Dorothea's dustbowl migrants, Tom and Arthur

A couple of weeks ago I found myself at London’s Barbican viewing The Politics of Seeing - an exhibition of superb and often troubling photographs by pioneering American photographer Dorothea Lange.

Across the gallery, admiring Lange’s iconic studies of Oklahoma dustbowl migrants in California in the 1930s, was a man who I was fairly convinced was Manfred Mann and Blues Band guitarist Tom McGuinness. I wasn’t sure though and short of wandering over and asking, I couldn’t figure out a way of finding out. 

It’s not as though Tom is a mega-celebrity. His impeccable musical credentials and fascinating network of connections has always veered towards the esoteric. He may have started out playing in the same band as Eric Clapton but rock star material he ain’t. In other words no one else was taking a blind bit of notice of him. 

        Tom McGuinness

Trying not to behave like a complete dick, I contrived to move closer and eventually found myself alongside Mr McGuinness who was by this time deep in conversation with another much younger man about the shocking inequality faced by poor black people in America, then and now.

That’s when I heard him say: “For a time in the early 70s I had a guy living in my house in London. His name was Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup…” The story continued but by now Tom had moved out of earshot.

It didn’t matter that was all the confirmation I needed. I knew that Crudup was an American Mississippi Delta blues singer, songwriter and guitarist. I also knew that late in his career he visited London and recorded a brilliant album called Roebuck Man. It was named after a pub in the Tottenham Court Road and the players on it included Tom McGuinness and other members of his then band McGuinness Flint.

Among the many songs that Arthur Crudup had written during his  long  career was That’s All Right Mama which, in the 1950s, became the hit single that launched Elvis Presley’s career. Presley would later pay tribute saying that his one overriding ambition had always been “to be as good as Arthur Crudup”

Unfortunately the Mississippi bluesman’s undoubted talent had brought few financial rewards. Crudup, who had been born into exactly the kind of travelling migrant farming family that was photographed by Dorothea Lange, was forced to work as a bootlegger to put food on the table.

Eventually after a career in which he was routinely ripped off by the sharks of the music business he found a blues promoter prepared to campaign for his unpaid royalties. It was reckoned he was due at least $60,000 dollars. By 1971 he was attracting new interest and had managed to recoup around 10,000 of those missing dollars. But it was too little too late. His health was failing and within three years Arthur Crudup was dead. He was 68.

© Jeremy Miles 2022