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Sleepy LaBeef is the stage name of Thomas Paulsley LaBeff (born July 20, 1935), an American rockabilly musician.
Sleepy LaBeef was born in Smackover, Arkansas, the youngest of 10 children, he was raised on a melon farm. He received the nickname "Sleepy" as the result of a lazy eye.
He moved to Houston, Texas, when he was 18. There, he sang gospel music on local radio and put together a bar band to play venues as well as radio programs such as the Houston Jamboree and Louisiana Hayride.
LaBeef had a stage presence; he stood 6'6" foot tall. He began performing in the 1950's and kept doing so through the decades up until his death in 2019.
Career: 1950'sIn the 1950's, as the rockabilly component of rock and roll became evident, LaBeef began recording singles in the genre; his first, "I'm Through", was issued on Starday Records in 1957.
In 1964, he moved to Nashville and moved to a more solidly country style, recording singles for Columbia Records. His first genuine hit was 1968's "Every Day", which peaked at No. 73 on the U.S. Billboard Country charts.
After moving to Plantation Records in 1969, he scored a second hit in 1971 with "Blackland Farmer", which charted at No. 67.
Around this time LaBeef also starred in the horror movie The Exotic Ones. The Tennessean wrote a description of the story line in March of 1969. "A wild-man murderer, caged as a nighclub attraction, rips up the scene, in a Nashville-made melodrama loosely based on the old "King Kong" myth. Starring Sleepy LaBeef, Georgette Dante, Gordon Terry, Ron Ormond, June Ormond, Cecil Scaife, Donna Raye, Gene McFall, Tim Ormond, Ed Moates, Chuck Howard and Lynn Fontaine.
The poster for the movie features Sleepy as the 'monster' that does all these bad things. He's part creature and turned into a nightclub attraction in a cage. But escapes and well, the violence seen in clips on youtube are not what you watch in family time television.
But research found more details about the cast in the movie in an Athens Alabama newspaper because a local named Dean Turner was in the movie. The article begins,
Four men cautiously walk through the Louisiana swamp in search of the dreaded and deadly monster of the bayou. The swamp beast has killed the last two search parties and the weather is miserably humid and the swamp creates are far from being friendly.
The two survivors were Dale Turner (Stud) and Cecil Scafe (Coke), a public relations executive. The monster in the movie is played by Sleepy LaBeef, known as a country music star at the time. Somehow the 'Swamp Thing' was captured and taken to New Orleans where he is put on display in a ... strip joint. Whe the monster's favorite stripper gets into a fight with another stripper, he breaks out and the attacks begin.
At that time, Nashville was seeing a growing trend of movie making. The distributor, writer, producer and distributor of the horror film was Ron Ormond of the Ormond Organization in Nashville. Two other movie companies in Nashville at the time were Marathon Productions and Ambassador Films.
The fledgling industry used local union members for set, lighting, sound and cameramen.
Dean Turner had appeared as a sheriff's deputy in three of Ormond's previous films. He was a sales representative for Air Products Construction Equipment Co. and did movie roles in his spare time. Because most of the cast had regular daytime jobs, filming took place between 3:30pm and 11:00pm.
Gordon Terry had a leading role in the movie. The head of the makeup department in the movie was a country and western child star was then a mother, Rita Faye. Set artist was Bill Gernert, an interior decorator and free lance artist and played "Bobo The Clown" on Nashville television. Sid O'Berry, the cameraman, was head of medical photography at Vanderbilt Hospital. The make-up technician for the movie was Rodger Richmond who was actually a law student at Vanderbilt University.
It was stated that the completed movie would cost five times less than a Hollywood production. Watching the movie trailer on youtube, one might see the impact of that reduced cost on the quality.
LaBeef transferred to Sun Records in the 1970s and continued releasing albums and touring widely; his popularity flagged in America but rose in Europe.
However, he suffered a setback in late 1976 and was stranded in Maine when his van burned up. A benefit was held on his behalf at Indian Ranch on Route 16 in Webster, MA on May 30, 1977. Admission was $3.00. Among the performers who appeared were Bob Riley, Dave Dudley, Dick Curless, Tina Welch, Edna Jean, Johnny White and Bella Lee.
Sleepy LaBeef was making a week long visit at Hillbilly Ranch when Steve Morse told readers that Sleepy's latest single was "Good Rockin' Boogie" (a reworking of "Good Rockin' Tonight") was Number 2 on the rock charts in London and he was invited to England to appear at the Wembley Festival in the spring of 1979.
He gave up smoking one summer that made his bass voice more malleable and could "blow Bruce Springsteen ino the next county." Mr. Morse further wrote:
...no one can play rhythm guitar with as much brute power as he can. His thick triangular pick storms over the strings, and yet he can also fingerpick intricate leads like James Burton. His Jerry Lee style piano and Cajun fiddle are also something else again and had band members Clete Chapman, Hal Higgins and Skip King staring at one another.
The 1980's saw him sign to Rounder Records, where he released albums into the 1990's.
Sleepy kept on going on tours and doing personal appearances and research shows that he would often get a good write-up in a newspaper when he came to town. One such instance was for an appearance at Mudbuggs in Tucson, Arizona in June of 1990. Pam Parish wrote, "The 'Beef is back.' Sleepy LaBeef, of the rumbling bass voice and rowdy rockabilly licks, will return to Tucson for a show..." She noted that Sleepy's appearance at the El Casino Ballroom a couple years prior had a 'sweat factor' of 10.5 (on a scale of 10) and it wasn't just because of the relative lack of fresh air. She said his band turned out some "hot, hot music that is impossible not to dance to."
