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At almost any given moment during the last 40 years, while most Americans have been doing things like going to the dentist, balancing checkbooks, eating toast or snoozing soundly in their very own beds, a man named Sleepy LaBeef has been at the wheel of some large vehicle barreling down some endless interstate on the way to yet another show at yet another honky-tonk, rock club or roadhouse.
This is how Sleepy LaBeef has made his living for all those years, not from record sales or videos or hefty contract advances, but from playing music in front of live audiences.
Ask him about it, why, at age 59, with a wife and three daughters back home in Raynham, Massachusetts, does he continue to do 200 dates a year; LaBeef's answers are show-biz predictable: "I started it because I loved it. Nothing ever appealed to me like music. Being able to get before an audience that enjoys it just adds fuel to the flame."
But Sleepy's not shucking and jiving for a journalist, nor is his response braised with bitterness--he simply loves his job.
Which means that he loves music, all kinds of stuff. "To me, music is music," the man says, his hollow-barrel bass voice twanging over the long-distance line from Denver. "That's all I've ever known. If you play a G chord for Hank Williams or a G chord for B.B. King, it's all the same. If you want to categorize me, I'm country, rock and blues."
Other things you should know about Sleepy LaBeef: Legend has it that he knows 6,000 songs--I've learned a few and forgotten a few." He frequently opened for Elvis in the mid-Fifties, back when that meant something. He's shared the bill with Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash, and sung gospel music with notorious C&W booze hound George Jones. He's never had a Top 10 hit in America, but he's scored No. 1s in Europe and Scandinavia. And he played a swamp creature in the 1968 epic The Monster and the Stripper. "They were looking for somebody big and ugly, and they got me." The more you find out about this six-foot-six, 265-pound hunk of musical Americana, the more it seems like he was invented by Damon Runyon for a Southern gothic novel.
But that, of course, isn't true; Sleepy LaBeef is 100 percent nonfiction. He was born on a farm outside Smackover, Arkansas, in 1935, the tenth of ten children. The somewhat bovine surname comes from the French "LaBoeuf" meaning "the beef"; at the time of his birth, the family was going by LaBeff. "Sleepy" comes from the mouth of some long-forgotten kindergartner who had an amazing grasp of the obvious: Thomas Paulsley LaBeff was born with eyelids that droop like heads in church during a two-hour sermon.
In his early years, Sleepy started tuning in to a deejay named the Groover Boy on station KWK out of Shreveport, Louisiana, listening to rhythm and blues and hillbilly boogie. Down the dial a bit was legend-in-progress Lefty Frizzell, broadcasting live on KELD from neighboring El Dorado. But, perhaps, Sleepy's biggest influence back then--one that still shows up in LaBeef live sets--was gospel music. "It was what you call the old-time, hand-clapping, foot-stomping, country-type gospel," Sleepy drawls. "I grew up a country boy, so I'd listen to Red Foley, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Hank Williams. It was all relative, really."
He took up the guitar at age 14, copping licks from his idol, Sister Rosetta. Sleepy even named his first album in seven years, the recent all-encompassing American roots music sampler of the highest order, Strange Things Happening, after her influential song "Strange Things Happening in This World."
School ended for LaBeef after eighth grade, and life in Arkansas ended at age 18 when he moved to Beaumont, Texas. "It was big compared to Smackover. Then I moved to Houston in 54, and that was out of sight." This is where secular and nonsecular music began crossing paths in the LaBeef musical saga, courtesy of the Boy Who Dared to Rock.
"Elvis came out and opened the door for country and rock music, and the only place that ever had that excitement was in your Southern gospel songs," Sleepy offers. "Brother Claude Ely, Mahalia Jackson, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, some of these old-timers would sing with that big, heavy backbeat, that big, exciting, happy sound, and Elvis was the first one who put that sound on record. With different-type lyrics."
Sleepy began performing hits of the day, along with gospel duo and quartet gigs, and it was at one such show that headliner Elvis borrowed his guitar and trashed it. "George [Jones] and I worked on a local show called the Houston Jamboree on Saturday nights. We were in a quartet doing country-gospel things," Sleepy recalls. "Elvis broke all the strings on his guitar, and I was standing in the wings. He came back and I let him use mine, and at the end of the show, he handed it to me with the face scratched up and all the strings broke again. But he was real polite about it."
Though LaBeef and the King were "maybe not close enough to say 'friends,' I remember there was a diner where we all would go to eat sometimes there on Main Street in Houston," Sleepy says. "I remember we'd go in, my band and myself would sit at one table and Elvis and Scotty [Moore, guitarist] and Bill [Black, bassist] would sit at another. We were acquaintances, and he was a gentleman. And he loved his cheeseburgers. I don't know, maybe he couldn't afford steak back then, but he loved cheeseburgers so much he'd probably just as soon have cheeseburgers as he would steak."