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PAPER TRAILS: Fans bid a farewell to LaBeef

by Sean Clancy | December 29, 2019 at 9:10 a.m.
Sean Clancy, Paper Trails columnist

It's a gray, drizzly Friday morning in downtown Little Rock and I've spent the past two hours streaming Sleepy LaBeef's Columbia Singles, The Door to Sleepy LaBeef -- 30 Rockabilly Revival Greats and Sleepy LaBeef -- 16 Tons of Cowboy Classics.

LaBeef, who was born Thomas Paulsley LaBeff in Smackover, died Thursday of natural causes in Siloam Springs. He was 84. A post on the Facebook page run by his family says he "died at home, in his own bed, surrounded by his family who loved him and whom he dearly loved."

He was one of the last links to the first wave of rock 'n' roll. His rich baritone added a good-natured charm to classics like "You Can't Catch Me," "Milk Cow Blues," "Mystery Train," "Poke Salad Annie" and "Good Rockin' Boogie."

LaBeef was the youngest of 10 children and got the name Sleepy because his heavy-lidded eyes made him look half-awake, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. He was big, standing at well over 6 feet tall and weighing more than 260 pounds.

He moved to Houston, when he was 18 and sang gospel on local radio stations (Sister Rosetta Tharpe of Cotton Plant was a big musical influence). He signed with Columbia in 1964, and in 1968 was picked up by the revamped Sun Records, scoring a minor hit with "Blackland Farmer" in 1971.

I first learned of LaBeef in 1988 from Peter Guralnick's invaluable 1979 book, Lost Highway: Journeys and Arrivals of American Musicians.

LaBeef was living in New England and playing at a honky tonk called Alan's Truckstop in Amesbury, Mass., when an awestruck Guralnick first saw him.

"I had traveled thousands of miles to hear music like this, played in just this kind of setting," Guralnick 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 ... and we both silently asked the question: could this be for real?"

LaBeef, who had a vast repertoire of songs, kept performing even into this year.

Johnny Cash and Charlie Rich were well-known early Arkansas rockers, but there were also rockabilly pioneers like Billy Lee Riley of Pocahontas, Mack Self of Helena and Sonny Burgess of Newport.

They've all passed on, and Sleepy LaBeef now joins them. Somewhere surely there will be some good rockin' tonight.

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