In 1995, Geoff Gehman wrote of Sleepy before his upcoming appearance in Easton, PA in glowing terms.
Sleepy LaBeef has windowshade eyelids, a voice as massive as a train whistle in a cave, a playlist deeper than threescore jukeboxes, and a distinguished place among rockabilly royalty. Thanks to a growing respect for unsung American musical heroes, he's becoming more than a footnote to a history he helped write."And that was just the first paragraph of the article!
He went on,
Five decades have passed and LaBeef still preaches that rockabilly is nothing more than gospel slap-bassed, snare-shot and all-shook-up. What are Jerry Lee Lewis' right-hand flurries but accelerations of Sister Rosetta's casually bluesy guitar? What were Elvis' gyrations but a secular version of the shakes of an Assembly of God minister?
For a time, Sleepy toured with a group that called themselves The Memphis Sound. The group consisted of Sleepy LaBeef, Sonny Burgess, D. J. Fontana, Stan Kessler, Jeff Little and Scotty Anderson.
A promotional blurb about Sleepy's appearance the Rialto Cabaret in Tucson in early 1997 told readers, "Close your eyes, slip into a rockabilly trance and let Sleepy LaBeef's amazing baritone transport you back to the mossy swamps of south Arkansas."
Career: 2000 to 2019
A promotional blurb for an appearance at Lee's Liquor Lounge in Minneapolis provides this description: "Sleepy LaBeef barrels through song after familiar song with the engery of a teenage sock-hopper and the basso profundo voice of an opera villian. LaBeef can serve up deeper tones than Johnny Cash, Barry White, Isacc Hayes, Tony Joe White or just about any other lownote studly male singer you can name. And his guitar wrangling is just as formidable, whether the fare's a Johnny Horton honky-tonk classic, a rockin' Chuck Berry perennial, a blues blast, a hard country weeper or a frenzied slice of original LaBeef."
Peter North wrote of this Sleepy's penchant for not really being typecast into a genre. He was at the Labatt Blues Fesitval in Harelak Park in 2001. The audience raised their eyebrows a bit during his 30-minute performance. He would go from Johnny Cash, Buck Owens, Carl Perkins and Hank Williams. The blues festival producer noted that Sleepy would have been better suited to the Big Valley Jamboree. Sleepy could go from tunes by Sonny Boy Williamson, Muddy Waters, Otis Blackwell then to Bill Monroe then to Chuck Berry and then back to Ernest Tubb in the space of seven or eight minutes.
"A great song is a great song, period. Sleepy told them after the festival in 2001.
He was still singing and doing appearances in the mid-2015's. Allen Abel caught him in concert. It was a fancy restaurant named the Hamilton he wrote, across the street from the U.S. Treasury. He said Sleepy was 'rocking the old trucker's lament Six Days On the Road in a shiny suit in a downtown cellar. He wrote that LaBeef's voice "... is a sack of burlap, his pace so frantic that it makes me think there must be a taxi outside with its meter running." It was a two night stand for Sleepy who was backed by a smooth jazz band from Baltimore. It was Saturday night for Mr. Abel, his 65th birthday; country for old men.
It is well documented that Sleepy was known as the "human jukebox" and claimed he knew over 6,000 songs. He once said all he had to do was hear a record twice on the jukebox and he would have it down.
Mr. Abel provided readers with some of the varied tunes he enjoyed that night. Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire", Big Joe Turner's "Boogie Woogie Country Girl", Bob Wills' "Stay A Little Longer", Fats Domino's "Hello Josephine". Sleepy told the audience after he had done about a dozen up tempo rockers in a row, "If you don't watch it, I'll think of four or five more." Sleepy went on to sing other tunes like "Roll In My Sweet Baby's Arms", "Tore Up", "Bright Lights, Big City", "Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down", Chuck Berry's "Little Sixteen" and "Johnny B. Goode", "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On". Sleepy would be on an airplane at 7:00am Sunday morning going back to Springdale, Arkansas to play with his grandkids and wait with his wife for the phone to ring for a potential next gig. His wife Linda was also his booking agent.
Mr. Abel asked him backstage that night, "How long will you rock on?" Sleepy replied, "Maybe another 20. I don't see the fires burning low yet."
He then asked Sleepy, "Does it bother you that you never made the really big, big time?" Sleepy responed in that deep Smackover voice as Mr. Abel described it, "I don't have all the hit records in the world. But I was there."
The folks in Boston seemed to consider then one of their own as he lived in the area for a time and would often do appearances. One such appearance was on his 80th birthday in 2015 at Johnny D's in Somerville.
In January of 2016, the Boston Globe wrote "It seems like this original rockabilly has been playing Johnny D's for as long as the club as been around, so it only makes sense that he'd stop by one more time before the doors close for good."
Sleepy married the former Louise Barwick in Clairborne, Louisiana on January 9, 1954. They divorced in March 1967.
On November 14, 1978, he married the former Linda S. Cerny in Texas.
Sleepy's father was Charles Aylmer Labeff. On September 23, 1917 he married the former Clara Wilson (Born: August 31, 1899; Died: August 26, 1932). She passed away in Smackover, Arkansas. Around February 1934, Charley married Jessie Graves Bridges (Born: March 4, 1897; Died: December 29, 1977). She had previously married Jacob Bridges in September of 1917.
Sleepy passed away on December 26, 2019 and is at rest in Siloam Springs, Arkansas.
His siblings were:
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