• Dennis McCaslin

Our Arklahoma Heritage: An Arkansas troubadour makes his way back home to the Natural State

Updated: Jan 4

On July 20, 1935, the featured movie at the Joy Theater in Smackover, Arkansas was a Hoot Gibson western titled "Rainbow End" . On that same day. just down the road, a music legend was born who eventually called northwest Arkansas home.

Thomas Paulsley LaBeff was born that day in Smackover to Charley Aylmer and and Jessie Frances Coke Labeff, the youngest of ten children born to the couple. His family owned a farm, raising livestock and growing cotton and watermelons, before selling the land to oil speculators

In the first grade, Thomas picked up a nickname based on his heavy-lidded, droopy eyes and forever after was known as "Sleepy" and he later changed the spelling of his last name to LeaBeef and went on to become a cult rockabilly legend who worked with the likes of Roy Orbison, Elvis, Kenny Rogers, and Glen Campbell.

It's thought fellow Arkansan Gen Campbell tagged LaBeef as "The Human Jukebox" based upon his reported playlist of over 6000 songs.

Just about every biographical sketch on Labeef mentions the fact that he got his first guitar at the age of fourteen when he traded a 22-caliber rifle to on of his brother-in-laws, which he then taught himself to play. By the age of eighteen, he had moved to the Houston area to go to work for the Texas Department of Highways and he started playing occasional gigs at local bars.

Sleepy recorded with a series of independent labels and worked on radio programs such as the Houston Jamboree and Louisiana Hayride before he was signed by Columbia Records in 1964. He moved to Nashville and then signed as the only artist with the reactivated Memphis, Tennessee, rockabilly label Sun Records.

Although he had recorded several singles on independent labels, it took LeBeef five years before he garnered a minor country hit with “Blackland Farmer”. Over the next several years he toured the continental United States, Canada, Europe and Australia.

He also took time away from his early touring to appear in the the 1968 movie The Exotic Ones (also known as The Monster and the Stripper); At six-foot-six and more than 250 pounds, he was cast in the role of the swamp monster in what has become a cult classic over the years.

He continued to tour and record for the next four decades, but despite churning out twenty-four albums from 1974 through 2012, he never really had that breakout hit. But it was his dedication to his fans and touring that endeared him to a loyal legion of followers both in and out of the music business.

In 1977, his tour bus (which had “Sun Recording Artist” painted on the side) caught fire on the Maine Turnpike, destroying most of his possessions but for some guitars he rescued.

He settled in New England after the fire, leading the house band at Alan’s Fifth Wheel Lounge in Amesbury, Massachusetts. Although he signed with Rounder Records in 1979 and remained based in New England, his tour bus in the 1990s had “Sun Sound” painted on the side, still paying homage to his past with the legendary label of Elvis.

With his international tours. Labeef was gone for long stretches at a time, but according t0 one family member, he was always about "family first".

"Dad was gone a lot, but that's just the way tings were," said daughter Melinda Lebeef, who lives in Siloam Springs. "It was hard on us kids and we missed him, but it was even harder on Mom. They were together for a long time and when he would come back from a tour, she would just light up. They loved each other intensely."

Despite having to undergo heart surgery in 2003, LaBeef maintained an active touring schedule. A concert/documentary film Sleepy LaBeef Rides Again was released in 2012.

LaBeef was the twenty-fifth inductee into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.

So how does a world traveler and beloved international star wind up in Siloam Springs, Arkansas?

Lebeef had family members that had migrated to northwest Arkansas and after he stopped recording in 2012 he eventually moved the family to Springdale to be close to family. He continued to tour overseas, often playing to sold out crowds at festivals and big venues on three continents.

"We had never owned a house, because dad's business was basically always a cash business and he had never really built up his credit," said Melinda Labeef. "A few years ago, I personally applied for a home loan and, despite my misgivings, I got it."

"I got to talking to Mom about it and she talked Dad into applying with the same lender," said Melinda. "They got a loan and they decided to buy a house close to ours in Siloam Springs."

Sleepy and his wife Linda (who was also his manager) lived in the house a short time before he passed away in 2019.

A tearful Melinda explained how the world travelers final resting place ended up being in a small cemetery in Benton County.

"Daddy was all about family," said Melinda. "There was never any doubt about what important to him. Throughout everything we always knew he loved us and he was always coming home to us."

"With Mom having the house here already we decided to bury Dad at the Oak Hill Cemetery", said Melinda. "Mom has had some health issues, including a cancer scare, but she's doing much better now. We just figured it would be better to have Dad close where she could visit him whenever she wanted."

66 views0 comments