Sleepy LaBeef isn't really sleepy.
By Michael Machosky, Tribune-Review, August 31, 2006
He isn't even tired, despite a touring schedule that began back in the '50s, opening for the likes
of Elvis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison - and has barely slowed down since.
Actually, he's known for his tight, energetic stage show. But one look at the heavy-lidded gentle
giant of rockabilly, and you see how he got the name. Actually, "LaBeef" fits the big guy even
better than "Sleepy" does. By now, he knows how to handle the rigors of the road.
"You have to rest, and eat proper food - which I sometimes overdo," says LaBeef, a headliner at
this week's Johnstown FolkFest. "We have energy because we love what we do. That gets the adrenaline
going for you. I was always taught by the old-timers, give your best to the audience. Don't cheat
'em, and they'll return."
Rockabilly - the dangerous intersection of rhythm and blues and country western in the Deep South
of the '50s - was one of the first forms of rock and roll. It's got a thumping, danceable backbeat,
and was the soundtrack to a rebellious new America, putting squares everywhere on notice.
Now, rockabilly is an anachronism. It undergoes periodic revivals, most recently by punk rockers
like The Cramps and Reverend Horton Heat. But in other parts of the world, it's still the definitive
American culture for many.
"Since 1979 we've been going to Europe," LaBeef says. "In America, what we have, we can take for
granted. Over there, they remember the '50s. They still play Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent, Fats Domino,
Hank Williams. That's good -- they count it a privilege to get to participate in it."
LaBeef's booming baritone is amazing - it's warm and earthy, like early Johnny Cash in his rare
joyful moments. But he's still best known for performing other people's songs.
"There's so many great writers out there," LaBeef says. "I'm more or less an interpreter. I'd rather
leave the good writing to the good writers. ... Willie Nelson writes 'em and sings 'em too. That's a
pretty good talent if you can do it. So many writers are better than I could do it. So I just pick
the good songs and try to do them the best I can."
When he finds a song he wants, like Hank Williams' "The Blues Come Around" or the gospel standard
"Will The Circle Be Unbroken," look out. "It kind of puts the chills on you," LaBeef says. "You'll
know when it's a song you have to do."
In a career where he's opened for everyone from blues kingpin Muddy Waters to gospel queen Mahalian
Jackson, hard-bitten country outlaw George Jones to The King himself, LaBeef never saw it as
competition. Unlike Jerry Lee Lewis, he wasn't trying to blow anyone offstage.
"No, that's not really what it's all about. You're supposed to be giving of yourself, do the best
you can do and give it to the audience. They know when you're real, it's hard to fool 'em."
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