Sleepy LaBeef, the veteran rockabilly performer whose musical career spanned more than 60 years, died on Thursday at the age of 84.
A Facebook post from the singer’s family confirmed the news. “He died at home, in his own bed, surrounded by his family who loved him, and whom he dearly loved. He lived a full and vibrant life, filled with the excitement of much travel and experience, the contentment that came from being able to spend his life doing what he loved best, and the fulfilling love of his wife, children, and grandchildren around him,” says the post from December 26th. No cause of death was given.
Born Thomas Paulsley LaBeff in Smackover, Arkansas, LaBeef earned the nickname “Sleepy” because of the appearance of his eyes. Beginning in the late Fifties, he released a series of rockabilly singles (many under the name “Sleepy LaBeff”) for Starday, Mercury, and Columbia, scoring minor hits with tracks like the more country-flavored “Every Day” and “Blackland Farmer.” He moved to a revived Sun Records, which had played a crucial role in popularizing the rockabilly sound, in the Seventies, and in the Eighties released a handful of albums for the roots-minded Rounder Records.
LaBeef kept a busy touring schedule up through the present, playing roots-music festivals in Europe as well as dates in the United States. In August, he was among the performers at Blues to Bop 2019 in Switzerland. His live shows continued to be a draw for fans, offering a high-octane mix of his originals and covers from his extensive repertoire, delivered fast and loud and sung in his signature booming voice.
Befitting his cult-hero status, the towering LaBeef was also cast as “The Swamp Thing” in the 1968 B-movie The Exotic Ones. In 2013, LaBeef was featured in the documentary/concert film Sleepy LaBeef Rides Again, filmed in Nashville and produced by bassist Dave Pomeroy. His most recent album of original recordings was 2008’s Roots, a stripped-down collection of songs that shaped his approach to music.