments of inspiration are scattered -- Crudup isn't much to listen to as a guitarist. It can seem that his influence outpaces his passion and accessibility.

But with further exposure, Crudup's sides begin to sing a bit -- quite literally. His great strength (besides consistently solid lyrics) is his voice, which is imbued with constant passion and enthusiasm that sets him apart. Scholars have wondered for over half a century now what it was about Crudup that so affected Presley, but the answer may be here: the way that even when his songs lapse into laziness or apathy, Crudup still swings and gallops and growls with such verve, presence, sensuality. The more one listens to the disc, the more he becomes a pleasure to hear. The chronological arrangement is perhaps the sole reason it's initially a tough sell; start instead with "That's All Right," which you know, "Hoodoo Lady Blues" and "Lonesome World to Me" and you will be reeled in faster.

That said, the very first song included here, "Crudup's After Hours," feels even more like a rock & roll powerhouse than the more famous selections to follow -- bopping and urgent and even fierce, it moves beyond acoustic blues and indicates a depth of talent that deserves further-spread recognition. Crudup is so different from his peers like Muddy Waters, Elmore James and John Lee Hooker and yet bursts forth with a sense of quiet, calm innovation. This isn't a great introduction to Delta blues, but it is an essential document -- and eventually, a pleasurable and pure experience -- in large part because Crudup and his two sidemen, Judge Riley and bassist Ransom Knowling, have such chemistry. Knowling's connection with Crudup is particularly audible in the latter's shouts of encouragement. They feel like a real band, Riley's drumbeat as vital as Crudup's stabs and strums, and they help make this a relaxed, surprisingly cohesive listen but also one that burns quite hot once you give it the time.

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