Sleepy LaBeef Obituary
Rockabilly legend Sleepy LaBeef who began his career in the mid-’50s and whose concerts continued to be a draw for the rockabilly community well into this year, died on December 26, 2019 at age 84. No cause of death has been given.
Although LaBeef never had great chart success, his legend loomed almost as large as he did - the singer was around six-and-a-a-half feet tall - at festivals where he was often the lone remaining original 1950s rocker. He earned his own chapter in one of the essential books about rock’s pioneers, Peter Guralnick’s “Lost Highway: Journeys and Arrivals of American Musicians.”
The death was confirmed by his family on his Facebook account. ''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. “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.''
LaBeef was gigging at least as recently as September, when he performed at the Swiss 'Blues to Bop' festival in September 2019, a sign of his continuing popularity among roots music enthusiasts in Europe and America.
LaBeef released singles on labels like Starday/Mercury in the late ’50s, Columbia in the ’60s and the revived Sun imprint in the ’70s before finally catching fire with a new generation of rockabilly revivalists with a series of 1980s albums on Rounder. But nearly all his fans agreed that the live shows were really the thing - and there was no shortage of opportunities to catch him as he criss-crossed bar circuits across the country over the decades. He played about 300 shows a year.
In January 2012, LaBeef traveled to Nashville to record and film a live concert and record in historic RCA Studio B, all produced by noted bassist Dave Pomeroy. The documentary was entitled “Sleepy LaBeef Rides Again,” released in 2013.
Deke Dickerson, one of the leading modern musicians in the genre, wrote on Facebook: “Sleepy was one of the original ’50s rockabillies. 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.”
Added Dickerson, “He became known as ‘The Human Jukebox’ because he seemed to know every song ever written, and sometimes his shows would consist of him performing for three or four hours straight, no breaks, with short-and-long term band members holding on for dear life, often not knowing the songs as Sleepy plowed through them like a mule plowing through hard and rocky Arkansas farmland.”
LaBeef was born on July 25, 1931 in Smackover, Arkansas, as the youngest of 10 children growing up on a melon farm. He got his nickname as the result of a lazy eye, some said, or simply looking “half-awake.” He moved to Houston in his adolescence and became a regular on radio shows like “The Houston Jamboree” and “The Louisiana Hayride.” On his initial singles, he was credited as Sleepy LaBeff (or, in the case of “Tore Up,” Tommy LaBeff), but he finally became Sleepy LaBeef in 1965 . In his early years, he shared bills with stars like Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and Fats Domino. His own favorites, though, he told Sheree Homer in her book “Dig That Beat!,” were George Jones, Bill Monroe and Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
LaBeef had heart bypass surgery in 2003, which slowed his schedule only slightly.
“Success is nice,” he told Sheree Homer, “but if you have it in your heart, then you don’t get into [this] to make a bunch of money. You do it because you love the music. That love keeps me going, and I thank the Lord for the strength to do it. I never had a No. 1 record, but I am glad to be performing.”