When you consider his career and accomplishments, it makes no sense that Sleepy LaBeef is tilling the back forty of America's musical consciousness. After all, his resumé includes prolific stints on labels that virtually birthed rock and roll, such as Starday and Sun. His Fifties peers and labelmates include George Jones, Roy Orbison, Buddy Holly, Charlie Feathers, Carl Perkins and a Memphis truck driver and mama's boy by the name of Presley. Over the past five decades he's also produced enough material to fill a parade of cattle cars. Today he continues to perform more than 200 nights a year in the U.S. and abroad and has become one of Europe's most treasured rockabilly artists, playing to crowds that occasionally approach six digits. It's a legacy as large as LaBeef's 6'6", 300-pound frame and his baritone voice that vibrates the air like an alligator bellowing across a moonlit swamp.
Still, for all but the most learned students of early American music, Sleepy LaBeef remains an undiscovered pleasure -- despite a nickname that makes Presley's "King" handle seem downright proletarian. "They call me the Human Jukebox," LaBeef says, in a voice like a good ol' boy version of James Earl Jones's. LaBeef has earned the title by learning -- and remembering -- an almost mythical number of songs that cover a variety of genres.
So just how many tunes are stored on LaBeef's mental hard drive? "Oh, people have asked me that, but I really don't know for sure," he says. "They've estimated it at about five or six thousand songs or so, but I don't count them. Sometimes I'll be performing and I'll think of three or four songs that I haven't performed in years, and I'll just break into them. So I don't forget 'em."
Sleepy LaBeef. 9 p.m., Wednesday, December 8, La Rumba, 99 West 9th Avenue, $5, 303-572-8006
His title, LaBeef says, came about "because I appreciated so many people and the directions they were coming from. It's like food with me -- I like a variety and I've tried a lot of it." He holds a weakness "for real rhythmic stuff, the foot-stomping, hand-clapping stuff that naturally makes people feel better," and many of these tunes are played in bits and pieces, in medleys that can stretch for the better part of a set -- sets, he points out, that come to life without the crutch of song lists or preplanning.
"The whole premise of his show is that he ad-libs it," says Bob Timmers, curator of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, a cyber-shrine (www.rockabillyhall.com) to performers famous and obscure in the rockabilly realm. "He comes on stage and he'll say to the band, 'I'll be in the key of A for a while,' and that's it. He just rears back and fires and comes on just like a train. He nails you to the wall with whatever he feels like playing. It might be Hank Williams or an old blues tune or gospel. It's amazing." Timmers makes no bones about just where LaBeef ranks in the 'billy pantheon. "I think he's the most unsung rockabilly artist there is," Timmers says. "I can't think of anybody more authentic, who's gone all these years without changing and never gotten the recognition he deserved. And he's still in the trenches today."
LaBeef, branded "Sleepy" as a kid because of his heavy-lidded drowsy-looking countenance, was born in 1935 in Smackover, Arkansas. Settled by French-speaking immigrants, the town was originally named Sumac Covert but underwent a name change when oil workers who later populated the town had trouble pronouncing the name. LaBeef himself would undergo a similar moniker makeover. His original family name of LaBoeuf had already been hybridized to LaBeff; Sleepy became LaBeef at the insistence of an early manager who deemed LaBeff too awkward for mass consumption.
LaBeef spent his childhood days assisting his father with farming duties, his nights by the radio, soaking up the music of the nation in the days when radio was a verdant musical landscape. Blues, bluegrass, country, western swing and gospel all made their way into LaBeef's psyche. "We didn't have TV back then," LaBeef recalls, "so we grew up listening to the radio. But you know, it was so good back then we could visualize it, we could almost see those guys working."
In his early teens he traded a .22 rifle for his brother's guitar. In his late teens he relocated to Houston and earned his keep by singing gospel music and working odd jobs. After forming his own rockabilly bands, he recorded his first sides for various small-time labels before signing with Starday in 1957. His early material comprises a wealth of seminal pre-rock that echoes the Sun-era sides of Elvis, the wildcat energy of artists like Vincent and the countrified riches of Ernest Tubb, Johnny Cash and others. He inked with Columbia in 1964, and in 1969 he recorded for Plantation, scoring a few modest hits but no smashes. He spent much of the Seventies on Sun Records, where his output included the Bull's Night Out and Western Gold full-lengths. (These platters and much of LaBeef's early work can be found on a pair of new LaBeef compilation CDs on the Collectibles imprint. Numerous import compilations also document his rich output.)
