|Sleepy LaBeef, Rockabilly Giant
Sleepy LaBeef has worked as a grocery clerk, a land surveyor, a lumberjack, a truck driver and, for six months, a horror movie swamp monster. He quit all that 31 years ago, and except for the time his bus caught fire in 1977 on the way to Bangor, Maine, he's never been off the road for more than a few weeks at a time. "I started out doing Southern, foot-stomping, hand-clapping gospel music," says LaBeef. "Then I would hear the blues on blues stations, the hillbilly music, the bluegrass out of Nashville, Bob Wills out of Texas. I've had an appreciation for all the music - if it's good, I've always loved it. But so many times, I've had people say,'We don't know how to market you, we don't know what to call you.' Because I've always mixed it up, right from the start, and that's what I intend to keep on doing."
The six-foot-six 250 plus pound LaBeef drawls on, peppering his conversation with references to Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, Bo Diddley, George Jones, Willie Nelson, Ray Charles and Dean Martin.
Six months younger than Elvis, LaBeef has been rocking and rolling as long as anybody in the business. The youngest of ten children in an Arkansas farming family (the original family name was LaBoeuf, the family changed it to LaBeff, and Sleepy changed it to LaBeef). His father farmed, raising cotton and watermelons for sale and livestock for the family, back in the days when "we used real horsepower," LaBeef says. By the time they sold their 40-acre farm for $300 - to the oil company, like everybody else - Thomas had become "Sleepy," nicknamed in first grade for the droop-down eyelids that he says made him look "like I was about half-awake." By 14, he'd quit school, traded his .22 rifle for a guitar, and started playing in church. At 18, he left home for a job building roads in Houston, and made the leap to secular music, playing in clubs for $8 or $9 a night.
It's been 42 years since Elvis sang "Blue Moon of Kentucky," and LaBeef hasn't forgotten the shock of recognition. While Sun Records' Sam Phillips heard in Elvis a hepped-up version of black blues, LaBeef heard "that old Southern Gospel beat. They just put secular lyrics to that same beat," he says. "And even without the Gospel lyrics, it still had so much power, it just overwhelmed people."
Hanging on to his job with the highway department, LaBeef started recording covers for the mail-order market, cutting his teeth with Pappy Daily (the man credited with discovering George Jones) at the Del Rio, Texas-based border radio station XERF. From there, LaBeef jumped to a string of independent labels - Starday, Dixie, Gulf, Crescent, Wayside, Picture and Finn - before receiving a call from Columbia's Don Law in 1964, asking him to move to Nashville. Six years and six singles later - none of them hits - LaBeef switched to a barely revived Sun Records, where he was allowed to play guitar again, and even to start cutting Gospel songs, though none of them were released. He cut six songs before "Blackland Farmer" gave Sun a little return on its investment. Then he cut 80 more, without ever coming close again.
"In Nashville, in those days, record companies were trying to control the whole process," says LaBeef, adding with Christian understatement, "some people were a little bit unhappy with that. It was a thing they'd been doing for years, and you don't rock the boat. That's why there's been some big changes in Nashville in the last few years, because the people that want to be creative, they finally jumped the traces - you know, like when you're plowing, you have the traces that go from the mule's harness back to the singletree. A mule gets rebellious, instead of going in a straight line, he'll step over the traces. But people in Nashville didn't do that for many years."
LaBeef might not have done it either, except for the fire that took his tour bus and just about everything he owned. It was a bad way to start 1977, but there he was, stranded on the Maine Turnpike, with a couple guitars he'd rescued from underneath the bus. Finding his way to Amesbury, Massachusetts, LaBeef settled in as the Fifth Wheel's one-man house band, and started to rebuild his career from the ground up. Two years later, he signed to Boston's Rounder label, where he's been ever since, finding himself in charge of his sessions for the first time and waxing the best work of his career.