Rockabilly Veteran Sleepy LaBeef Dead at 84
Another of the Sun rockabilly greats has passed. Sleepy LaBeef had a repertoire of more than 600 songs. His smile was as big as his girth, and his music was the real deal. Below is an article I wrote in 2007 that ran in an altered form in the Troy Record when he played Revolution Hall in Troy.
Before he was born, Sleepy LaBeef’s father, grandfather and uncle each did three-year stretches at Arkansas’s Tucker Penitentiary for moon shining. “Back then, it was rough,” says Monday night’s headliner at Revolution Hall in Troy. “That’s when the riders would ride with a bull whip, and if you didn’t work enough, they’d take you to fall and proceed to encourage you to do more with that bull whip.”
By the time young Thomas LaBoeuf got his nickname Sleepy in the first grade (He changed his last name to LaBeef as an adult), his daddy had drilled it into his youngest of 10 that he probably shouldn’t drink. “Son, whatever you can do, you’d probably do it better if you don’t take up that habit.”
At age 20, Sleepy was playing Houston nightclubs with Gatemouth Brown and opening for a young Elvis Presley along side contemporaries who included George Jones and Tommy Sands. Elvis had a trio with Scotty Moore. They were pulling down $75 split between the three of them and sharing $6 motel rooms. Sleepy was getting gas money.
“We’d take up maybe an hour, and then Elvis and Scotty would do anywhere from an hour to two hours. At that time he had out only “That’s Alright Now, Mama” and “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” He sang everybody’s songs from Bill Monroe bluegrass to Dean Martin songs, the Platters stuff. He’d mix it up. Whatever he liked to sing, he’d throw it in there. A lot of blues, you know. He broke the fences down. He had a varied appreciation of a lot of music.”
By the time Sleepy LaBeef had his one charting hit “Blackland Farmer” which went to number 16 in 1969, Elvis and many of LaBeef’s early stage partners like Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, Buddy Holly and Jerry Lee Lewis had topped the charts many times. Except for Holly, they’d all cut their rockabilly hits at Sam Phillips’ Sun Records in Memphis and then moved on to bigger labels.
By the time Sleepy landed at Sun in 1969, Phillips was gone, and the record label had become part of Shelby Singleton’s much larger Plantation Records empire. “A lot of ’em left Sun and went to Victor and Columbia. Well, I left Columbia and went to Sun,” says the man in a way that makes it obvious he’s said this to many journalists over the years. “I guess I was just backwards.”
While at Columbia from 1964 to ’69, he cut six sides in as many years including covers of Jimmy Reed’s “Shame, Shame, Shame” and Chuck Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me.” At Sun he cut more than 80 sides, many never released. I first saw him in 1981 when my college buddy Bill Nowlin of Rounder Records took me to see this man who then was the label’s latest signing in Boston. By this time, Sleepy was known as The Human Jukebox claiming to have a repertoire of 6000 songs ranging from Sister Rosetta Tharpe gospel numbers to Bo Diddley’s “Ride On Josaphine” with splashes of Brother Claude Ely, Muddy Waters and Johnny Horton in between.
“To me good music is color blind,” says Sleepy today. “We sing country, gospel, blues and that’s the American way to me. That’s touchin’ all the bases. We don’t get into politics, stuff like that with our performance. Everybody has the right to have their own politics, and in America they have the right to their own religion. So, we have a good time doing what we do, mixing it up and trying to stay out of the politics end of it.”
In 2003, Sleepy had a heart attack. While he was recovering, his wife Linda wrote in a rockabilly website a thank you for all the prayers she said came from Pentecostals, Baptists, Catholics, Church of Christ members and people from Assemblies of God. I saw him again last year in Memphis at an event called The Ponderosa Stomp that also featured the new version of the Tennessee Three with Bob Wooten taking the place of the late Johnny Cash. While The Tennessee Three could recreate the Johnny Cash sound, the essence of Cash was more closely represented in Sleepy LaBeef’s set. Like Cash, LaBeef’s music conveys a born-in-the-dust honesty that instantly obliterates the labels that record company executives use to try and put American music into boxes.
Unlike his contemporaries, Sleepy LaBeef learned a lesson about alcohol from his daddy’s experience under the whip. “How do you measure success, by your bill fold,” asks the one-hit veteran who at 72 has a history of 50-plus years on the road. “I’m still here. The good Lord’s been good to me. Most of those guys are gone. I can’t complain, man. I’m still here kicking and having a good time. I have too much to eat, really. (He’s 6 ft. 6 and weighs over 250 lbs.) Life is good, man. It really is.”