Sleepy LaBeef is a rockabilly from Smackover, Arkansas. Think about it: Sleepy. LaBeef. Smackover. You probably won't see a stranger, more evocative combination of words in a music story anytime soon, but in this case, it's fitting. Among tightly slotted contemporary artists, LaBeef--who possesses one of the deepest voices in American music, coupled with a repertoire so broad he's earned the tag "the human jukebox"--is as rare as a symphony mosh pit.
LaBeef began his career in the mid-1950s, when country and blues were smeared together to give birth to rock 'n' roll, and has been playing and singing ever since. A farmer's son who sang in the United Pentecostal Church, LaBeef traded a .22 rifle for his first guitar at age 14. A few years later, he moved to Houston and began performing in gospel duos and quartets. His mastery of songs probably dates to his first secular gig, covering hits for bargain packages hawked on border radio. He palled around Texas with such country-stars-to-be as Willie Nelson, Glen Campbell and Kenny Rogers. Sometimes imitating Elvis Presley's vocal style, he cut singles that went nowhere.
The closest LaBeef ever got to a radio payday was "Blackland Farmer," a country-Cajun number that was a small success in 1971. In the early 1980s, he signed to Rounder Records, the independent New England label known for small budgets and a paternal regard for eclectic roots artists. LaBeef is still with Rounder, and has spent the better part of his life on the road.
The modest success of LaBeef's Rounder albums, his European tours and a stateside rockabilly revival stimulated renewed interest in his career in the 1980s. An imposing six-foot-six without his usual Stetson hat, LaBeef and his high-octane shows became an outsized living link to an era that a new generation might otherwise have associated only with a porky, pilled-up Elvis.
In a peculiar inversion of the normal ladder to stardom, some of LaBeef's earliest recordings began to appear on CD several years ago, including Turn Back the Years, a survey of his early career. The strangest twist came several months ago, when the German label Bear Family, known for the meticulous care it lavishes on otherwise obscure American music, issued a 158-track, six-CD LaBeef retrospective, Larger Than Life, focusing on his earliest rockabilly sides.
LaBeef, 61, tours with a three-piece backup band, playing unpredictable sets that encompass hillbilly boogie, Western swing, rock 'n' roll, swamp pop and gospel, from Jerry Lee Lewis to John Lee Hooker, in a seamless medley style. His fourth Rounder release, last year's I'll Never Lay My Guitar Down, collects songs by Johnny Horton, Tony Joe White, Chris Kenner and LaBeef's teenage daughter. Of the title, he said recently, "What would I want to retire for? This is the greatest life in the world."
LaBeef is currently on the road until mid-March, when he stops at his home near Boston for a break and then heads to Europe. He spoke by phone recently from a Tampa, Florida, Days Inn (where he was registered under his own name). He'd just performed and, at midnight, was relaxing in his room with a tray of sandwiches.
New Times: You're called "the human jukebox" because you're supposed to know over 6,000 songs. How'd you come by such a massive repertoire?
Sleepy LaBeef: The funny part is, I don't count my songs. I've had a lot of fans come in with yellow legal pads and wondered what they were doing . . . I always listen to different directions, the blues, the gospel. I guess the good Lord blessed me with a good memory.
NT: How long does it take you to learn a song?
SL: Probably, if I really apply myself, I can listen to it two or three times and get it. A lot of times I ad-lib, but the story is complete; I should apply for part of the copyright on some of 'em.
NT: You're clearly the best-known, if not the only, baritone in rockabilly. What does your voice sound like to you, say, when you hear it on a playback?
SL: You know, they used to think you couldn't sing rock 'n' roll if you sang low. So some of the things in the '50s, I screamed 'em out a little, like Little Richard. When I first started hearing myself on reel-to-reel tape, it was strange. I sounded like I sang down in a well.
NT: Define "rockabilly."
SL: I think rockabilly, originally, was a bunch of the hillbillies that had rhythm, like Elvis, Gene Vincent and Buddy Holly. A lot of us had that rhythm from those Southern gospel churches, that foot-stompin', hand-clapping music, and it was just puttin' a big beat behind it. The term was coined in the last part of '56. Then it died down into rock 'n' roll, and Europe revived it in '74. But I learned a cross section of music, and I don't care whether they call it country rock, Southern rock, or whatever . . . our kind of music has always been there. I think maybe sometimes small groups of musicians . . . they'd only learn a small portion of what rockabilly is, like "Blue Suede Shoes." So in some cases, a stigma was attached to it that it might be a very limited music. But it isn't. So many people contributed a lot to this music, like Red Foley, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Muddy Waters, the Mighty Clouds of Joy, Howlin' Wolf, Martha Carson--you know, Elvis idolized Martha Carson.
NT: Do you remember the first time you heard Elvis, and what you thought? SL: I was in Beaumont, Texas, when I first heard "Blue Moon of Kentucky" and "That's All Right Mama." I was acquainted with the sound; Martha Carson was playing that rockin' rhythm. But he was puttin' that same rhythm to blues and bluegrass, and I said, "Oh, this has got to do it. Nobody else has really had the nerve to do it before now."
NT: You used to start a lot of your shows with Sister Rosetta Tharpe's "Strange Things Happening," and you cover other gospel songs. How important is gospel music to you?
SL: I think I owe much more to it than I've recorded, because that's where I cut my teeth. And I plan to do more. Rounder has mentioned it. With that music, you're singing about life, reporting life's news the way it happens--not necessarily with me, but with some people somewhere.
NT: Not long ago, we talked with Bobby Bland, and he singled out Johnny Paycheck as one musician he admires. That seemed improbable--this master of soul-blues praising a stone country artist. But maybe it's not so strange. After all, rockabilly came from the collision of country and blues.
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SL: I believe music is for us to enjoy, not to be enslaved by any so-called category. I had an official with Columbia Records tell me one time, "Sleepy, we don't know how to market you, rock 'n' roll, country or what." And my only reply was, "Hey, you come to Houston to sign me up, I didn't come to Nashville lookin' for you." I never got a hit with Columbia.
NT: It's after midnight, and you're doing an interview from a Days Inn. After 40-plus years in this business, you're still more an underground legend than a star. How do you feel about that?
SL: I can get out and walk the streets, but I wouldn't turn my back on a hit record. If I made more money, I could learn to spend it. I have a good family and friends, I eat good. We're rich with the joy of doing it. Opportunity, sometimes it's if you're there in the right spot, the right promoters. I knew Kris Kristofferson when he couldn't sell a song. When I was at Columbia, he was a janitor, pickin' up pieces of paper--but when his time come, he did very well. You can't always predict what's going to happen.
Sleepy LaBeef is scheduled to perform on Thursday, February 20, at the Rhythm Room. Showtime is 9 p.m.