During a few label-free years LaBeef continued to work the road, playing juke joints and small rooms around the country, further honing his song-interpreter skills. After his tour bus caught fire in New England in 1977, LaBeef was adopted by the owners of a truck stop/music room and made Massachusetts his home. (The period is nicely chronicled in a chapter in Peter Guralnick's wonderful Lost Highway, a collection of features spotlighting many of America's music pioneers.) In 1981 he landed on Rounder Records, releasing a handful of modestly selling discs that documented the previous twenty-plus years of his open-armed approach and country soul.
This year he signed with M.C. Records, a small New York City blues and folk label. M.C. label head Mark Carpentieri sees LaBeef as the perfect artist for his roots-based company. "Sleepy LaBeef's not a one-category guy," Carpentieri says. "He's the poster child for American roots music." LaBeef will begin recording the upcoming release for M.C. this winter, and the album will include appearances by a number of LaBeef's peers. Carpentieri says the disc will focus on LaBeef's Memphis rockabilly material, but he admits that with LaBeef, he has a renaissance man capable of doing much more. "With Sleepy you could do a straight blues record, a straight gospel record, a rockabilly record -- you could do so many things," he laughs. "And the thing is it's all very natural to him. It's not forced. It's part of the soil with him, and that's what attracted me to him." That and his onstage presence. "His live show is better than 99 percent of the people out there that call themselves a live band," Carpentieri says. "Sleepy knows what it's all about."
"I sing about life," LaBeef says, "whether it's happiness, joy, sadness or complications in people's lives. Now that don't mean that I've lived everything that I sing about, but I'm aware of people that have. But there's no need to stay too serious for every minute of the hour. Every once in a while a little novelty tune works out that might have a good boogie-woogie rhythm. It might not say much, but it's a happy thing. You don't drag 'em down too low that you can't build them back up."
Granted, with his Noah-like sack of songs that preserves tunes from virtually every corner of the Americana map, LaBeef has ample tools for working the crowd. "I play down-home music -- it's not like it's heavy jazz," he says, making light of his whopping amount of material. "I mean, we don't do much Dave Brubeck or Beethoven," he says with a meaty chuckle. Those are about the only two artists he doesn't cover. In a typical set, says LaBeef, "I'll definitely do some Hank Williams, Sister Rosetta Tharp, Big Joe Turner, you've got to do an Elvis song or two, maybe a Johnny Cash and a Johnny Horton. And we'll do Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, the blues. It's like somebody said one time, if you get down to the nitty-gritty and think about it, there isn't a dime's worth of difference between Hank Williams and Howlin' Wolf. They're both down to the soul and down where the people live." And if anybody wants to hear one of these gems in their entirety? "We'll do the whole song if they request it. See, I don't like to do a copy or an imitation of what I performed last week. I can do the same song, but for me it's gotta live for tonight. That keeps me inspired. When you get out on the road, you gotta give it all you got."
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Even if you're pushing 65 and you hit the road more times than men and women a third your age can handle.
"This keeps you young," says LaBeef, who spends his off-road time with Linda, his wife of 21 years, and their three teenage daughters. "If these young guys would take care of themselves, it would be good for them, too. You just can't burn the candle on both ends, you gotta get your rest. I do most of the driving," he adds with pride, "and I enjoy going from north to south, east to west, playing for all my friends out there."
"I think he's got the attitude that he's gonna play 'til it's over and die on stage," Timmers says. "If someone says so-and-so is the last one there, I tell them, 'Don't forget about Sleepy.' He's still out there playing four or five nights a week, and he hasn't changed his act in all these years. There ought to be some kind of a medal for a guy like that."
LaBeef is happy with the rewards of the road and the recording studio. And he makes it clear that despite his age and accomplishments, he's hardly through reaching new milestones. "There's a few others still out here -- John Lee Hooker, Chuck Berry," he says. "I've got a few years left to go before I catch up to them. Sometimes you do reflect on things and realize that so many of our good ones out there exhausted themselves too early. But I've been in this business since 1954, and I've got my health, a good family, plenty to eat and a way to get around most of the time if the bus don't break down. The good Lord's been good to me, and I still love travelin' and getting to visit all these places. It seems like a constant vacation to me. And I may not have the biggest bank account, but I have as much fun as any of the rest of them."