Thursday, January 13, 2011

1988: Sleepy LaBeef Tears the Roof Off

This concert preview appeared in the Santa Cruz Sun in February of 1988. That means that Sleepy LaBeef, is not, in fact appearing at O.T. Price's tonight. But if you're lucky, he may well be appearing in a town near you.

Bob Dylan once said that "rock'n'roll went out with Little Anthony and the Imperials," meaning it had been replaced by something called Rock. But rock'n'roll is alive and well; it's six foot six, 270 pounds, wears an enormous cowboy hat and goes by the name of Sleepy LaBeef.

Born Thomas LaBoeff in Smackover, Arkansas, 1935, he has mastered all the antecedents of the form: gospel, blues, country, soul, swing, rockabilly, and Cajun. He was there in the early Fifties when it all came together, and he's been living it ever since, 200-300 nights a year in roadside bars and honky-tonks. He played with George Jones in the Houston of their youth. He met Elvis there, and ended up on the same label, along with Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, and other proto-rockers. Sun Studios in Memphis, where these gentlemen cut their first sides, is the birthplace of the music that had been gestating across America for the past several generations.

Tonight, Sleepy rolls his 35-foot motor home into O.T. Price's parking lot. Early tomorrow morning, a roomful of blown-away music fans will stagger out, their ears ringing from his eloquent Gibson. Along with bassist Steve Bigelow, drummer Dennis Durango, and an ever-present thermos of coffee, he'll roar through a thick slice of our musical history. The man is an uncredentialed ethnomusicologist; his repertoire numbers literally in the thousands. Working without a setlist, he'll give the Sleepy treatment to anything from "Shake a Hand" to "My Toot Toot" to "These Boots are Made for Walking." No matter what the material, he makes it his own, singing with a resonant baritone as deep as the trade deficit.

If you miss this, you'll have to settle for Nothing But the Truth (Rounder 3072), recorded in a Boston barroom in 1986. His first two albums on Rounder Records, It Ain't What You Eat, It's the Way How You Chew It, (1981) and Electricity, (1983) were merely great; this one is transcendent. He starts off with a drop-dead version of Hank Ballard's "Tore Up Over You" and winds up side two with a nine-minute medley of "Jambalaya," "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," "Turn Back The Years," "Hey Good Lookin'," and "Folsom Prison Blues." Just as wild is his autobiographical rap over the chugging beat of John Lee Hooker's "Boogie Chillun." Only for Webb Pierce"s "How Do You Talk to a Baby" does the pace dip below manic-then he's off again, relentlessly. If you want to see rock'n'roll to tell your grandchildren about, this is it. If not, fine. More room for me to dance.

Sleepy LaBeef tears the roof off of O.T. Price's beginning at 8:30 tonight .

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