Sleepy John Estes
|Sleepy John Estes|
|Birth name||John Adam Estes|
January 25, 1899|
Nutbush, Tennessee, United States
|Died||June 5, 1977
Brownsville, Tennessee, United States
|Genres||Country blues, blues|
|Associated acts||Yank Rachell
John Adam Estes (January 25, 1899 – June 5, 1977), best known as Sleepy John Estes or Sleepy John, was an American blues guitarist, songwriter and vocalist, born in Ripley, Lauderdale County, Tennessee.
In 1915, Estes' father, a sharecropper who also played some guitar, moved the family to Brownsville, Tennessee. Not long after, Estes lost the sight of his right eye when a friend threw a rock at him during a baseball game. At the age of 19, while working as a field hand, he began to perform professionally. The venues were mostly local parties and picnics, with the accompaniment of Hammie Nixon, a harmonica player, and James "Yank" Rachell, a guitarist and mandolin player. He would continue to work on and off with both musicians for more than fifty years.
Estes made his debut as a recording artist in Memphis, Tennessee in 1929, at a session organized by Ralph Peer for Victor Records. His partnership with Nixon was first documented on songs such as "Drop Down Mama" and "Someday Baby Blues" in 1935; later sides replaced the harmonica player with the guitarists Son Bonds or Charlie Pickett. He later recorded for the Decca and Bluebird labels, with his last pre-war recording session taking place in 1941. He made a brief return to recording at Sun Studio in Memphis in 1952, recording "Runnin' Around" and "Rats in My Kitchen", but otherwise was largely out of the public eye for two decades.
Estes was a fine singer, with a distinctive "crying" vocal style. He frequently teamed with more capable musicians, like "Yank" Rachell, Hammie Nixon, and the piano player Jab Jones. Estes sounded so much like an old man, even on his early records, that blues revivalists reportedly delayed looking for him because they assumed he would have to be long dead, and because fellow musician Big Bill Broonzy had written that Estes had died. By the time he was tracked down, by Bob Koester and Samuel Charters in 1962, he had become completely blind and was living in poverty. He resumed touring and recording, reunited with Nixon and toured Europe several times and Japan, with a clutch of albums released on the Delmark Records label. His later records are generally considered less interesting than his pre-war output. Nevertheless, Estes, Nixon and Rachell also made a successful appearance at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival.
Many of Estes' original songs were based on events in his own life or on people he knew from his home town of Brownsville, Tennessee, such as the local lawyer ("Lawyer Clark Blues"), local auto mechanic ("Vassie Williams' Blues"), or an amorously inclined teenage girl ("Little Laura Blues"). "Lawyer Clark Blues" referenced the lawyer, and later judge and senator, Hugh L. Clarke. Clarke and his family lived in Brownsville, and according to the song let Estes 'off the hook' for an offense.
He also dispensed advice on agricultural matters ("Working Man Blues") and chronicled his own attempt to reach a recording studio for a session by hopping a freight train ("Special Agent (Railroad Police Blues)"). His lyrics combined keen observation with an ability to turn an effective phrase.
Some accounts attribute his nickname "Sleepy" to a blood pressure disorder and/or narcolepsy. Others, such as blues historian Bob Koester, claim he simply had a "tendency to withdraw from his surroundings into drowsiness whenever life was too cruel or too boring to warrant full attention".
Estes suffered a stroke while preparing for a European tour, and died on June 5, 1977, at his home of 17 years in Brownsville, Haywood County, Tennessee. Estes is buried at Elam Baptist Church Cemetery in Durhamville, Lauderdale County, Tennessee.
