Country and Rockabilly Legend Sleepy LaBeef Has Passed Away

photo: Kevin Smith

The country and rockabilly legend with a large frame and funny name has left us to entertain from that big stage in the sky. Sleepy LaBeef, born Thomas Paul LaBeff, passed away the day after Christmas at 84-years-old after a long decline in health, leaving a 6.5-foot hole to fill in the legacies of both rockabilly and country where his influence loomed large for over half a century.

Learning guitar when he was 18-years-old and moving to Houston, TX, Sleepy LaBeef was right in the mix when rockabilly was becoming the hot sound in the United States. He released his first 45″ in 1957 with “I’m Through”/”All Alone” via Starday Records, marking what would be one of scores of singles and 45’s LaBeef would issue into the early 60’s. Though none of them ever did especially well in sales or on the charts, his music and songs were cited regularly by his contemporaries as groundbreaking and inspirational to their own sounds, landing LaBeef on the Houston Jamboree, and eventually the well-known Louisiana Hayride. Artists from George Jones, to Bill Monroe, to Sister Rosetta Tharpe all cited Sleepy as an influence.

LaBeef would eventually move to Nashville where he’d find his greatest commercial success, signing to Columbia Records in 1964, and later to Plantation Records where he would record and release his biggest song, “Blackland Farmer.” The 70’s found Sleepy signed to Sun Records in Memphis, and the 80’s to Rounder Records where he regularly issues titles enjoyed by the cult following he’d accumulated over the years. LeBeef’s longevity is one of the reasons he’s so well-known and renown beyond any sales or chart numbers.

Sleepy LaBeef was the workhorse of country and rockabilly music for decades, regularly playing some 300 shows a year, including festivals and club shows, and regularly touring Europe where as time went on, his true base of loyal fans emerged. Having to travel back and forth to the old continent, he was playing fewer shows into the 90’s but still was turning in itineraries with 250 shows a year. LaBeef also boasted a repertoire of music that reportedly included some 6,000 songs. Though he would later refute that figure, saying he didn’t know how many song he knew, it was still a lot, and he earned the reputation as a human jukebox who could play just about anything shouted to him from the crowd, as long as it was rockabilly, country, or old school rock and roll. LaBeef described his style as “Root music: old-time rock-and-roll, Southern gospel and hand-clapping music, black blues, Hank Williams-style country. We mix it up real good.”

No matter what you listened to or where you were, Sleepy LaBeef was there and could probably play it. He was a bulwark of American roots music. Born July 20th, 1935 in Smackover, Arkansas as one of 10 kids, he was raised on a farm growing watermelons and cotton, and received the nickname “Sleepy” for his lazy eye. LaBeef had heart bypass surgery in 2003, but never retired, continuing to play regularly, performing as recently as September at the Blues to Bop Festival in Switzerland. 

“It is with deep, agonizing sadness that we inform you of the news that this morning, Sleepy LaBeef, born Thomas Paulsley LaBeff, passed on from this life to be with the Lord,” wrote his wife, Linda LaBeef on December 26th. “He died at home, in his own bed, surrounded by his family who loved him, and whom he dearly loved. He lived a full and vibrant life, filled with the excitement of much travel and experience, the contentment that came from being able to spend his life doing what he loved best, and the fulfilling love of his wife, children, and grandchildren around him.”

Other members of the country and rockabilly world remembered LaBeef as well, including Deke Dickerson, who just like LaBeef, has worked his career to keep the bridge between old school country and rock and roll alive.

“Sleepy was one of the original ’50s rockabillies,” says Dickerson “He made excellent records for Starday, Mercury, Dixie and Wayside. In a way he was one of the first ’50’s revivalists,’ cutting greasy rock and roll records all through the British Invasion years of the mid-’60s, but the truth was that Sleepy existed in a Gulf Coast world of rough bars and sleazy dives where the hard driving ’50s rock and roll mixed with classic country never went away. Sleepy was HUGE. I always referred to him as a ‘Man-Mountain,’ and I always found it comical when I loaned him a guitar or upright bass and it looked like a ukulele or a toothpick on his large frame. His girth enabled him to portray ‘The Swamp Thing’ (a large, semi-naked caveman/wildman character) in the 1968 exploitation film ‘The Exotic Ones,’ a memorable film moment, if you’ve ever had the good fortune to screen that particular gem.”

Another revivalist and Sleepy LaBeef champion was bass player Dave Pomeroy, who in 2013 helped produce a documentary and concert DVD called Sleepy LaBeef Rides Again. “My dear friend, mentor, and former boss Sleepy LaBeef passed away on December 26 after a long decline over the past year, including a lung cancer diagnosis just a few weeks ago,” Pomeroy shared. “He was my first job out of Nashville, and was a sweet guy with amazing musical abilities, who taught me a whole lot.”

Dave Pomery has set up a Go Fund Me account to help pay for Sleepy LaBeef’s final expenses.

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