Sleepy LaBeef, a rock and country performer 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 Thursday at age 84. No cause of death has been given.
LaBeef was born on July 25, 1931 in Smackover, Arkansas, as the youngest of 10 children born to farmers, and 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 became “LaBeef” starting with his 1965 releases. 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.
Although LeBeef never had any singles chart above the 60s, 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 active link to the birth of rock ‘n’ roll. 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 Switzerland’s Blues to Bop Festival, a sign of his enduring popularity among roots enthusiasts in Europe as well as America.
“Fare thee well to the only musician I ever witnessed play a three-hour medley,” wrote singer/songwriter Syd Straw on Facebook, referring to his legendarily wide repertoire.
The singer released singles on labels like Starday 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.
“I used to do about 300 shows a year,” he said in a 1991 New York Times profile. “Now I’ve cut it back to between 200 and 250, since I’m overseas so much.” As for his recordings, which generated only a few minor country chart successes, “I think you can listen to the records and tell that there’s a little bit lacking in enthusiasm,” he told Karen Schoemer.
Enthusiasm was not a problem for him on the road, where he was known to enthusiasts as “the human jukebox.” LaBeef described his core sound to the Times as “root music: old-time rock-and-roll, Southern gospel and hand-clapping music, black blues, Hank Williams-style country. We mix it up real good.”
The Times reported that LeBeef claimed a repertoire of 6,000 songs, which came to be an accepted and oft-cited fact, though he later denied it. “I never said I knew 6,000 songs,” he said with a laugh in a Boston Blues Society interview in 2015. “I know more songs than I’ll probably ever sing, but I’ve never stopped long enough to count them… and I’ll never run out of songs.” The reporter to whom he disavowed that figure did mention that “a typical show of (his) might start with a Merle Haggard medley, a Jimmy Reed blues, a country weeper and a surf instrumental into a bluegrass classic, all done at a breakneck pace.”