When I was in college, a roommate of mine gave me the nickname “Sleepy LaBeef” after I fell asleep eating a Steak & Cheese sandwich while watching a ‘90s TV drama (to protect myself, I won’t name the show)…(okay, it was “Dawson’s Creek”…please don’t judge). Later, he informed me that he didn’t come up with the nickname himself. He had watched an artist with the same name perform a couple of weekends prior in Southern Maine and he hadn’t stopped thinking of the name since. I checked out the music of Sleepy LaBeef and loved it. Now, he’s scheduled to make his first appearance at the American Folk Festival on the Bangor Waterfront later this month, and I couldn’t be more excited!
Sleepy LaBeef is among the most decorated Rockabilly artists of this generation. Although, if you ask him about his music, he will say that it is much more than just Rockabilly.
“I call it American Roots. It covers R&B, Bluegrass, a little bit of folk music,” said LaBeef. “I don’t think I have to be in one rut, but you can tell what origin the flavor is coming from.”
Unlike me, Sleepy LaBeef received his nickname as the result of a lazy eye. LaBeef, who just turned 80, has lived his life on stage and released records in six different decades on a variety of labels including Starday Records, Sun Records, Rounder Records, and Columbia Records. He has been an admitted influence to such a variety of people as Brian Setzer, Bruce Springsteen, and the Beatles, and has shared bills with musical greats ranging from Elvis to Roy Orbison.
“I was in New Hampshire performing ahead of Willy Nelson,” recalled LaBeef. “All of a sudden the power went out. Willie came out and said don’t worry about it…they haven’t paid me my money yet. When they pay me the power will come back on.”
LaBeef seems to have a catalog of interesting stories and interactions from his decades of work and success on the road.
“Buddy Holly was on the same show at the Houston Collesium with Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, and others,” recalled LaBeef. “I had a three-piece group so we didn’t need a whole lot of electrical stuff for the instruments. We lost the power in the middle of our show. So I walked back stage and asked what happened with the power. The stage guy said I don’t know, but one of Buddy Holly’s people unplugged you. Maybe they thought we were getting a little loud, but I had a better bass player than he did.”
LaBeef’s vast career highlights include performances on “Louisiana Hay Ride” – a radio and TV show that ran from 1948 – 1960 and is credited with launching the careers of some of the greatest names in music. He has also performed at the Grand Ole Opry and Austin City Limits. He was inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame in 2003. But according to LaBeef, the biggest highlights are his live performances.
“The high spots are touring and playing live to the people,” said LaBeef. “That’s as much fun as any of those other things.”
Performing about 200 dates a year, LaBeef is no stranger to Maine, although his 2015 performance will be his first at the American Folk Festival.
“I have been to Bangor several times over the past 30 years. In fact, I had a bus burn up one time just outside of Bangor,” said LaBeef. “I had to regroup! The next night we were in Amesbury, MA.”
Despite that, Sleepy LaBeef is looking forward to returning to Bangor and creating new memories and friendships.
“We love to be entertained and will get the chance to meet a lot of new people and make some new friends. We’ll have a good time performing and reacquainting with others.”