His gravemarker reads:
Sleepy John Estes
".. ain't goin' to worry Poor John's mind anymore"
John Adam Estes
Jan. 25, 1899
June 5, 1977
Guitarist – Songwriter – Poet
Sleepy John Estes' epitaph ".. ain't goin' to worry Poor John's mind anymore" was derived from his song, "Someday Baby Blues." "I Ain't Gonna Be Worried No More" was recorded in 1935, and in his song "Drop Down Mama", also recorded in 1935, Sleepy John refers to himself as "Poor John". Estes' grave at Elam Baptist Church Cemetery in Durhamville is located off a country road and at the far end of the cemetery. His grave is adjacent to a small grove of trees, secluded but not hidden.
- Sleepy John Estes, 1929–1940 (RBF Records)
- Complete Recorded Works 1929–1941 Vols 1–2 (Document)
- I Ain't Gonna Be Worried No More 1929–1941 (Yazoo)
- The Legend of Sleepy John Estes (Delmark)
- Broke and Hungry (Ragged and Dirty, Too) (Delmark)
- Brownsville Blues (Delmark)
- Down South Blues (Delamark)
- Sleepy John Estes In Europe (Delmark)
- "Leaving Trunk" – a cover version of Estes' song "Milk Cow Blues" appeared on Taj Mahal's, 1968 eponymous album, Taj Mahal. It was also covered by The Derek Trucks Band on their concert album Live at Georgia Theatre. The Keef Hartley Band covered the song on their debut album, Halfbreed.
- "Diving Duck Blues" – was recorded by Taj Mahal and Johnny Winter.
- "Special Agent" – included on The Country Blues, and later recorded by Martin Simpson.
- "Someday Baby Blues" – it appeared re-written by Muddy Waters as "Trouble No More" and further amended to "Someday Baby" by Bob Dylan.
- "Drop Down Mama" – was recorded by Tom Rush, Big Joe Williams, and the North Mississippi Allstars. Led Zeppelin borrowed parts of the song on their song "Custard Pie" from the 1975 album Physical Graffiti.
- "Floating Bridge" – appeared on the compilation album, The Blues, on Eric Clapton's 1981 album, Another Ticket and was the opening track on the 2011 album by Gregg Allman, Low Country Blues.
- "Little Laura" was recorded by Hill Country Revue.
- "Milk Cow Blues" – was covered by The Kinks and appeared as the lead-off track on their album The Kink Kontroversy.
- "The Girl I Love She Got Long Black Wavy Hair" – was covered by Led Zeppelin on their live album BBC Sessions.
- "President Kennedy" – Estes performed this song for Ry Cooder's 1972 album, Boomer's Story.
- List of blues musicians
- Memphis blues
- Country blues
- List of people from Tennessee
- Anthology of American Folk Music
- American Folk Blues Festival
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Sleepy John Estes.|
- Biography at 7digital.com from the Encyclopedia of Popular Music – accessed February 2008
- Inscription on grave marker of John Adam Estes (Sleepy John Estes). Grave is at Elam Baptist Church Cemetery on Durhamville Rd in Durhamville, Lauderdale County, Tennessee
- Allaboutjazz.com birth and death details
- Russell, Tony (1997). The Blues: From Robert Johnson to Robert Cray. Dubai: Carlton Books Limited. p. 110. ISBN 1-85868-255-X.
- Oldies.com biography of Estes
- Blues fansite observation – accessed February 2008
- Charters, Samuel. Sweet As the Showers of Rain. Oak Publications. pp. 68–82.
- Charters, Samuel. Sleepy John Estes, 1929–1940, liner notes
- Kent, Don. I Ain't Gonna Be Worried No More 1929–1941, liner notes
- "TN Encyclopedia: Sleepy John Estes". Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture. Retrieved 16 December 2008.
- Norris, Sharon (2000). Black America Series: Haywood County Tennessee. Mount Pleasant, SC: Arcadia Publishing. ISBN 0-7385-0605-2.
- "Sleepy John Estes". Yazoo Records. 2000. Retrieved 16 December 2008.
- Illustrated Sleepy John Estes discography
- Sleepy John Estes page at the National Parks Service "Links to the Past" site