Looking Back to 2003
Marck 19th, 2003 - I'm sitting in front of my computer struggling with how to word this announcement to explain why the sudden disappearance of Sleepy's scheduled shows has just happened. Let me tell y'all just like it happened. Sleepy came in off his last road tour on Christmas Eve sicker than I have seen him in 30 years. Because of the holiday and a snowstorm that very day, we were not able to find out that he had had pneumonia for several weeks until December 26. Of course, he was put on medication and I tried to give him lots of TLC but even after several weeks, while the infection had cleared up, he still felt tired, a bit more weak than we felt was right and had experienced a couple of strange feelings in his chest. We went back to the doctor and he wanted Sleepy to have bloodwork, x-rays, and a stress test done. We had the first two done on February 20 and then went in for the stress test Wednesday, February 26. Much to our surprise (and most likely to yours if you have seen Sleepy perform!) the doctor wanted to admit Sleepy into the hospital on the spot as the treadmill test had shown irregularities he felt needed to be checked out with a heart cath. So Thursday Sleepy had the heart cath done and we were surprised yet again to be informed that he needed to have bypass surgery done. He underwent the single bypass surgery on Friday, February 28. He came home from the hospital on Tuesday, March 4 and is recovering wonderfully. While he regrets having to cancel the shows that were scheduled during March and most of April, he will be looking forward to seeing all of you at those venues as the shows are rescheduled!
Throughout all of this rather intimidating situation, those of you who were made aware of the situation (either because of your closeness to our family or because the timing of the surgery affected a show at your venue) have been so concerned and thoughtful. We have been overwhelmed by the calls, e-mails, cards, and messages via Ray conveying your thoughts and prayers for Sleepy. We know that we've had people from nearly every denomination praying for Sleepy: Pentecostals, Baptists, Catholics, Church of Christ, Assemblies of God have all let us know they were praying. As Sleepy put it, "How could we miss?" Truly, we know that Jesus had his Hand on both Sleepy and I in this entire situation. As one friend prayed with us "Sleepy was never alone as he went through this" for God was there every step of the way. Talk about a "Footprints" moment - we have just lived through one!
We want to thank all of you for your prayers and support during this time and as Sleepy continues to recover. He is progressing remarkably well - he even asked me as I walked with him in the hospital "You need me to slow down?"- and we are anticipating his return to performing in mid- to late-April.
We also want to thank the doctors who were involved in this: Dr. David Fort, who sent Sleepy to have the stress test done; Dr. Pete Ball, who explained the necessity of having the heart cath done ( and offered to drive me home in his 4-wheel drive vehicle as my transport home was one of Sleepy's arguments against immediate admission to the hospital ); Dr. Ted Fish, who performed the heart cath and discovered the blockage in Sleepy's artery;the anesthesiologist, who made sure that Sleepy knew absolutely NOTHING about what was going on until it was over; Dr. Russell Wood, who performed the bypass surgery; Karen and Stephanie, his ICU nurses, who gave him professional, compassionate care during his time in the ICU; Dr. Chad White, who we saw daily at the hospital and signed our release; and many other nurses, aides, techs and other personnel who made his experience at the hospital, Washington Regional Medical Center, in Fayettville, Arkansas, a pleasant, healing experience. We also want to give a special thanks to: Dr. John H. Moore - we hope he knows just how much his friendship and support has meant to both Sleepy and I; our pastor and his wife, Rev. Tom and Becky Singles, who spent so much time both with us and in prayer for us; Loyd McCord, Sleepy's "brother" and true friend; and of course, our families: Sleepy's siblings, Corine, Louise and Otis, my sister, Sandy, and our children, Melody, Paul, Jessie, Melinda, and Tomie. And there are so many who visited, called, e-mailed and, most importantly and appreciated, prayed for us.
We hope that you know that we most sincerely thank the Lord for all of you! With much gratitude, Linda LaBeef
Dec. 2, 1999 - Excellent article from Denver's westwood.com site on: Sleepy LaBeef
EVER SINCE HE WAS OLD ENOUGH TO DRIVE, Sleepy LaBeef has been crisscrossing the country, rolling through the miles in bus after bus with "Sun Recording Artist" painted on the side. He's a hard-driving, tee-totaling, first-generation rockabilly who's never diluted his music, and never sounded better than he does right now.
Forty years after cutting his first record - "I Won't Have To Cross Jordan Alone" and "Just a Closer Walk With Thee" - LaBeef is still searching for a hit. His latest album, I'll Never Lay My Guitar Down (Rounder), is among the strongest of his career, yet like most of his others it's garnered little airplay. LaBeef's not complaining - just a month before, the 61-year-old rock'n'roller made an appearance on Late Night With Conan O'Brien. Most of the time, he's happy enough to drive from one roadhouse to another - usually accompanied by his wife and manager, Linda - playing to crowds of 75 or 100 people, sometimes 200 nights a year.
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.
"It Ain't What You Eat It's the Way How You Chew It", produced by Rounder's Ken Irwin in 1980, is still his gutsiest album, with LaBeef sounding like a free man, unbound from the pressures of the Nashville machine. The albums that followed - 1982's Electricity, 1987's Nothin' But the Truth and 1994's Strange Things Happening - are all consistent, top-flight rock'n'roll, but it's taken until I'll Never Lay My Guitar Down for LaBeef to find that same power with a band made up of musicians from a younger generation. Like LaBeef, it's exactly what it appears to be: rooted, uncompromising American music sung with all the power of the gospel.
BACK AT MANNY'S, (where he appeared that night) LaBeef launches into Sister Rosetta Tharpe's "Strange Things Happening." ("If you hew right to the line/you can live right all the time/there are strange things happening/every day.") With a nod to Peter Guralnick, the Boston writer who's championed his career since 1977, LaBeef segues into "Lost Highway," then plows through a Chuck Berry rocker, an Ernest Tubb waltz and Duane Eddy's instrumental version of "When the Saints Go Marching In." It's just a tiny cross-section of LaBeef's 6,000 song repertoire, and it comes off like a breathtaking three-chord history of 20th century Americana.
There's a Merle Haggard medley, a Jimmy Reed blues, a country weeper, a surf instrumental, a bluegrass chestnut - all before the first break. Each song has three or four solos thrown into the middle, and all of them are done at breakneck pace. ("We got so many to do," he says, "so we'll keep'em short, get more of 'em in.") None of it is planned, because LaBeef wants the freedom to play the crowd, to change direction whenever the spirit moves him. Sometimes, a quick wave to the band means play softer, sometimes it means don't play at all. Either way, the band - drummer Hank Churbuck, bassist David Hughes and keyboardist Alan Mandel - keeps close watch on LaBeef's hands, trying to anticipate his next move. Before the night is through, they'll rumble through 71 songs (72, if you count singing "Happy Birthday" to an audience member), only one of which LaBeef wrote himself.
In fact, throughout his career LaBeef has co-written less than a dozen songs. "There's so many of them out there can outwrite me," he explains humbly. "Why should I write songs when there's already so many good ones?" LaBeef sees himself as an interpreter, covering songs about things that he says he's witnessed," even if he hasn't lived them himself.
"I can sing drinking songs, cheating songs," he says, though he adds he wouldn't take part in such activity himself. "It's not that you condone the lifestyle, but, you're singing about life, and someone out there knows what you're singing about. Like, I do a merle Haggard song, 'Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down.' It should relay a message to people that you can not drink your problems away, because the problem is still there when you sober up. The message is, until you get this part of your life straightened out, the drinking won't solve the problem. Or anything else. Now, I'm not the judge of these people. This lifestyle is something I wouldn't do. But I'm not other people's judge."
By the time the second encore is finished, it's two a.m. and LaBeef is starting to look like any other 61-year-old heavyweight at the end of a three-hour workout. It takes another half hour before the van is packed and LaBeef settles into the driver's seat. A couple cups of coffee and he'll be home, with just enough time to sleep before heading out to Scandinavia tomorrow. It's been a short trip - four hours driving, three hours playing, and now another four hours to get back home to Raynham, Massachussetts.
During his free time, LaBeef mows the lawn and fills the trailer behind his house with antiques ("Some of it is junk, but I didn't know it was junk when I bought it. I thought it was good stuff.") When his three teenage daughters sing, he says he sometimes picks up his guitar and joins in. Most of the time, he's happy just to listen.
