One of the most iconic songs in blues history is Robert Johnson’s Sweet Home Chicago. Like so many times in popular music the person who gets the credit isn’t the one who first performed the song.
Elvis Presley’s first recording was That’s All Right Mama and one of his biggest hits was Hound Dog. Both songs had been previously released, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup wrote and recorded the first and Big Mama Thorton first did the second. In the minds of most Bill Haley gets the credit for Shake, Rattle & Roll but Big Joe Turner did it first.
These examples exist everywhere and today I learned that Sweet Home Chicago preceded Robert Johnson many times over. The blues man who really deserves the credit was James “Kokomo” Arthur who recorded Old Original Kokomo Blues in 1933. Johnson merely adopted the melody and altered the lyrics and title to make it his own.
One of the things I’ve enjoyed most about studying history is comparing the myth with the reality and, there’s no shortage of myth.
By the way, Big Mama Thornton’s Hound Dog sold 500,000 copies in 1953, became the number-one hit on the Black music charts, and for her effort she received a meager $500. In 1956 Elvis’s version went to the top of the Bill Board charts and sold 5,000,000 copies and the Presley estate is still making money off that recording.