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."
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.)