Born July 20, 1935, Sleepy Labeef grew up on a melon farm across the Arkansas state line, but headed for Texas as soon as he turned 18 in 1953.
“I’d heard a lot of good things about Texas, and I just wanted to see something different,” says the 80-year old, 6’6” rockabilly godfather. “I stayed in Houston ten years and it treated me pretty good.”
Affectionately known as The Bull for his revved-up shows and manic stage presence; and as The Human Jukebox for his encyclopedic 6,000-song repertoire, LaBeef [born Thomas Paulsley LaBeff] tried Beaumont, but his talent was too big. Within months, he found himself gigging in Houston.
“Hal Harris was a local disc jockey who promoted a lot of shows around Houston,” explains LaBeef, the 25th artist inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. “He booked me a few gigs and they went well, so I figured I’d move to Houston. There was so much going on there.”
With his combination of foot-stompin’, hand-clapping Pentecostal gospel background and his mastery of country, blues and what he describes as “East Texas hillbilly boogie,” LaBeef arrived in the Bayou City in 1954 with the perfect set of tools just in time to catch the birth of rock and roll and rockabilly.
“Rockabilly was a term that didn’t last long at first,” he recalls. “At first, people would just say ‘that’s just rock and roll and hillbilly combined,’ and they started calling it rockabilly. A lot of it was just that hambone lick Bo Diddley does. But by 1957 or so, the rockabilly fad was pretty much over until it was revived much later in the eighties.”
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KIKK wheel Hal Harris began booking LaBeef at the Houston Jamboree, a huge weekly event held in the old City Auditorium, and at Magnolia Gardens, the storied Pasadena venue near the Ship Channel. There, he shared several bills with Elvis Presley.
“Hal would book some hot local acts like me, George Jones [and] Sonny Burns, and we’d all do 30 minutes,” recalls Labeef. “Then Elvis, Scotty [Moore] and Bill [Black] would do their thing. Those shows would pack ’em in.”
According to LaBeef, Houston was an important spot for Presley in his early days.
“Those guys would drive down from Memphis or Shreveport if they played the [Louisiana] Hayride and play the Jamboree, then catch Magnolia Gardens, and maybe a gig at the Pleasure Pier in Galveston or something in Beaumont,” LaBeef explains. “They were getting $300 a night, and back then a motel room was $7, coffee was a nickel, beers were 25 cents, a plate lunch was 45 cents, gas was 18 cents a gallon. So if they caught three or four gigs, they could go home with three or four hundred dollars each. That was good money for musicians then. And that was one thing musicians knew – Houston had money.”
It was around 1955 when LaBeef met a young Willie Nelson.
“Willie stayed in Pasadena not to far from where I lived when he’d come down, and he had a reel-to-reel recorder, so we’d meet up and record his songs,” LaBeef says. “I’d play bass and Willie would do the guitar and the singing. I’ve got an old tape around here somewhere with at least four songs Willie wrote that have never been cut.”
LaBeef also recalls playing bills with Johnny Cash early in his career, also at Magnolia Gardens.
“He’d just hit with “Cry, Cry, Cry” and “Hey, Porter,” and was starting to get pretty well known,” says LaBeef, who remembers Cash as shy and introverted offstage. “He didn’t talk much. He was very inhibited.”
By 1957, LaBeef was becoming a pretty big deal in the Houston area and was playing the Louisiana Hayride when he came to the attention of Pappy Daily, legendary founder of Houston’s Starday Records and Glad Publishing. LaBeef cut his first single for Starday, “I’m Through” b/w “All Alone” at Bill Quinn’s Gold Star Studio (now SugarHill).
“I was living in Pasadena and KCRT, which later became KIKK, was located there and they gave me some good airplay,” LaBeef recalls. “Me and some other guys were also booking our own shows at the Civic Center. We could rent that room for $7 a night, so we’d charge 25 cents cover. All we had to do was clean it up afterwards. And we’d draw some huge crowds.”
He cut a few more sides for Starday/Mercury after Daily made a deal to combine with the larger Nashville label. But hit-maker George Jones became Daily’s primary focus and LaBeef eventually drifted to other Houston labels, cutting ferocious sides like “Ride On, Josephine,” “Drink Up and Go,” “Found Out,” and “Turn Me Loose” for Wayside, Dixie, Gulf, Picture, Crescent, and Bill Finnegan’s Finn Records. Still, he wasn’t making much career headway, but the kind hand of fate was about to reach out to LaBeef.
“My piano player was Ray 'Wildman' Liberto,” LaBeef explains. “His sister was Vivian Liberto, Johnny Cash’s first wife from San Antone.”
Cash was a rising star on Columbia Records, working under legendary English-born executive Don Law.
“The rockabilly thing was winding down and we didn’t seem to be getting anywhere after working Houston pretty hard for ten years, and I think Ray may have asked Johnny to put a bug in Don Law’s ear to check us out. I was working a show at the Wayside Lounge one night and the waitress came up and said someone named Don Law wanted to talk to me on the phone.
“I thought ‘yeah, right,’ that it was someone playing a joke on me,” LaBeef laughs. “But it was Don Law and he made an appointment to meet the next week for an audition.”
They assembled at Bill Quinn’s studio. Young Kenny Rogers played slap-bass on the session.
“Kenny had his fingertips taped up with white medical tape and Don Law asked him what that was about,” remembers LaBeef. “Kenny said, ‘Have you ever played bass when Sleepy does one of his medleys? Well, when gets going, it’s not just two or three songs. You can work up a nice blood blister if you don’t have tape’.
“And, of course,” LaBeef laughs, “We finished that audition with a ten-song medley. But I guess it worked.”
By late 1964 LaBeef had moved to Nashville and cut his first sides for Columbia as Law began edging him toward a country sound. In 1968, LaBeef finally charted after fourteen years in the business with “Every Day,” which reached No. 73 on the Billboard country chart. But fate was about to smite LaBeef hard. Columbia suddenly dropped 100 acts, including LaBeef, in a major house-cleaning. He moved on the Plantation Records, where he scored his biggest hit in 1971, an up-tempo remake of Frankie Miller’s “Black Land Farm,” which peaked at No. 67.
When legendary producer Shelby Singleton revived Sun Records in the mid-Seventies, LaBeef was one of the first acts he signed but nothing he cut for Sun saw much action and LaBeef virtually disappeared from the U.S. music scene, although he almost simultaneously saw an upswing in his popularity in Europe. He has played the Wembley festival twice and continues to tour in Europe three or four times a year.
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After years of obscurity, Boston Globe journalist Peter Guralnick found LaBeef playing a residency in a small club in Massachusetts in 1977. His glowing piece on LaBeef helped bring him to the attention of Rounder Records, who signed him in 1981 during a rockabilly revival. He recorded notable albums with Rounder into the late Nineties.
Living back near his birthplace in Smackover, Ark., LaBeef remains in good health and good voice and plays 100 dates a year. He last visited Houston for a January 2013 Continental Club date.
“I used to do 300 dates a year, but I’ve slowed down a bit,” the gentle giant demurs. He reveals he quit smoking a decade ago — “I was just a casual smoker, but I just decided to quit it” — and noted he never drank or did drugs. Asked for the secret to his good health and vigor, he laughs.
“I eat a lot. And I always have a good time. I like playing music, I like playing for people. When you get up on that stage, it’s supposed to be fun. If it’s not fun, you’re in the wrong line of work.”