Born: January 25, 1899 | Died: June 5, 1977 Primary Instrument: Guitar, acoustic
Sleepy John Estes - Blues Singer, guitarist (1904 - 1977)
The history of the blues has been so vaguely and haphazardly set down that it is difficult, if not impossible, to separate fact from legend. In the veiled and colorful world of the blues-singer this is true to such an extent that many bluesmen extend poetic license from their song lyrics into their everyday life. The story of John Adam Estes has especially been one clothed in the rich trappings of legend.
For years, students of jazz and folk music have been listening to Sleepy John Estes records in awe of his unique singing style. They often were willing to pay premium prices for his old recordings on the Victor, Champion, Decca and Bluebird labels at a time when the only serious attention paid blues records was accorded those that featured accompaniments by noted jazz artists.
When Big Bill Broonzy was interviewed by Yannick Bruynoghe for the book Big Bill's Blues (Grove Press, New York), he recalled running away from home about 1912 to work on the railroad just to hear John Estes howling the songs that lightened the workload of the sweating track-laying gangs. Broonzy's reckoning of Estes' age would credit the singer with more than 90 years, and this was later confirmed by Big Joe Williams and other elder bluesmen.
A full biography of Sleepy John Estes cannot be presented here but his own lyric I was born in Lowry CountySchooled in Winfield Lane tells part of the story. The birth-year is 1904 so John is only 58 years of age today. At an early age John lost the sight of his right eye when a friend threw a rock at him during a baseball game. Perhaps this helped turn young Estes to music. At any rate, in 1929 he teamed with mandolinist Yank Rachel and was playing on a Memphis street-corner when he was approached by a Victor talent scout and cut his first recordings at the Hotel Peabody. Another session followed in 1930. The records were reasonably successful, but the depression brought location recording to an end.
A few years later John learned that two friends had recorded for the new Decca label. He hopped a freight to Chicago and recorded six sides that established him as one of Decca's most important country blues artists. After six years with Decca, John switched to Bluebird for his last shellac recordings in 1941. Besides his own vocals, John accompanied blues-singers Charlie Pickett, Son Bonds, Lee Brown, and teamed with Bonds to form the Delta Boys. Shellac rationing and the 1942-43 recording ban virtually ended race recording and Estes dropped out of sight
In 1950, John was living in Memphis when he lost the sight of his remaining eye. He moved back to Brownsville and married. He had five children and was living in an abandoned sharecropper's shack near Brownsville when Chicagoan David Blumenthal found him while photographing a documentary film Citizen SouthCitizen North (Blumenthal had heard about Estes from Memphis Slim who, in turn, had heard of John's whereabouts from Big Joe Williams.) Blumenthal casually mentioned his find to Delmark Records and Estes was brought to Chicago for an exploratory recording session via concerts at Westminster College, the University of Illinois and Purdue University Ironically, John had been to Chicago only a few moments when he discovered that his brother Sam worked at a clothing store next door to Seymour's Jazz Record Mart where Delmark had its offices John returned to Brownsville after some personal appearances in the Chicago area, to return in a few weeks with his harmonica accompanist of some 30-odd years, Hammie Nixon. Bassist Ed Wilkinson was added for the next recording session at the Women's Club Hall of Kilbourne Avenue in Milwaukee. Knocky Parker, who had just finished an album, sat in with the bluesmen while microphones were being re-arranged. The informal grouping sounded so good that it was decided to use Knocky on one of the two dates scheduled Several blues fans, listening to the tapes, have mistaken our English professor's playing for various veteran bluesmen. His piano plays a role similar to that of Yank Rachel's mandolin on the early Victors.
Sleepy John Estes sings with a depth of feeling and emotional thrust that can only be described, as Big Bill did, as crying the blues. While singing, John recalls the personal experiences that are mirrored in his lyrics, which are usually of his own composition.
