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APPRECIATION

Remembering Sleepy LaBeef, the rockabilly road warrior who embraced Boston

Sleepy LaBeef died Dec. 26 in his native Arkansas. He played his last area show here in 2016.
Sleepy LaBeef died Dec. 26 in his native Arkansas. He played his last area show here in 2016.Bear Family Records

Sleepy LaBeef touched many lives around New England. He was a larger-than-life, 6-foot-6, 265-pound rockabilly singer with an Arkansas drawl and a global mind-set who played everywhere from hole-in-the-wall roadhouses to chic clubs to 20,000-capacity bull rings in Spain, where his his thunderous, roots-rocking guitar boogie often made him more successful than in the United States. He never had a hit record, and it always seemed ironic that an Arkansas pig farmer could have such a global reach, but he did it with stubborn determination and an outsize talent that endured for decades.

Sleepy, who died the day after Christmas at age 84 in his home in Arkansas, had a particular bond with Boston. We were his home away from home. He was one of the first acts I ever wrote about when he played the Coast Guard club in the North End in the mid-'70s. He had a trailer hitch on his car that said “Sun Records,” indicating the Memphis label where Elvis Presley got his start in the ’50s. I was hooked, especially after he told a story about sharing a bill with Elvis and loaning him an acoustic guitar that came back wildly scratched up from Elvis’s belt buckle. “He owes me a guitar!” Sleepy said.

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Throughout the years, as I moved from Globe freelancer to staff music critic, I saw him perform dozens of times, many of them breathless evenings that made you realize the primal lure of no-frills rock ‘n’ roll. “People who started rockabilly music were influenced by country and hillbilly, and black music and gospel. This combination made rockabilly,” he told me. He particularly loved Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a fellow Arkansas native who played in churches and in bars, reaching dynamic highs in each. “She played hot guitar, whether you call it gospel, rock, or whatever,” he said.

Sleepy (born Thomas Paulsley LaBeff) often lived around Boston when he wasn’t overseas or mellowing at his Arkansas farm where he raised pigs and goats. “You could call it my hobby,” he said of that venture. He used to park his motor home next to Alan’s Truck Stop in Amesbury, where he regularly performed. He drew grizzled truckers staying at the truck stop’s motel for the night, as well as eager Boston rockers looking to get a taste of the real thing, notably when the Lyres (a staple of Boston’s punk scene) joined him to play at breakneck speed one night. I wish there were YouTube footage of that show because it was special.

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But he didn’t just let anybody sit in, as he noted before his last local show at Johnny D’s in Somerville three years ago. He pushed me onstage to introduce him, and I shared a story he had just revealed about the bygone Hillbilly Ranch in Park Square (where Navy sailors and Beacon Hill socialites often shimmied side by side on a corral-shaped dance floor).

“I learn something new every time I talk to Sleepy,” I told the Johnny D’s crowd. “Tonight, Sleepy said at the Hillbilly Ranch this guy came in who was pretty famous at the time, and he wanted to sit in. He later found out his name was Meat Loaf [who was selling millions of albums at the time]. But Sleepy said, ‘I didn’t know this guy, so I didn’t want him to sit in.’ ”

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It wasn’t easy to play with Sleepy. He seemed to have three gears — fast, faster, and fastest. He never rehearsed and he expected his band to simply follow along. He confided he had run through nearly 300 backup musicians through the years. He didn’t write his own songs but said he knew 6,000 tunes. (I saw his songbooks and there were no musical notations in them, just song titles!) He would belt them out in customized, half-hour club medleys that might move from Hank Williams to Bo Diddley, Bob Wills, Little Richard, Chuck Berry (especially “Too Much Monkey Business”), Johnny Cash and Elvis, notably “Mystery Train” and “Baby, Let’s Play House.” Oh, and maybe Leadbelly’s “Cotton Fields,” Tharpe’s “Strange Things Happening Every Day,” and Tony Joe White’s “Polk Salad Annie.” His range was astonishing and his energy nonstop as he melted dance floors into sweat and white-flag surrender. And some nights he would even pick up a fiddle and rip through country-folk oldies like “Rocky Top” and “Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms.” You had to be there to believe it.

Sleepy was noticeably frail at that last Johnny D’s gig. He had endured bypass surgery and had other heart issues, according to his wife, Linda, who said in a phone call this week that he’d also been diagnosed with lung cancer two weeks before he passed. But he rallied at Johnny D’s at that 2016 goodbye gig. He was known as the “Human Jukebox,” and that had not changed, even if he spent part of the show sitting on a stool.

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“He literally knew the lyrics to thousands of songs. This just about closes an era from the Memphis Sun yesteryear to now,” bassist Mudcat Ward posted on Facebook this week. Added Boston soul shouter Barrence Whitfield: “He is tearing it up in rock ‘n’ roll heaven now.”

A born entertainer who always seemed to be smiling and willing to greet everyone in the room, Sleepy played everywhere. That meant touring up to 300 nights a year across the United States and Europe, especially after his career was revived in the ’80s with his signing to Cambridge’s Rounder Records, where he released the albums “Electricity” and “It Ain’t What You Eat, It’s the Way How You Chew It.” He also made a live album, “Nothin’ But the Truth,” at Harpers Ferry in Allston.

He was a big man with a big voice and a prodigious appetite. I recall that Linda would cook up two sweet potato pies after the Alan’s Truck Stop shows. She and Sleepy’s guests would share one — and Sleepy would eat the other by himself.

We were lucky to have him barnstorming around New England for so long. He was one of the only acts — if not the only one — who was welcome to play punk clubs (including the gritty Chet’s Last Call in North Station), conservative country-western bars, and even rod-and-gun clubs.

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His deep baritone refrain still echoes in my ears: “Have you heard the news? We’re going to boogie-woogie tonight!” Mission accomplished, Sleepy. Thank you for the thrill ride.

Steve Morse can be reached at spmorse@gmail.com.