Interview with Sleepy Labeef

By A.J Wachtel
June 2015

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Sleepy LaBeef: A Ton Of Talent

By A.J. Wachtel

(Editor's Note: Sleepy is celebrating his 80th Birthday at Johnny D's in Somerville on June, 20th with Roy Sludge and Andrea Gillis & Marc Pinasky)

Sleepy LaBeef is larger than life in many ways. Certainly, there is an aura of greatness surrounding his 6'7", 265 pound frame; but it's larger than that.

Yes, his history, talent and song catalog are legendary; but there is more to his story than just names, numbers and press releases. Born in Smackover, Arkansas, the youngest of 10 children, in 1935; he was raised on a melon farm and received his nickname as a result of his drooping eyelids. He moved to Houston, Texas at 18, where he sang Gospel music on a local radio station.

In the '50's and '60's, he adapted his Country Blues/Gospel sound to the emerging Rockabilly and began recording singles in that genre. In '64, Sleepy moved back to Nashville, budged back to a more Country style; and released his music on Columbia Records.

He also starred in a horror flick "The Exotic Ones" aka "The Monster and The Stripper"; and transferred to Sun Records; in the '70's. In the '80's, he went to Rounder Records, in Mass., and continued to continuously tour and release albums; which he continues to do up until today.

In 2013, "Sleepy LaBeef Rides Again", on Earwave Records, a new DVD and CD; was released. Produced by renown Nashville bassist and former Sleepy band-mate Dave Pomeroy, it features Sleepy live in a Nashville concert and recording at historic RCA Studio B. In a nutshell, his accomplishments are monumental and many; just listen to this Country Blues/Rock and Roll/Rockabilly/Gospel icon's following epic tale; and be prepared to be impressed in a big way..

Boston Blues Society: When you were growing up in Arkansas, you would hear the Blues on a couple of radio stations like Nashville's WLAC. What were some of the artists you really liked?

SLEEPY: The old timers mostly. People like Groovy Boy, Big Joe Turner, Jr. Parker.

BBS: Two of the artists you liked early on, Muddy and Howlin' Wolf were both from Chicago. Where there any Blues players from Texas or Memphis you also listened to?

SLEEPY: I really liked Country Blues. All of the major Country artists like Ernest Tubb and  Red Foley played the Blues in their own way. GOOD artists make GOOD records. It's all about the PERSON; the passion. In that way, there isn't a dime's worth of difference between Hank Williams and Howlin' Wolf. I also enjoyed Lightning Hopkins, who I became good friends with, and "Gatesmouth" Brown.

BBS: You're known as a hard-driving, always touring performer and have been quoted as saying "some of the shows have a bigger percentage of Blues, sometimes the shows have a bigger percentage of Boogie-Woogie, and sometimes Rockabilly". How do you decide which genre to focus on when you are onstage?

SLEEPY: I grew up with all of that stuff so I just look out at the audience and say "let's try this" and then move on to something else. We never have a set list so I like to see what the people want to hear each night.

BBS: I know when you were at Sun Records it was past the time of Elvis, Jerry Lee and Carl Perkins being on the label with you; but did you ever jam with any of them?

SLEEPY: I played with ALL of them. A trio of greatness; all VERY talented. Jerry Lee is STILL hanging in there with us.

BBS: What is the relationship between the Blues, Rockabilly, Gospel, Country and Rock and Roll music?

SLEEPY: It's all relative. I think all music has complex messages. Some are happy. Some are with sadness. I try to get the right mixture of all of it. I'm right at home playing Country, Blues, foot-stomping, hand-clapping Gospel. All of it. It's all relative. It's how you do it that counts.

BBS: How much has Black Blues meant to your own mix of Elvis/Little Richard/Jerry Lee/Buddy Holly/Bo Diddley/George Jones/Willie Nelson/Ray Charles and Dean Martin ? What Blues artists would you add to that description of your style?

SLEEPY: Well, Elvis,Johnny Cash, Ray Charles and Little Richard all grew up listening to the Blues like me. Bobby Bland Blues. "Turn On Your Lovelight". The music that made you want to jump up and MOVE. Even Dean Martin. "Memories Are Made Of This" and "Little Old Wine Drinker Me". Ever heard of that? You could add Lightning Hopkins and "Gatesmouth Brown" and John Lee Hooker. I did a bunch of shows in America and Canada with Hooker.

