Sleepy LaBeef, a Rockabilly Mainstay, Is Dead at 84


Sleepy LaBeef, an early and enduring rockabilly artist who helped fuel a resurgence of that genre in the 1970s and ’80s, especially with his propulsive live shows, died on Thursday at his home in Siloam Springs, Ark. He was 84.

His daughter Jessie Mae Lynn LaBeff confirmed his death. A cause was not given.

In 1991, at which point Mr. LaBeef was 35 years into his musical career, The New York Times called him “a living, breathing, guitar-picking history of American music.” He claimed to know 6,000 songs and played, as he put it at the time, “root music: old-time rock ’n’ roll, Southern gospel and hand-clapping music, black blues, Hank Williams-style country.”

Elvis Presley was a contemporary (six months older), and, like Presley, Mr. LaBeef made his first records in the 1950s. He was living in Texas at the time, recording on small labels there, but in the mid-1960s he moved to Nashville. Eventually he signed with Presley’s original label, Sun Records.

In the 1970s and ’80s Mr. LaBeef maintained a particularly exhausting touring schedule — 200 to 300 shows a year — playing clubs all over the United States and also finding surprising success in Europe, which embraced rockabilly.

“He has played bullrings in Portugal in Spain,” The Boston Globe wrote in 1983, “music halls in Germany, Italy and England, and a festival in Finland within earshot of the Soviet Union.”

He continued to record and perform until recently, working a rich basso profundo voice and an onstage versatility that made each show unique. He made a point of adjusting his sets to the mood of his audience, throwing in more blues, or more upbeat rock, or whatever, as needed.

“I don’t plan anything,” he told the music writer Peter Guralnick, who devoted a chapter to him in his book “Lost Highway: Journeys and Arrivals of American Musicians” (1979). “It’s all trial and error, I guess. If the first two or three things don’t work, then we just move around and try something else.”

Bobby Rich, one of many drummers who backed him, once said, “Every night he’ll play songs I’ve never heard, and I follow the best I can.”

Credit…Sleepy LaBeef and Bear Family Records

Thomas Paulsley LaBeff was born on July 20, 1935, in Smackover, Ark. “Sleepy” was bestowed upon him by schoolmates because of his droopy eyelids; “LaBeef” was the later suggestion of one of his early record companies.

He was the youngest of 10 children. His father, Charles, was a farmer who later worked the oil fields, and his mother, Jessie (Coke) LaBeff, was a homemaker.

He said his upbringing in the United Pentecostal Church was his strongest musical influence. He left school in eighth grade. At 14, according to “Lost Highway,” he traded a rifle to his brother-in-law for a guitar, and soon he was playing in church.

He moved to Houston at 18 for a land surveyor job and in 1954 married Louise Barstow. The two of them sang in gospel groups around town. Hearing Presley’s first Sun records, recorded in 1954, was a revelation.

“I said: ‘Hey, this is crazy. This is what I’m singing,’” he told The Boston Globe in 1983. “Except he was singing blues lyrics and country lyrics with the same gospel beat I was using.”

Mr. LaBeef switched to secular music and began playing and recording in Texas, work that caught the interest of Columbia Records in Nashville, which signed him in 1964. By the end of the decade he had switched to the Plantation label. He had also managed an unusual career detour: He acted in a low-budget 1968 movie called “The Exotic Ones,” also marketed under the title “The Monster and the Stripper.” The plot: Hunters capture a swamp monster and exhibit it at a strip club. Mr. LaBeef, who was an imposing 6-foot-6, played the monster.

Mr. LaBeef never had what would be considered a hit record, though “Every Day,” a 1968 Columbia single, and “Blackland Farmer,” released by Plantation in 1971, briefly made the country charts. His albums for Sun included “Western Gold” (1976) and “Downhome Rockabilly” (1979). He also released albums on Rounder and other labels.

But he was always defined more by his performances than by his recordings. The vast repertoire, he said, came naturally.

“I don’t know why,” he said, “I used to just listen to a song twice on the jukebox, and I’d have it.”

In addition to living in Arkansas, Texas and Tennessee, Mr. LaBeef spent a stretch of years in Massachusetts — the result, as he told the story, of a disastrous road trip. Heading out of Maine, bound for a show at Alan’s Fifth Wheel Lounge in Amesbury, Mass., on New Year’s Day 1977, his tour bus caught fire.

His clothes and many other possessions were destroyed, though the bus was somehow still operable enough that he made it to Amesbury and played the show. The club’s owners offered him a room and an open-ended booking. He stayed in Amesbury for years before returning to Arkansas.

It was at the Fifth Wheel that Mr. Guralnick, who lived nearby, first went with a friend to see Mr. LaBeef.

“I had traveled thousands of miles to hear music like this, played in just this kind of setting,” he wrote, “and as Sleepy ran through what must have been a typical set (featuring everything from Muddy Waters to Webb Pierce to Elvis Presley and Little Richard), I turned to my friend, whose expression mirrored my own, and we both silently asked the question: Could this be for real?”

Mr. LaBeef’s first marriage ended in divorce, as did his second marriage, to Oquita Richards. In 1978 he married Linda Sharon Cerny, who survives him, as do his daughter Jessie and three other daughters, Melody Burns, Melinda LaBeff and Tomie LaBeff; a son, Robert Jordan Spencer; 12 grandchildren; and a number of great-grandchildren, nieces, nephews and cousins.

In 2013, returning to Houston for a show, Mr. LaBeef told The Houston Chronicle that he was still occasionally adding songs to his repertoire, though he was wary of sending fans home disappointed that they hadn’t heard their favorites.

“I know so many, and people want to hear this or that,” he said. “They almost make the program up for me. But I like good music no matter where it comes from.”

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