The Song Remains: Thomas Paulsley LaBeff aka ‘Sleepy LaBeef’ – 1935–2019

This is our first obituary of 2020 in our new The Song Remains section and it is by Alasdair Fotheringham. Readers’ feedback on the new section would be really appreciated.

It may sound bizarre to describe Sleepy LaBeef, who died on December 26th aged 84 of unspecified causes, as one of rock’n’roll’s great musicians when he never had a major hit, but the contradiction is explained by the charisma and potency of Labeef as a live performer,  guitarist, singer and general musical hellraiser for over six decades.

Born Thomas Paulsley LaBeff in the Arkansas town of Smackover to a melon farming family, he was nicknamed Sleepy because of his droopy eyelids. However, his concerts, up to 300 annually when in his prime, were anything but snooze-fests.  LaBeef’s simple but profoundly effective strategy was to stomp on the accelerator the second the curtain went up and deliver song after song, for hour after hour, in a barrel-chested baritone with blistering speed and skill, often in improvised medleys so there was never a break. As his website puts it: “he plays with such energy that people a third of his age are annihilated when they attempt to keep up with him”.

LeBeef’s prodigious knowledge of American roots music was such he was nicknamed “The Human Jukebox” and one urban legend, which he always denied, though with so much of his typical good humour he clearly didn’t object to it that much, was that he had over 6,000 songs in his repertoire.
“Mr. LaBeef is a living, breathing, guitar-picking history of American music” the New York Times solemnly stated in 1991, “his simplicity and spontaneity make him a kind of modern-day version of the juke-jointers and honky-tonkers of the ’20s, ’30s and ‘ 40s”. What he plays, he told the NYT, was “root music: old-time rock’n’roll, Southern gospel and hand-clapping music, black blues and Hank Williams style country” .

It wasn’t only LeBeef’s high-octane, massively broad-based repertoire that was striking. LeBeef was over six foot six inches tall and for years he weighed in a good 220+ pounds, his physique helping him star in the cult 1968 B-Movie ‘The Exotic Ones’ as a hefty swamp man, captured and put on display (where else?) in a strip club. Musically, LaBeef remained in rather more elevated company, sharing concert bills with a seemingly endless list of legends, including Elvis Presley (said to have been his original inspiration to start playing music when they crossed paths in the 1950s, trading a .22 rifle for his first guitar), Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly. Amongst his many band members (more than a mere 500 in total) there were names like Kenny Rogers, Glen Campbell and Presley’s long time drummer, the late D.J. Fontana.

LaBeef’s records struggled to match his live performances, but that arguably changed in the early 1980s when he signed with Rounder Records. Anybody looking to start listening to LaBeef could do worse than ‘Rockabilly Blues‘ (2001), a selection of stunning blues, rock’n’roll, rockabilly and straight country covers, some with the able backing of Fontana and Cajun accordion great Jo-El Sonnier. LaBeef’s career path took him increasingly to Europe where he was widely appreciated on the festival circuit both for his music and his status as one of the last links with the earliest days of rock ’n’ roll. Yet despite his age, LaBeef never seemed to slow down, playing his final concert as recently as last September, in Switzerland, at a still-sprightly 84.

Stormy Monday Blues from Labeef’s tenure at Sun Records

A live medley of Blue Suede Shoes, Matchbox, Bebop-A- LuLa, Peggy Sue etc

Tore Up from ‘Greatest Hits’

Excerpt from the  documentary ‘ Sleepy LaBeef Rides Again’

Author: Martin Johnson

I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.

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