The sob in his throat is not a clever stage mannerism. His singing has all the honesty and straight forward integrity of the simple rural life John has lived. And yet, John's singingpowerful as it isis only one facet of his talent. John Estes' repertoire is made up almost entirely of his own compositions. They range far and wide: from the mad woman stuff from which life and so many blues are made. and everyday events in Brownsville, to a concern with world events and the cosmology of the universe. His compositional powers are a match for any blues lyricist in history.
- By Bob Koester, Delmark Records 1962
John was brought to Chicago in the spring of 1962 by Delmark Records owner Bob Koester for a series of exploratory performances and recordings. Although he had not performed professionally for over 2 decades, John quickly felt at ease in his urban surroundings. Recording The Legend of Sleepy John Estes, for Delmark and performing at the University of Chicago Folk Festival alongside urban blues luminaries like Howlin Wolf and Muddy Waters.
The news of these recordings was matched upon their release with the incredulous skepticism of blues critics who could or would not believe that Sleepy John was the John Estes of so many years ago. Although Big Joe Williams for him many critics continued to believe that John was an imposter. Due mostly to an erroneous tale told by Big Bill Broonzy in Broonzy's biography. But to those who knew his early recordings well, it could be none other than the man himself whose thin high voice captures with unequivocal certainty the heart of the rural black heritage of American culture.
On the strength of his first Delmark recording The Legend of... John was asked in 1964 by Horst Lippman and Frits Rau to take part in the American Folk Blues Festival tour of Europe. During this tour John would encounter a culture that greeted him and his music with an open appreciation unknown in his homeland. During his stops in Copenhagen and London John would lay down the tracks of what would later become his Live in Europe album.
Playing in the Great Halls and performance spaces in Europe, from the Berlin Sportspalast to Stockholm's Konserthuset (home of the Nobel Prize awards) John began to awaken from his lifelong slumber, playing to crowds of European fans that seemed to really understand the nature of his blues. In his voice can be heard a man who was awake and alive more than he had ever been, but ultimately a man homesick for the culture that had shaped his music and his soul.
Over the years many have asked what it is that makes John's music so vital, so absolute in its sense of emptiness and desperation. His voice, filled to the brim by the lack-luster existence of life in a poor farming community, informs all that hear it of the barely suppressed passion in his words. His subjects the stuff of day to day living, whether in Brownsville, or later on the road of blues history.
John's music is that of an extraordinary man caught in a mundane world, but captivated by the very things that make this world mundane. John's lyrics fill a void left by the absence of those poor black farmers whose employment-seeking immigration northward snowballed into an exodus from the hills of the greater Mississippi/Tennessee farming communities. His lyrical style reflects the world in which he lived. Populated by those people who happened by in his daily life, John's songs reach out to the very population he chronicles in verse. Mechanic, lawyer, funeral director, a querulous inventory of complaints of the disinherited of this world they bridge the gap between rural delta farm culture and the exploits of urban factory workers and growing masses of unemployed blacks on Chicago's south side.
Through the eyes of John Estes we see into a world that we may otherwise never truly know. A world of country existence found only in the black culture lying in the shadows of the Mississippi River, the rural road of dirt poor farmers and their ilk like a history of the day-to-day across the geography of mid-century American south. This time and place captured in John's music was even then disappearing into the histories of the world.
Found in Johns repertoire is a feeling of desperate hope born in a man who's life has lead him at this late date out of the cocoon of small town Tennessee and across thousands of miles of ground and air to play for the people of the world that pervades more and more in his later recordings. Flying to Osaka, Copenhagen, London, John's music captivated the world that encountered him on his journeys. Soon his lyrics begin to reflect these travels, adding to the catalog of human encounters that Sleepy John might unravel during a song, his music like a living autobiography of his life.
At 77 years old John had lived a lifespan equal to a half dozen of his contemporaries. As preparations were being made for a two-week tour of the German Rhineland John suffered a stroke in his Brownsville home. On Sunday June 12th, 1977 in a small Baptist church in Brownsville, TN John's family and friends gathered to pay their respects to the Tennessee blues poet. His passing mourned by the thousands of friends John had made throughout the world in the last years of his extraordinary life.
By Ray Harmon
Source: Koester/Harmon @ Delmark Records