Sleepy LaBeef has been a hero of mine ever since I first heard of him. In 2009 he appeared at the Rivermead Leisure Centre in Reading, and I was privileged to be able to interview him before the show (by telephone). I then did a preview of the show and a review afterwards, both of which appeared in the Reading Chronicle. Unfortunately the links are currently broken, however the text of the pieces are shown below.
Reading Wakes Up To Sleepy
Sleepy LaBeef: Rock And Roll Legend
American Rock and Roll legend Sleepy LaBeef on the past, present and future
Legend is a term that is used far too easily these days, particular when it is applied to members of the music industry. Sleepy LaBeef, however, is one artist who definitely deserves the accolade. He has shared a stage with many of the greats of rock and roll, such as Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Gene Vincent, Chuck Berry and many more, and after a career spanning six decades, he is still enthusiastic about the music that he so obviously loves.
Born in Smackover in Arkansas, Sleepy was the youngest of ten children. He acquired the nickname “Sleepy” as early as the first grade in school. His heavy eyelids gave the impression that he was constantly asleep, and the nickname has stuck with him ever since. He developed a love of music at a young age, influenced by country music and gospel singers such as Red Foley, Tennessee Ernie Ford and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Sleepy moved to Texas in 1953, at a time when record labels signed up their artists and put shows on at venues such as the Houston Jamboree and the magnificent outdoor Magnolia Gardens.
This was where his musical career really began, and Sleepy recalls how important these events were.
“Back in those days not many people had TV, but the radio was very big, and the live shows were the only place to see the stars.”
Appearing live helped his music to feature regularly in the Billboard top 100 chart, and although he never obtained a top ten hit, he is undeterred. The one regret of his career is that he never got to perform with Eddie Cochran.
He has also starred in a movie, the 1968 feature “The Exotic Ones”, in which he played "the swamp thing". With typical humility he explained how that came to be.
“I had a few friends that were involved and they said they were looking for a big ugly guy to play a swamp monster, so I auditioned and I got the part. Now though it only ever plays at Halloween to scare people.”
However, that is unlikely to be the end of his career in film. For the past two years he has been followed by a film crew who are working on his biography. The project is at the editing stage and should be released within the next few months.
Despite this relatively new venture, Sleepy still keeps in touch with many of the old rock and roll stars such as Chuck Berry and Little Richard, and he recently played at a tribute concert for Jerry Lee Lewis that featured, amongst others, Kris Kristofferson and Chrissie Hynde.
Sleepy seems to play disconnected venues, frequently without the benefit of a structured tour.
“Every time we get asked we try to fit in with people who love the music,” said Sleepy. "If we get asked to do other shows around the same time we’ll try to do that too.”
Travelling a long way for one show, such as his recent trip to the UK to play the Rockers Reunion in Reading, could cause problems for some artists, but not Sleepy.
“Sometimes we bring our own musicians and sometimes we use home town ones.”
His shows are a unique experience, largely spontaneous, and he describes how he puts them together.
“If I get a good bass man and a good drummer, and sometimes I'll add a good piano player, we will start with one of my old favourites like ‘Good Rockin’ Boogie’ and just see where it goes”.
With a repertoire of over six thousand songs, and a nickname of "The Human Jukebox", you would certainly have to be an accomplished musician to keep up with him, and he admits to learning more all the time.
“I haven’t learnt anything new for four or five months, and I don’t really need to, but if I hear something that I like then I’ll just pick it up”.
His love of performing now has to fit in with his ever growing family. Sleepy has a wife, four daughters, a son, and “about five grandchildren” a phrase said with huge affection that shows just where his priorities lie, in fact I’m sure he looks forward to the day when he has “about ten grandchildren”, or even more. His daughter Jessie Mae has written and recorded a song with his wife Linda entitled "The Open Door", that features on his latest release “Sleepy LaBeef: Roots”. Sleepy believes that this album should have been called “Bare Roots” as it really does go back to his beginnings.
There is precious little information about Sleepy on the web, and in fact when I asked him about the twenty cups of coffee that he allegedly drinks every day he denied it.
“It’s only about fifteen, and they are mostly half cups. And I prefer Maxwell House.”
So rather than rely on electronic snippets I recommend that you go to see this giant of the Rock and Roll world perform live, and long may the Good Rockin' continue. For more information on past and forthcoming releases, concert dates, etc. visit www.sleepylabeef.com.
Rock and roll music, the chance to meet old friends, and maybe even get a tattoo added up to a riotous night at the Rivermead
A night out at a leisure centre may not be everyone's cup of tea, but last Saturday at the Rivermead provided a rare treat for aficionados of traditional rock and roll, when the "Rockers Reunion" came to town.
The sports hall was decked out with stalls selling rock and roll memorabilia, clothing, belt buckles, and the widest selection of multi coloured shoes imaginable. Elsewhere, collectors thumbed through endless cd racks, all neatly divided into their own genres, and everyone agreed that it was a much more pleasurable experience than simply ordering off the ubiquitous Ebay.
One of the more unusual stalls was busy all evening, as boys and girls alike waited patiently to have traditional rock and roll designs tattooed onto various parts of their anatomy.
The punters sported all manner of uniforms, from Teddy Boy to biker, some with the look of East End gangsters, and others with hair that The Fonz would have been proud of.
Long lost friends greeted each other warmly as the "Reunion" got into full swing, with the bar doing a roaring trade from the off. This was the 26th annual event, and many of the Rockers had been to every one.
Rock and roll music filled the air with crazy rhythms, and the generous dance floor gyrated with jivers all eager to show off their moves. Numerous bands played on the wonderfully intimate stage, highlighted by the Skyrockets who involved several members of the audience with the microphone and with encouragement to join them on stage to dance.
The second half of the show saw the two main performers take to the stage. Mike Sanchez and his All Star Band played outstanding rhythms and boogie woogie. Mike seemed to take on the persona of whoever's song he was performing, rolling his head and grinning during Fats Domino's "I'm Ready", and shaking his eyes manically as he became Little Richard. The highlight was when he left his keyboards and walked along the front of the stage giving a fabulous rendition of Chuck Berry's "Brown Eyed Handsome Man".
Sanchez left the stage dripping with sweat after the efforts of his all action performance, and the rapturous applause was thoroughly deserved.
The finale was left to Sleepy LaBeef, the legendary singer and musician from Smackover in Arkansas, and a real coup for the organisers of the party. A huge presence on stage, Sleepy's deep baritone voice was a hit from the start. He changed tempo effortlessly, switching from the melancholy "Completely Destroyed" to the rocking "Hello Josephine" without missing a beat. He plugged his recent release "Sleepy LaBeef: Roots" with a stirring rendition of "Cotton Fields", but it was the moving "Long Black Veil" made famous by Johnny Cash that was the highlight.
Sleepy is famous for the spontaneity of his shows, which was emphasised when his drummer joined him up front to sing "Sweet Home Alabama", and also when he was enjoying himself so much that he unexpectedly ran out of time at the end of his set. He quickly slotted in the perennial favourite "Ain't Got A Home" and bade Reading a fond farewell, stopping briefly at one of the stalls to chat to the rockers and sign posters and copies of his cds.