Remembering Sleepy LaBeef

Switchback and friends from the Hey Hey with Sleepy at his last show at FitzGerald’s, Berwyn IL. Left to right, Becky Dill, Mike Weilbacher, Marty, Sleepy, Brian, Tim Gall and Sue Gall.

Dear Friends of Switchback, 

He was a mountain of a man, the sort of person you naturally had to look up to.  And, he was the real deal when it came to music. Sleepy LaBeef was one of the last of his kind, a genuine honky tonk, club circuit cowboy.  With a deep resonating voice, he would hold court over a room, his band barely keeping up with the frenetic pace of his changing setlist. To watch Sleepy La Beef play was like watching a show that was something out of the tube amped past. The sort of show that was to music what Evel Knievel was to car driving, you stood there thinking “Is he gonna make it?” and somehow Sleepy would jump over 27 songs with his band in close pursuit. 

For Brian and myself, we had the good fortune one night to arrive at FitzGerald’s and see Sleepy play.  Good fortune on a lot of fronts, for not only did we meet Sleepy, but we met his loyal fans and supporters from the Hey Hey Club in Columbus, Ohio.  Those friends became our friends and it could be argued that Sleepy was the superglue.  

That night became the sort of magical moment that musicians live for.  Sleepy, as it turned out, was having some trouble with his bass player.  What exactly that trouble was anybody’s guess, but the bass player wasn’t around.   A film crew was on hand to capture his show at FitzGerald’s for a documentary on his life.   Never one to pass up a musician to join him on stage, Sleepy right away made me his bass player for the evening and Brian his back up guitarist.  That was all well and good, except that the only bass guitar on hand was a five string bass, which was something I never touched until that very moment.  And, the other issue was that we had no idea what the songs were, what the keys would be and what order anything was going to happen. The film crew looked at the band, looked at Sleepy and sure enough, we started in.  Probably one of the most intense, sweat-filled moments of my life. To be filmed and recorded on something you never played doing something you never did with someone you really respected. Sort of like having a Wallenda hand you a pole and say, “hey, try this, the crowd is gonna eat you up!”  

It was pure Sleepy.  I remember coming down shakily from the stage, hoping that there was something in the recordings that resembled bass playing.  Sleepy was nonplussed, in fact, thrilled that the Switchback boys, as he called us, were up on stage with him.  

I thought that meeting with Sleepy was a rule musician experience.  But it paled in comparison to a double concert with Sleepy at the Hey Hey and then on to FitzGerald’s for the American Music Festival.  Sleepy’s band had changed to an ensemble that I wasn’t exactly familiar with. I met Jerry, who played drums and was the band manager. And Jimmy, who played the bass.  Their set was an amazing non-stop delivery of the history of rock n’ roll in no chronological order. If Sleepy did stop, then someone would yell out a song and Sleepy would chuckle, and launch right into it.  The band would surge along, always with about two measures of them trying to find out what Sleepy was playing and what key it could possibly be in. Jimmy had his eye on some lady friend and that even made the whole evening better, as that distraction caused palpable tension between him, Jerry the band manager and Sleepy.  The show ended and after much celebrating, I finally found a place to sleep on the kitchen floor in Sue Gall’s apartment across the street. It was fine to sleep there as Jerry was asleep and Jimmy was nowhere to be found. So the number of people stepping over my body was limited to Brian.

About 4:30 in the morning, Jerry stepped over me.  

“Mahty?” Jerry said in that light southern drawl.

“Mahty? You awake?” he asked. 

I wasn’t until then. 

“Yeah?” I replied with the sound of a guy who had been sleeping on a kitchen floor. 

“Mahty, you seen Jimmy?” asked Jerry. 

I thought about it and knew that I hadn’t been stepped over by Jimmy.

“No,” I said.  “He hasn’t come in.”

“Oh no,” said Jerry. “I’m afraid he’s been a drinkin’ and a whorin’ the whole night.  If he ain’t ready to go by 6:30 a.m., Sleepy is going to be mad. I’m the manager. I gotta make sure he gets in or else I will have to call Sleepy.”

Sleepy, giving Jerry the manager role, allowed himself at least the perception that everything would allow him some undisturbed sleep at his hotel.  A teetotaler, Sleepy didn’t care too much for the partying aspect and with his deep evangelical roots, he was certainly not going to be prowling around.  

The drama quickly ramped up as the time ticked by.  No word from Jimmy. Jerry getting more anxious, eyeing the clock on the Hey Hey wall and sipping on coffee.  We were going to get on the road by 6:30 a.m. and drive the five hours in caravan to Chicago. No Jimmy.  

“If Jimmy don’t come, y’all will have to play with us,” said Jerry to Brian and myself.  “I hate to call him, but I am gonna have to call Sleepy about Jimmy.” Sure enough, 6:30 a.m. on the dot, Jerry nervously called Sleepy, unleashing a tsunami of rancor on the other end of the line.  And at 6:31 a.m., Jimmy threw open the door to the Hey Hey and rushed in crying “I’m in Love!”

Probably the best advice Sleepy gave us was about just accepting the music business for its pitfalls, unlevel playing field and sacrifice.  Playing music and lifting people up was what Sleepy was all about. I remember him telling us a story about his driving to a town square in New England and setting up for a concert in the park.  Like a lot of these sort of shows, the person setting up the show is usually not there when the band arrives. The band has the equipment, gets set up on the town gazebo, looks at the clock and figures that they should probably get playing.  By that time, the noise of the setup gets a small audience and pretty soon that crowd grows. That all happened for Sleepy and his band. Pretty soon a big crowd formed. And then the mayor showed up and shook Sleepy’s hand. Turned out that he and his band had set up in the wrong town.  Now, if that happened to me, I would pop a Xanax and be on my cell phone while Brian ran around tearing things down. But Sleepy, seeing the crowd and having a good time decided to just have the concert where he set up. It was probably one of the best free concerts ever given.  

Another bit of that zen philosophy came one time at the Hey Hey.  Brian and I were getting ready for a set during the afternoon. Sleepy came in and he sat for a bit and heard us play.  We stopped playing and sat with him and talked. Brian pulled out some CDs to give Sleepy and we asked him what he charged for CDs.   

“Should we try to charge a competitive price?” I asked.  “Is $15 too much?”

“Weeell” said Sleepy in that deep voice.  “I charge $20 a CD. I’m not gonna sit there handing back five dollar bills and people always have a $20.”   It was one of those no nonsense admonitions: don’t complicate things. 

We last saw Sleepy at FitzGerald’s.  He came into town some months ago, along with his family.  A band of local well-known musicians backed him. I watched them grin and sweat through every twist and turn.  Every song that never ended, but had a new song grafted right on to the last few measures. I was very glad I wasn’t up there and yet very sad, too.  Our family from the Hey Hey were there and we celebrated along with Sleepy his life. It wasn’t mentioned as such. But it was a great Irish wake for our Arkansas traveller.  We had a chance to stand for some pictures and shoot the breeze about music. About being a road musician, an independent musician.  

Just over this break came the news.  Sleepy, at 84, had played up to the end. I am sure he died with his boots on.  That’s pretty much what you expect from the last of the club circuit cowboys.  

“Get six jolly cowboys to carry my coffin.

“Six dance-hall maidens to bear up my pall.

“Throw bunches of roses all over my coffin.

“Roses to deaden the clods as they fall.”

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