"I love singing, but I get to do enough of it onstage," he says. "I mean, I may never make a million dollars, but that's not the first priority. I grew up believing that if you have health and happiness - people that love you, food to eat, warm clothes to wear in the winter and enough money to buy gasoline - well, that's all you need. I might be driving an '84 Ford. But that's alright, it gets me where I want to go. It's air-conditioned, it's got a good heater if it gets cold. What do I need to worry about?"
Contributing editor Kenny Berkowitz is an Ithaca, New York-based free-lance writer.
While in Nashville in the late 60's, Sleepy portrayed the monster in Ron Ormond's cult classic movie "Monster And The Stripper". At 6'6" he was an imposing figure...even in his loin cloth, hair piece, and false teeth. Formerly title "The Exotic Ones" this film has been rereleased on video by Nashville Cinema Partners. This movie is a must for Sleepy fans.
WHEN ROCK'N'ROLL WAS IN ITS NASCENT STAGES,
SLEEPY LABEEF WAS THERE.
"Back around 1954, George Jones, Tommy Sands, Roy Orbison and I were just trying to get started," LaBeef said in a recent phone interview from his hometown of Raynham, Mass. "We'd do our thing the first hour, then Elvis, Scotty (Moore) and Bill (Black) would come out and do their act."
Forty-plus years later, Elvis Presley is dead and most other '50s icons have retired, faded away or are no longer viable artists. LaBeef, however, is still cranking out albums, still touring the United States and Europe, and perhaps most impressively, raising a young family at the somewhat advanced age of 61.
Then again, there's nothing that isn't impressive about the veteran musician, from his down-home, folksy manner to his somewhat prodigious size (6 feet, 6 inches tall, 265 pounds) to the rave-up guitar work and heartfelt vocals on his latest CD, "I'll Never Lay My Guitar Down."
Although best known for his rockabilly stylings and his deep bass voice that sounds like a soulful Johnny Cash, LaBeef says he doesn't like to limit himself when he takes the stage. "Sometimes my shows will have a bigger percentage of blues, sometimes it will be a bigger percentage of boogie-woogie, sometimes it will be more rockabilly, he said, "I've been able to taste and experience all types of music.
"I have the liberty to go in any direction. If it moves people, you can call it blues, you can call it hillbilly, or whatever you want to call it."
LABEEF'S MYRIAD INFLUENCES COME FROM HIS CHILDHOOD IN SMACKOVER, AK. ("It was a little French town called Su Mac Covert, but nobody could pronounce that, so it became Smackover"), where he was able to dial his radio into a seemingly infinite variety of music. LaBeef listened to country music on the Grand Ole Opry, and tuned in to WLAC in Nashville to hear blues artists such as Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. From Texas, he was able to hear Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys out of Fort Worth, and from Louisiana, he heard Hank Williams' morning show in Baton Rouge.
These sounds were assimilated by the young LaBeef who has developed a cult following here and overseas during his lengthy career. In fact, the Bear Family, a German record label known for its devotion to old country, blues and rockabilly recordings, will soon release a six-CD restrospective of LaBeef's earliest work.
"There's a lot of stuff from the beginning, songs from when I was on Star, Mercury, Columbia, Sun Records and several independent labels," said LaBeef. "It's quite an honor."
Although he's revered and more well-known in Europe - his recent tour of Spain will be documented in a live album to be released there - LaBeef's heart is in this country. "They treat us great in Europe, but when we go back to America, a lot of people don't know us," he said. "But we do have loyal fans who are good to us here, good old standbys, and we'd rather be here than anywhere else."
Part of that is undoubtedly because LaBeef's a family man at heart. The father of three children, LaBeef's brood has adopted the rock'n'roll lifestyle. According to his wife, Linda, the children are home-schooled and stay up until 4 a.m., rising at noon so they can spend more time with their father. "It is a little unusual, but the kids work hard and get to see their father a lot more than if they were on a regular schedule," she said.
LABEEF'S DAUGHTER JESSIE MAE, has shown some interest in music and even penned a song (with her mother) for his latest CD, the sweet, gospel-tinged "The Open Door."
I'm very proud of it," he said of his daughter's opus about society's problems. "It has to do with the fact that despite all the laws we pass, all the legislation, things won't get better until we have a changing of our hearts, a change from within ourselves."By REGE BEHE For The-Tribune-Review
November 15, 1996
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