By Stefanie Jackson – Going on 50 years since the death in Nassawadox of Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, who has been called “The Father of Rock and Roll,” interest in the musician’s life and work was renewed when a member of a local Facebook group revealed he was in possession of numerous sealed copies of one of Crudup’s albums left over long after the closing of a local music store.
Addison Trower Custis, a member of a Facebook group with more than 5,000 members, “Growing Up on the Eastern Shore of Virginia,” is the grandson of the late Winston “Dynamite” Custis Sr., who opened the Custis Record Shop in downtown Exmore in 1955.
Crudup (pronounced “crewed up”) was born in Mississippi in 1905, the son of migrant workers. He began singing in his early adult years and later moved to Chicago, where a record producer reportedly discovered him living and singing on the street.
The American Delta blues singer and guitarist became an RCA recording artist in the 1940s and earned his nickname “The Father of Rock and Roll” after Elvis Presley covered one of Crudup’s songs, “That’s All Right Mama,” and it was released as Presley’s first single in 1954.
Additional songs Crudup wrote and performed, such as “My Baby Left Me,” were covered by Presley and other well-known artists, but Crudup was not widely recognized for his work; neither was he receiving royalties.
He received more than $10,000 in royalties a few years before his death, but an out-of-court settlement for about $60,000 in back royalties was never paid, according to Wikipedia (which references an article in Downbeat, 1971, and another by David Szatmary, Rockin’ in Time, 2014).
Unable to support his family solely on his earnings from performing music, Crudup moved back to Mississippi and worked as a field laborer.
He later moved to the Eastern Shore of Virginia with his wife and three sons, who formed a band called The Malibu Boys or The Malibus.
Jane Cabarrus, current owner of the Do Drop Inn, in Weirwood, a restaurant and lounge opened by her father, Lloyd Giddens, in 1967, remembered when the Crudup family came to the Shore.
The sons, James “Jude Baby” Crudup, Jonas “J.C.” Crudup, and George Crudup, attended Northampton County Public Schools with Cabarrus and her friends.
The Crudup family lived in Nassawadox, across from the site where the Machipongo Clam Shack currently stands, she said.
Cabarrus particularly remembered Jonas Crudup, who entered the military after graduating from Northampton County High School around 1965.
After he returned home from the military, he started the Malibu Boys with his brothers, with himself as lead singer, James Crudup on drums, and George Crudup on the guitar.
Cabarrus described the Malibu Boys as very talented, and any hit song anyone could name, they could play it.
Arthur Crudup worked in the fields by day and played music by night. He often would be the opening act for his sons at the Do Drop Inn, back when the cover charge was only $3, Cabarrus recalled.
He used to catch the bus in Exmore at Lloyd’s Drug Store, which was across the street from the Custis Record Shop. That was how he met Winston Custis Jr., who had taken over the business from his father in 1971.
Crudup was still working on his music, and Custis bought about 250 copies or eight cases of Crudup’s 1971 album, “The Father of Rock and Roll,” to “help his cause,” said Addison Custis, the son of Winston Custis Jr.
Before that, Crudup had been selling his albums out of the trunk of a car or even by bicycle, Custis said.
The music store sold two cases of the albums, and the Custis family kept the remaining inventory after the store closed around 1977 or 1978.
Winston Custis Jr. died in November 2020, and Addison Custis remembered the first time his father delved into his extensive music collection and played Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup for him.
“We would spin those records; I was probably 12 when I could actually appreciate it some” and and learn how Crudup was a “local celebrity,” Custis said.
Crudup’s music was part blues, part rock and roll, and he even recorded with Presley several times, he added.
Crudup was a man of modest means, and for years after he died in 1974, his grave lacked a headstone. Cabarrus was behind much of the fundraising effort that allowed a headstone to be purchased for Crudup’s grave, Custis said.
Arthur Crudup’s headstone is in the cemetery at Bethel Baptist Church, Franktown, and was acquired and placed there some time after his son James Crudup died, Cabarrus said.
Now another effort is underway to help ensure Crudup is remembered for his life and contributions to music.
Custis gave away a few copies of Crudup’s album to Facebook members before selling them for a modest price to Rob Kellam, who created the “Growing Up on the Eastern Shore of Virginia” Facebook group.
Kellam is confident that he can sell the individual albums for a significant profit and use the money to honor Crudup’s legacy in some way, such as funding a highway marker bearing his name to be placed in Nassawadox or Franktown, where he spent the latter part of his life.
Custis said the sale was for “a good cause” to get the little-known music legend “the recognition he deserved.”