Sleepy LaBeef was the last artist that the original Sun Records (of Elvis fame) promoted in the 1950s. Bridging the gap between Presley and Chuck Berry, LaBeef continues to be the real bridge between country and the blues, the true king of Rockabilly. Rockabilly Blues is a new compilation of unreleased tracks spanning from 1980 to 1996.
Now, there’s a slight problem to this disc: although the liner notes hint that these are “lost” recordings, what we have here is a collection of outtakes. This is not a polished disc; there are clams everywhere, blown lines, bad endings, and some fairly obvious in-studio jamming. These aren’t heavily overdubbed and patched recordings, but rather these are floor tracks, the band playing live with LaBeef in real-time.
That said, it really doesn’t matter. There’s nothing here that you wouldn’t hear seeing LaBeef live, right down to the energy level. So what if there are mistakes? What Rockabilly Blues presents is some hot rockabilly, blues, and country workouts, raw and wonderful.
LaBeef himself cuts quite the character. In his full, deep baritone (picture Junior Brown, only with a broader range), LaBeef takes on each track and puts a distinct mark on it. He turns the old Jimmy Reed track “Bright Lights, Big City” into a rough rockabilly tour-de-force; his take on “Sugar Sweet” almost cuts Muddy Waters’ version, only in a differing idiom. The man knows what to do with these numbers, and the years he’s played lets him.
Several crack back-up bands accompany LaBeef on this disc. Although the man gets in his share of licks, there’s plenty of solos to go around (and, hence, a few blunders), with guitar, piano and harmonica getting special due. It’s fairly obvious that some of these takes are a tad rough for a conventional album release, but in this context they work wonderfully. Production values range from acceptable to thin (although there’s a woefully under mixed bass solo on “Rip It Up”).
Although it isn’t overly bluesy, nor too polished, Rockabilly Blues is a superb disc for fans of roots music. You can almost smell the stale beer and cigarette smoke. I never understood why LaBeef never got his due: maybe this disc will be a step in getting his name spread more.
(Bullseye Blues Classics/Rounder, 2001)