Sleepy LaBeef (1935–2019)
aka: Thomas Paulsley LaBeff
Sleepy LaBeef was a rockabilly musician who performed in the United States, Canada, and Europe for more than fifty years. He shared the stage with a long list of greats, including Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Kenny Rogers, and Glen Campbell. Sometimes called the Human Jukebox, he is said to have been able to play as many as 6,000 songs.
Sleepy LaBeef was born Thomas Paulsley LaBeff (the family name was originally LaBoeuf) in the oil-boom town of Smackover (Union County) on July 20, 1935, the youngest of ten children. His family owned a farm, raising livestock and growing cotton and watermelons, before selling the land to be drilled for oil. He got the nickname “Sleepy” in the first grade because of his heavy-lidded eyes that made him look only half awake. He later changed the spelling of his last name from LaBeff to LaBeef.
LaBeef said that his musical influences included what he called “root music: old-time rock-and-roll, Southern gospel and hand-clapping music, black blues, Hank Williams-style country” and, referring to his upbringing on a farm, “The original inspiration for real soul singin’ is between the cotton rows, pullin’ watermelons and puttin’ ’em on the truck.”
When he was fourteen, LaBeef traded a rifle to his brother-in-law for a guitar and taught himself how to play. At the age of eighteen, he moved to Houston, Texas, working for the highway department during the day and playing in clubs at night. After recording with a series of independent labels, he was signed by Columbia Records in 1964 and moved to Nashville, Tennessee. He then signed as the only artist with the reactivated Memphis, Tennessee, rockabilly label Sun Records in 1968, garnering a minor country hit with “Blackland Farmer” in 1971. In 1977, his tour bus (which had “Sun Recording Artist” painted on the side) caught fire on the Maine Turnpike, destroying most of his possessions but for some guitars he rescued. He settled in New England after the fire, leading the house band at Alan’s Fifth Wheel Lounge in Amesbury, Massachusetts. Although he signed with Rounder Records in 1979 and remained based in New England, his tour bus in the 1990s had “Sun Sound” painted on the side, still paying homage to his past with the legendary label of Elvis Presley.
Known primarily as a performer and an interpreter of songs, LaBeef did not have widespread success as a recording artist or songwriter. While he had several notable albums, including Nothin’ But the Truth (1987), I’ll Never Lay My Guitar Down (1996), Tomorrow Never Comes (2000), and Sleepy Rocks (2008), he always responded most to the spontaneous nature of live shows with appreciative audiences. He toured nearly nonstop all his professional life, aside from the months he spent filming the 1968 movie The Exotic Ones (also known as The Monster and the Stripper); at six-foot-six and more than 250 pounds, he was cast in the role of the swamp monster.
His first wife was a woman named Louise, with whom he performed gospel songs when he lived in Houston in the 1950s; they had two daughters. He and his wife Linda (who was also his manager) had three daughters, and he had a son from another relationship.
Despite having to undergo heart surgery in 2003, LaBeef maintained an active touring schedule. A concert/documentary film Sleepy LaBeef Rides Again was released in 2012. LaBeef was the twenty-fifth inductee into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.
LaBeef died on December 26, 2019.
For additional information:
Beuttler, Bill. “Sleepy LaBeef.” Downbeat (October 1987): 14.
Guralnick, Peter. “Sleepy LaBeef: There’s Still Good Rockin’ Tonight.” In Rockabilly: The Twang Heard ’Round the World—An Illustrated History, edited by Michael Dregni. Minneapolis, MN: Voyageur Press, 2011.
Schoemer, Karen. “Sleepy LaBeef’s Living History Lesson.” New York Times, March 8, 1991, http://www.nytimes.com/1991/03/08/arts/pop-jazz-sleepy-labeef-s-living-history-lesson.html (accessed December 26, 2019).
“Sleepy LaBeef.” Rockabilly Hall of Fame. http://www.rockabillyhall.com/SleepyLB1.html (accessed December 26, 2019).
Vowell, Sarah. “The Lost Highway’s Road Warrior.” GQ (January 1998): 59–60.
CALS Encyclopedia of Arkansas
Last Updated: 03/25/2020