R.I.P. Sleepy LaBeef 1935-2019 - A Tribute by Dave Pomeroy

Saturday January 4th 2020 - 12:16pm -- davepomeroy
Peter Guralnick, Sleepy LaBeef, Dave Pomeroy 2012

It is difficult to describe the impact Sleepy LaBeef had on my life. I was 21 years old when I moved to Nashville in October 1977. After just a few weeks, it became apparent to me that despite my own confidence in my musical skills, I was not going to immediately rise to the top of the heap, and I needed a gig badly. I made up a few homemade business cards, and posted them in all the music stores I could find, hoping to land some kind of job that would start the proverbial ball rolling. A couple days later, I got a call from a drummer named Clete Chapman, who asked me if I was interested in going on the road with an artist named Sleepy LaBeef. Having literally no other opportunities on my plate, I agreed to meet with Clete and Sleepy at Linebaugh’s restaurant on Lower Broadway the next morning. Sleepy was an imposing figure, a big man with a cowboy hat and very deep voice. He asked me three questions – “Can you play the bass?” I replied “yes, sir.” “Can you sing?” I replied “yes, sir.” “Can you leave tomorrow?” and having nothing else going on, I replied, “yes sir.”

I didn’t think to ask about money or when we would be coming back to Nashville, but the next day I hopped onto Sleepy’s motor home. We drove straight to New England, which I soon figured out was his base of operations. He was being booked by an agency in Boston, and his manager owned a truck stop about an hour to the north, where we stayed in between gigs. It didn’t take me too long to realize that we probably wouldn’t be going back in Nashville for quite a while. The pay was modest and the hours were long, but I was very glad to be working as a musician and was up for just about anything. Soon after our arrival, the truck stop got closed down for non-payment of taxes, but we continued to stay there, with Clete, our keyboard player Joe Sullivan and I staying all in one tiny room. I never thought to ask why we couldn’t each have our own room since the truckstop was closed for business, but looking back, I guess it just never occurred to me. We played every kind of honky tonk and club gig imaginable, including the Hillbilly Ranch in Boston’s notorious “combat zone” district, where Hank Williams Sr. and many other country icons had played over the years. We played gigs all throughout the area, including Jonathan Swift’s in Cambridge, Mass, Navy bases, barn dances, and anywhere they would have us.

Musically, I was in uncharted territory in more ways than one. Sleepy was known as the “Human Jukebox,” a well deserved nickname, and he had literally thousands of songs ready to go. He didn’t like to rehearse, and there were no charts or set lists. It was simply “follow me wherever I go, and be ready for anything.” The initial challenge for me was that coming from mostly a rock and jazz background, I knew very few of the songs that made up his huge repertoire, ranging from Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley to Elvis, Ernest Tubb and Johnny Cash, and little idea of what to play. Thankfully, I had mostly learned to play the bass by ear, with a little early formal training and was eager to learn. Before long, the songs began to sink in. Sleepy was somewhat patient with me, but if I was not playing the right part he could also be a bit intimidating. He would turn his guitar up loud, playing the right bass line and glare at me until I figured it out! I was a quick learner and those moments happened less and less as I began to understand and absorb the different styles he was so proficient in.

Over the next 9 months, I got one of the best educations possible in American roots music first hand. Sleepy was best known as a rockabilly artist, but his range was much wider than any one category could contain. He was an Americana artist before there was such a genre, and loved to mix things up. Country, blues, rock and roll, and gospel were all part of his sound. He would create long, unpredictable medleys on the spot that kept the dancers on the floor until they were ready to collapse. If he thought a song wasn’t working, he would simply stop on a dime in the middle of a song, change course, kick into something else and expect us - and the dancers - to follow, and we did!

Our band, Clete, Joe, and myself, known as “The Sun Sound,” would open each set with 15 -20 minutes before bringing up Sleepy, and before long, Sleepy had me singing songs I never could have imagined a few months before, such as “Behind Closed Doors” and “Fire on the Mountain.” I was far from a country singer, but I did my best and nobody seemed to be concerned that I had no twang whatsoever. Pretty soon, he also figured out that I would gladly take a bass solo if given the chance, and he started throwing me some of the most bizarre solo opportunities ever. Songs like Hank Williams Sr.’s “Turn Back the Years,” Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” and Ernest Tubb’s “Waltz Across Texas,” suddenly became vehicles for melodic bass explorations. Sleepy seemed to get a kick out of it, and I did too. I remember that I bought a flanger and he would come over to my side of the stage and stomp on it, and I could do nothing but smile and play a bunch of crazy stuff, and Sleepy seemed to enjoy pushing my limits. Bass solos in country music? I wouldn’t have predicted that, but somehow he made it all work. He was a great entertainer with an instinctive knowledge of what people would want to hear, and we mixed it up all night long. No two gigs were ever the same, and we had a lot of fun.

Sleepy also had a very strong spiritual side, and we spoke a lot about that as we traveled around the Northeast, and he awakened an awareness in me of the importance of understanding that music and life are gifts, and are bigger than any of us. His firsthand knowledge of the elements that created rock and roll was genuine, and through him, I became aware of artists like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who was one of the first to mix gospel, electric guitar and rock and roll rhythms. He covered several of her songs over the years, and every now and then onstage, he would explode into high energy gospel rave up mode and the spirit spoke through him loud and clear. Those moments were always special and unpredictable. Another example of his encyclopedic knowledge, he is the only person I have ever heard sing the nearly lost second verse of “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.” When Willie Nelson recorded it, he omitted it in favor of a guitar solo, but Sleepy always sang that beautiful extra verse, which I still remember to this day - “Now my hair has turned to silver, and all my life I’ve loved in vain. But I can see her star in heaven, Blue Eyes Cryin’ in the Rain.” Today, I can see his star in heaven shining bright.

After being away from Nashville for nearly a year, I began to recognize that Music City was calling to me in the distance, and knew that I really needed to get back there if I was going to move up the ladder of the music business. My time with Sleepy was hard work, but it was also fun and extremely educational, more than I realized at the time. My ear training and knowledge of roots music, song structure, and bass lines that I learned from him would serve me well going forward. To this day, when someone gets up on stage to play a song that I have never heard before, I’m not scared. I just turn on my radar like I did with Sleepy, watch the guitarist’s hands and listen to the melody, and play with confidence. I don’t think I could have learned that any other way. I am so grateful to him for that unique experience.

After I returned to Nashville, I stayed in touch with Sleepy and his wife Linda, who has been his rock as long as I’ve known him. He would occasionally come to Nashville to play a show and I would always try to go, and would always get me up to play a few tunes. We had a 60th Birthday celebration show at the Ace of Clubs in 1995, which was a blast. He eventually returned to his native Arkansas, making his extended family a priority, and continued to record and tour until just a few months before he passed away. It always bothered me that he was not recognized by the music industry in general and Nashville in particular. Perhaps it was because he never fit neatly into any category. Having said that, his fan base were totally dedicated and spread all over the globe. It seemed like most folks had either never heard of him, or were a huge fan. Over the years, he recorded for Columbia, Rounder, Sun, and other labels, but never had a hit. His recording of “Blackland Farmer” on Columbia in the late 60s went to #41 and that was the closest he came to a hit single. He played the Opry in 1966 and 1968, and I always hoped that someday he would get to play it again, but sadly, that never happened.

In 2012, I had an opportunity to bring Sleepy to Nashville for a Leadership Music studio event, and we set up in RCA B and recorded a dozen or so tunes in a couple of hours in front of a small audience of industry professionals. We scheduled a show at Douglas Corner the night before the session as a warm up for the studio session. I decided that we should film the show and the session as well for posterity and see what we could come up with. The band was composed of Kenny Vaughan on guitar, Rick Lonow on drums, and Gene Dunlap, a 50 year collaborator with Sleepy, on piano, and myself. My son Seth is a filmmaker, and he and I turned the resulting footage into the documentary film, “Sleepy LaBeef Rides Again.”

The film is a combination of live concert footage with four segments of interviews and commentary, explaining what makes Sleepy so unique. Acclaimed music journalist Peter Guralnick, who profiled Sleepy in his book, “Lost Highway,” which he was researching and writing when I was playing with Sleepy around Boston in 1977, was one of those interviewed for the film. His comments really hit home and gave the movie some extra sincerity gravitas. It was released on DVD (and the soundtrack on CD) by my label, Earwave Records, and received many excellent reviews, and was shown at the Nashville Film Festival and the Little Rock Film Festival. I was just glad that we were able to capture some of the magic of his live performances, and that it generated some money for he and Linda, who have been so good to me.

Sleepy was invited to play the Americana Festival in 2015, and he brought down the house at the Station Inn. His final recording was for a Starday Records tribute project with Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives in 2016. The last time I saw him was in late 2018, when he was playing a show at the Hey Hey Club in Columbus, Ohio. He asked me up to sit in and it was just like old times. He had lost some weight and perhaps a little of his energy, but he still had the goods. Sleepy had been dealing with various health issues for some time, but in 2019 the decline in his health began to accelerate. He passed away peacefully on December 26, 2019 at home at the age of 84, surrounded by his family. His legacy will live on, and he may be appreciated more now than he was in his lifetime. I can truly say he was a completely unique artist who had a huge influence and effect on me. Thank you Sleepy for the music you gave the world, and for the lessons you taught me.

Dave Pomeroy