Wednesday, July 12, 2017

"That's just the way I feel." Guralnick on LaBeef, or, How to Write a Great Profile of an Obscure Musician

Peter Guralnick's profile of Sleepy LaBeef, which I read in Guralnick's essential collection Lost Highway: Journeys and Arrivals of American Musicians, published in 1979, remains one of the finest and most evocative distillations of the spirit and passions of a working musician. I read it often, and I never fail to take pleasure in the respect Guralnick pays to LaBeef, who at the time the piece was published, was, it turns out, in the middle of a long career playing festivals and one-off gigs. Guralnick writes with his characteristic clarity, warmth, curiosity, and knowledge, bred in his longstanding love for rock and roll, rhythm and blues, and blues.

Guralnick uses LaBeef's Massachusetts residency gigs as a kind of rhetorical home base, while sketching LaBeef's early life and career, personal idiosyncrasies, and setbacks and successes, and essaying the nature of hard work, luck, and core values necessary in the makeup of a musician who's making a living—or trying to—against odds. Here are the opening and closing graphs of "Sleepy LaBeef: There's Good Rockin' Tonight," which I recommend you find and read as soon as you can; I love the opening sentence, which both assumes and avoids condescension:
If you frequent the honky tonks, you may very well have run across the music of Sleepy LaBeef. For a number of years he worked the area around Atlanta. Before that it was Port Huron or Kansas or the circuit of NCO service clubs where there is three or four hundred dollars to be made for a night's work and a string of bookings to be lined up— if you go over. When I first met him in the spring of 1977, Sleepy LaBeef had been working Alan's Fifth Wheel Lounge, about an hour north of Boston, for nearly three months on a pretty regular basis. There he had been laying down the original rockabilly sounds of Sun six nights a week, five sets a night, to an appreciative audience of truckers, regulars, factory workers off the late—night shift, and just plain Sleepy LaBeef fans who may have caught him on talk-master Larry Glick’s two A.M. phone-in broadcasts from the truckstop.

How in the world, the question naturally arises, did a six-foot six, 265- pound, basso profundo, first-generation rockabilly from Arkansas ever end up at Alan's Truckstop in the northeast backwater of Amesbury, Massachusetts?
In many ways Sleepy is as great a performer as I've ever seen, and when you see the way that people respond to his music, you wonder why, and if, rockabilly ever went away. Sleepy has a theory on that ("I didn't ever see it change. The people were still digging it, and the musicians liked playing it, but the big companies figured it was a fad and they took it away from the kids"), but in any case it is no exercise in nostalgia for the people who have come out to see Sleepy LaBeef at Alan's Fifth Wheel or the Hillbilly Ranch; they couldn't care less that it was Iohn Lee Hooker who originated ’In the Mood’ or Scotty Moore whose licks Sleepy duplicates note for note on ’Milkcow Blues Boogie.’ Sleepy’s records may not do him justice, but Sleepy knows how good he can be.

"I never sold out," he can say with pride. "Nobody owns me. I know I'm good. I wouldn't be honest if I didn't tell you that. I've been around long enough to know that if I get the breaks I can still make it—Charlie Rich was older than me when he finally did. And if I don't get the breaks—wel1, when I started in this business I didn't even know you could make a dime out of it. And I think I'd still be doing it tomorrow, if there wasn't any money in it at all. That's just the way I feel."
As I worked on Sweat: The Story of the Fleshtones, America's Garage Band, I clung to these inspiring, moving words of LaBeef's—I think I'd still be doing it tomorrow, if there wasn't any money in it at all. That's just the way I feel. Indeed, LaBeef's comments could've been my book's subtitle. I owe a great debt to Guralnick, for this profile which I could only have hoped to emulate in my long, sprawling book, and for the hours of pleasure that his work has given me over the decades.
LaBeef, center, in Houston, Texas, ca. 1957

England, 1979

I was happily able to cross off Seeing LaBeef from my bucket list. In 2013, I caught him in an outdoor tent at the American Music Festival at Fitzgerald's, in Berwyn, Illinois.  Here are few minutes I recorded of the great man hard at work, forgetting about yesterday and not thinking about tomorrow:

Photos reproduced from Lost Highway.

No comments: