Sleepy LaBeef, who died last Thursday at age 84, was the epitome of the bar-band musician: someone who never had a hit but nonetheless thrilled thousands of barroom listeners, someone who knew hundreds of songs in every American roots genre and who could sing each of them with such enthusiasm and conviction that they sounded like the inspiration of the moment.
It’s a kind of music-making that’s too often overlooked in a culture obsessed with celebrity and auteurs. But to stand in a crowded, sweaty barroom, gazing up at the six-foot-six, 265-pound LaBeef at the microphone as he accelerated through a medley that might go from “Flip, Flop and Fly” to “Honky Tonkin’” or from “Bo Diddley” to “Amazing Grace,” was to experience music in a way totally different from ceiling-hung PAs at a basketball arena or from the earbuds on your phone. Not better or worse, but very different and equally valid.
“I don’t like to work from a list of songs,” LaBeef told me in 2000. “I like to step up to the microphone and go with the spur of the moment. If you have good musicians who know the changes, you can pull something off the wall and it’s no problem. I’d hate to get to where a show sounds like a repeat of last night or an album sounds like a repeat of the last one. You have to make it sound like it’s living today; otherwise you might as well give them an old record and let them listen to that.”
He was born Thomas Paulsey LaBeff in Smackover, Arkansas, on July 20, 1935. He acquired the nickname “Sleepy” because he had a droopy left eye. At 14, he traded a .22 rifle for his first guitar. At 18, he left the family truck farm for Texas, singing gospel (sometimes with George Jones) on the Houston Jamboree and recording rockabilly for Starday.
LaBeef was already playing this Southern gumbo of blues, country and gospel when he heard Presley’s first single, “That’s Alright, Mama” backed with “Blue Moon of Kentucky” in 1954. “I knew exactly where he was coming from,” LaBeef told Guralnick. “I thought, ‘This is really something. Here’s somebody singing just like we have in church for years.’ Only he was putting that gospel feel to blues lyrics—that was what was so different about him.”
There are a lot of Presley songs in LaBeef’s song bank of more than 6,000 songs that he might pull out at any moment in any show. One of the best, though, is his version of “Polk Salad Annie,” which emphasizes the funky bottom and the half-spoken storytelling.
“’Polk Salad Annie’ is what we call Louisiana Cajun rock ’n’ roll,” LaBeef told me. “I grew up down in Arkansas, which isn’t too far from Louisiana. So when Tony Joe wrote about frogs, snakes and gators, I knew just what he was talking about. He deals with the rural country life; that’s why I like his songs. Elvis did that song, but we were doing it in our shows long before he ever came out with it. I like our version better.”
He moved to Nashville in 1964 to record for Columbia Records, but his singles could do no better than #73. He moved onto Shelby Singleton’s revived Sun Records, but his best single there, “Blackland Farmer,” rose only to #67. None of his studio recordings ever quite captured the intensity of his live shows.
It was at one of those countless live shows all over North America and Europe that Peter Guralnick first heard LaBeef in person. The Rolling Stone journalist was so impressed that he kept returning to Alan’s Fifth Wheel Lounge at a truck stop an hour north of Boston. When Guralnick published his groundbreaking book, Lost Highway, in 1979, he gave LaBeef his own chapter, the same given to figures such as Elvis Presley, Merle Haggard and Howlin’ Wolf.
At LaBeef’s every show, Guralnick wrote, “a spirit of hearty informality, stubborn eccentricity and great goodwill always prevailed.” On certain nights, though, “Sleepy would really catch fire,” and when he did, he “would almost go into a trance, singing and swaying in an irresistible, rock-steady groove, going on like Wolf for 10 or 15 minutes at a time, extemporizing verses, picking lyrics out of the air, savoring the moment until he had extracted every last ounce of feeling from it.”
In the ’90s, LaBeef signed with Rounder Records and released six albums, including two produced by Guralnick himself. Those records made a point of representing all sides of the singer’s repertoire: the country as much as the blues, the gospel as much as the rockabilly.
“A good country song can be just as down-to-earth as a blues song,” LaBeef told me. “It talks about something that all the people can relate to in a way that they can understand. I grew up listening to Bill Monroe, Tommy Dorsey, Muddy Waters, Bob Wills, Roy Acuff and Big Joe Turner. To me, you can get the same feeling from a Hank Williams honky-tonk song as you can from an old gut-bucket blues by Howlin’ Wolf. They’re similar and you can combine them into rock ’n’ roll, but sometimes it’s good to just have the real thing itself.”
The hillbilly and blues elements in LaBeef’s music never quite blended. They bumped up against each other as if he were reinventing rock ’n’ roll every show. When he segues from Flatt & Scruggs’ “Rolling in My Sweet Baby’s Arms” to Slim Harpo’s “Raining in My Heart,” you can hear the gears shifting in his baritone singing and his guitar picking. He reminds us that the differences between R&B and country are as important as their similarities.
During our conversation, he bristled at the idea that the music being marketed as modern country music was really country music. “A lot of what they call new country is nothing but old rock ’n’ roll,” he said. “There’s no point in camouflaging it by calling it something else. If you’re going to do rock ’n’ roll, call it rock ’n’ roll. I don’t think you should call it something else to make it acceptable. That’s why I do all types, and I call it what it is.”
At the root of all his music, though, was the first music he ever sang: the gospel hymns of his Arkansas church. “I’m always glad to sing some hand-clapping, foot-stomping gospel,” he said. “Elvis, Jerry Lee and Ray Charles will all tell you that the roots of their music goes back to old Southern gospel—the shouting, excited type—and they just sang different lyrics. I grew up with the same thing.”
Now he’s gone. No longer will he pop up in your town, in some punk club, some biker bar, some hillbilly lounge, some blues juke joint. No longer will he start with an classic rockabilly song, zig to a honky-tonk number, zag to a gutbucket blues and finally dig down into a hymn, shifting his approach with each segue, but never losing the grooving momentum that swallows it all up in the great river of American music.
If you want to visit the spirit of Sleepy LaBeef, you can go down to your neighborhood used-record store and flip through the stacks for his old titles. Better yet, you should search out the bar in your town—not the hip bar, not the big-name showcase club, but the ramshackle joint where old couples still go to dance the boogie woogie, where some long overlooked musician is playing the entire pre-history of rock ’n’ roll in blues, gospel and hillbilly songs.