Born Thomas Paulsley LaBeff, 20 July 1935, Smackover, Arkansas
Sleepy LaBeef is one of those rockabilly singers who had little success in the 1950s and then found a new and receptive audience in Europe in the 1970s, followed by wider acceptance in his own country. The tall (6 foot 7) singer has been performing for six decades and has been called a human jukebox, as he has more than 6,000 songs in his repertoire. He rarely composed his own material, but, like Jerry Lee Lewis, he can sing songs from any genre - country, rock, blues, cajun, pop, gospel - and put his own stamp on them with his rich baritone voice and overpowering lead guitar.
Thomas LaBeef was the youngest of ten children in a farming family of Cajun ancestry. He received the nickname “Sleepy” as the result of a lazy eye. In 1953, at eighteen, he moved to Houston, where his musical career began when his band had a gospel music radio show. LaBeef cites gospel music as a major influence on rockabilly, and the records of Sister Rosetta Tharpe as an influence on him in particular. His first recordings (1955) were pure gospel ; they remained unissued for decades. Other influences were honky-tonk, western swing, bluegrass, local black artists and seeing Elvis Presley.
In 1956 he formed his own band and began playing rockabilly and straight rock & roll. He had his first release in 1957, “‘I’m Through”/“All Alone”, first released on Starday 292 and soon reissued on Mercury-Starday 71112. This was followed by one of his best rockabilly tracks, “All the Time”, also on Mercury-Starday ; “Little Bit More”, in the same style, was inexplicably consigned to the vaults where it remained until 1994. During 1957-58 he recorded soundalike versions of best-sellers (mostly by Johnny Cash, who had the same kind of voice) for budget-priced EPs, usually released under pseudonyms on labels such as Top Western Hits and Dixie. In the late 1950s LaBeef was on the Louisiana Hayride and the Houston Jamboree.
In 1961-62 Sleepy had a few singles released on small Texas labels, on which he was sometimes credited as Sleepy LaBeff or Tommy LaBeff. He had moved to Lake Charles, Louisiana, where he played regularly on the Saturday Night Down South TV show. In 1964 he moved again, to Nashville, and recorded country during a three-year contract with Columbia. His last Columbia single, “Every Day” (1968) gave him his first chart entry (# 73 country). Also in 1968, LaBeef played the role of a swamp monster in the horror movie “The Exotic Ones”. His next musical stop, in 1970, was the Plantation label, owned by Shelby Singleton. Gradually Sleepy began having more success. His third Plantation single, "Blackland Farmer”, penned by Frankie Miller, spent four weeks on the Cash Box country charts in 1971, peaking at # 53 (# 67 in Billboard). Soon thereafter, Singleton moved LaBeef to the Sun label (which he had acquired in 1969), resulting in many sessions between 1972 and 1979. Three albums were released, the best of which was “1977 Rockabilly”, an LP on yellow vinyl with a generous 20 tracks (Sun 1004). Sun singles from this period include “Thunder Road”, “There Ain’t Much After Texas”, “Good Rockin’ Boogie” and “Boogie Woogie Country Girl”.
Starting in 1979, his many tours of Europe gave him international fame. As significant as his recording career has been, it is the live Sleepy LaBeef that really matters. For many decades he performed 200 to 300 shows a year, playing with such energy that people half his age were annihilated when they attempted to keep up with him. He is more popular in Europe than in the USA.
In the 1980s and 1990s LaBeef made five albums for the Rounder label of Massachusetts. The last two of these, “Strange Things Happening” (1994) and “I’ll Never Lay My Guitar Down” (1996) finally captured him at his glorious best. Several CDs with new material have appeared since then, including two live albums. His most recent release is “Sleepy LaBeef Rides Again” (2013) on Earwave Records, a documentary / concert DVD, along with a companion soundtrack CD. Sleepy LaBeef and his second wife Linda (who is also his manager) currently live in Springdale, Arkansas. They have five children.
More info : http://www.rockabillyhall.com/SleepyLB1.html
Official website : http://www.sleepylabeef.com
Further reading : Peter Guralnick, Lost Highway (Boston : Godine, 1979), page 163-175.
Discography / sessionography : http://countrydiscoghraphy2.blogspot.nl/search/label/LaBeef%20Sleepy
Acknowledgements : Martin Hawkins, Craig Morrison, Rockabilly Hall of Fame.
Dik, August 2017
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