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Veteran Rockabilly Musician Sleepy LaBeef Dies At 84

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

A rockabilly legend has died.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOOGIE WOOGIE COUNTRY GIRL")

SLEEPY LABEEF: (Singing) Wears loafer shoes, dungarees, red checkered shirt if you please. My boogie woogie, boogie woogie, boogie woogie country girl.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Sleepy LaBeef started performing in the 1950s. And while none of his songs ever hit the top of the music charts, he was a rockabilly celebrity with a cult following.

CHANG: Rockabilly incorporates blues, country, bluegrass and rock 'n' roll, and Sleepy was a master of them all. Here he is describing the genre to NPR in 1987.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

LABEEF: Well, I think it's a kind of thing that gets your feet patting on the floor, gets you clapping your hands. And I like to think it can be on the positive side. It don't have to be motivated by something undesirable or politics or anything like that. I think it can be just a fun music.

SHAPIRO: Sleepy LaBeef was born Thomas LaBeff in Smackover, Ark., in 1935. He says LaBeff wasn't quite the rock star name the record companies were looking for.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LABEEF: Columbia Records changed it to LaBeef. And Sleepy was because I looked like I was about half awake.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TORE UP")

LABEEF: (Singing) Tore up. Yeah, yeah, yeah, tore up.

CHANG: That's LaBeef talking to NPR member station KQED back in 2018. His career spanned more than six decades, and he kept touring until close to the end of his life.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TORE UP")

LABEEF: (Singing) Ever since you've been gone, I've been crying all night long.

SHAPIRO: LaBeef was a family man. He had three daughters. And in 2018, he discovered he had a son. The two met for the first time that summer and immediately formed a deep bond.

ROBERT SPENCER: Now, looking back, it seems like it was a longer period of time. And I'm glad we were able to make the connection before this - his passing.

CHANG: That's Sleepy's son, Robert Spencer. He's now 51. While Spencer had never been musical, after meeting Sleepy, he decided to give it a try.

SPENCER: Since then, I've been playing guitar and trying to learn. And so I like playing a lot of his songs, so "Waltz Across Texas" is one that I've been working on and enjoy playing. And I know he enjoyed it, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WALTZ ACROSS TEXAS")

LABEEF: (Singing) Waltz across Texas with you in my arms. I could waltz across Texas with you.

SPENCER: Almost everything was fast, and just the authority that came out in the music was amazing. It's - you know, he wasn't jumping around on stage, but just his presence was huge and powerful.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STANDING IN THE NEED OF PRAYER")

LABEEF: (Singing) It's me. It's me, oh, lord, standing in the need of prayer. It's me. It's me, oh, lord, standing in the need of prayer. Not my brother, not my sister, but it's me, oh, lord, standing in the need of prayer.

SHAPIRO: Sleepy LaBeef died on Thursday at the age of 84. He is survived by his wife, Linda, his children and his grandchildren.

CHANG: And a special thanks to Tara Siler at KQED for helping us with this whole piece.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STANDING IN THE NEED OF PRAYER")

LABEEF: (Singing) Standing in the need of prayer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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