BBS: It's been said you have 6,000 songs in your repertoire. This has been referred to as "a 3 chord history on 20th century Americana". Care to comment?

SLEEPY: Now wait a second ! I NEVER said I knew 6,000 songs. (laughs) I know more songs than I'll probably ever SING but I've never stopped long enough to count them...(laughs)....and I'll NEVER run out of songs. (laughs)

BBS: A typical show of yours might start with a Merle Haggard medley, a Jimmy Reed Blues, a Country weeper, a Surf instrumental into a Bluegrass classic; all done at a breakneck pace. What do you want your audience to remember about seeing you perform?

SLEEPY: I just want them to remember they had a good time. I don't care if they remember all the songs, I just want them to have a good time. I also like to jam with local musicians wherever I play. Meeting new artists is always a thrill.

BBS: How many Cowboy hats do you own?

SLEEPY: Right now, probably about 4. I have a Biker's cap too.

BBS: Out of your huge catalog of songs are there any originally done by female Blues artists?

SLEEPY: "These Boots Are Made For Walking" by Little Esther. She also did "Please Release Me, Let Me Go" that I play; but that was originally done by Jerry Heap and The Melody Masters. And then by Bob Mills and his Western Swing Band.

BBS: You have 3 daughters and I'm told that sometimes when they sing you pick up your guitar and join in. Jessie Mae has written a song with your wife Linda that is on one of your albums. What advice would you give a female wanting to devote their lives to music in a male-dominated industry?

SLEEPY: Jessie sings in a church with a choir for special events and I have another daughter in Florida who sings in her church choir for special events too. I would tell women artists it's VERY rough. There are so many people out there; some get a hit and you never hear from them again. If you can establish yourself that's probably the most important thing you have to do first.

BBS: Is it easier or harder for a young performer to get their music heard today than it was when major labels did everything?

SLEEPY: You have some independent stations out there that will give you a chance. Get it played if you can. Personally, I don't cater to anybody. If they like my stuff and play it; GREAT.

BBS: Do people ever come up to you today and mention your role as the Swamp Monster in the horror flick "The Exotic Ones" aka "The Monster And The Stripper"? And looking back, can you name that experience in just one word?

SLEEPY: (laughs) They DO! They play the movie a lot during Halloween and sometimes I sign a poster from it.......

BBS: I have to see it again to see you in a wig and a loincloth.

SLEEPY: It's NOT a wig. It's MY hair. (laughs) And to describe the experience in one word?.......It was......DIFFERENT ! (laughs)

BBS: You are revered in Europe. What do you think the main differences are between a European audience and an American one?

SLEEPY: They still hold on to original Blues, Country, and Rock and Roll. While we move on to another fad they don't take it for granted. It's not unusual to hear Buddy Holly or Gene Vincent being played on the radio over there still.

BBS: (To JIMMY-Cadillac Crumb-DAVIS) How long have you been the bassist for Sleepy? Does he ever call a song onstage you've NEVER heard of? And what do you think his legacy is right now?

JIMMY (CADILLAC CRUMB) DAVIS:  I have been with Sleepy off and on for 37 yrs, since 1978; and he still pulls one out I ain't heard of every once in a while. (laughs). Sleepy should be remembered as a totally unrehearsed powerhouse of a guitar player and singer who crossed many genres of music; and always stays true to his music and his Faith in God. And he always does it HIS way. I guess what I like best is the cross section of music we play; and he taught me everything I know about, in this music life and life in general. I love the man and his music.

BBS: In 2013, you went to Nashville and recorded and released a live concert/documentary DVD, "Sleepy LaBeef Rides Again". What's in the future for Sleepy LaBeef?

SLEEPY: Well, it was a fun thing to do. We did a variety of Blues, Rock and Roll, Rockabilly, and Gospel and we really mixed it up. Its a very VERSATILE album; it's the kind of stuff we DO. And for the past 5 years we've played at the annual Dukes Of Hazzard t.v. show reunions. They go to different places each year; Nashville, Virginia. They have the original stars like Catherine Bach who played Daisy Duke and James Best who played Sheriff Coltrane show up; and we provide the entertainment. And I'm not on the road as much as I used to but we just came back from New England and we're heading back up there for a few weeks then on to Washington, D.C. and Baltimore. And we have shows in Dusseldorf, Germany and in London at the Helmsby Rock and Roll Festival coming up too. We have a pretty busy schedule coming up for the next year.

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