Sleepy John Estes - Biography
By J Poet
John Adam Estes, better known as Sleepy John Estes, earned his nickname for his ability to sleep anywhere, even standing up on the job. He was a fine, guitar player with a style marked by a relentless pounding on the fat E string to provide a percussive pulse to his playing, but it was his singing that made him legendary. Estes had a high, keening, soulful voice, a insistent almost falsetto wail so full of loss, pain, and despair that it shook the core of everyone who heard him sing. He was an early blues star who recorded hit records for Victor, Champion, Decca, and Bluebird during the 20s and 30s, but he retired in 1940 after going completely bind. He was rediscovered by blues scholars and folklorists in the 1960s and had a second successful career from 1963 till his death in 1977.
Estes was born near Ripley, Tennessee in 1904, one of 16 children in a poor sharecropper family. He grew up working the fields and while playing with friends, someone tossed a rock at him that blinded his right eye. Estes' father played guitar and showed him basic technique. Estes built his own cigar-box guitar so he could practice. The Estes family moved to Brownsville in 1915 where Estes became popular playing fish fries and house parties. He met another guitarist, Hambone Willie Newbern, who wrote "Roll and Tumble," later to become a standard as “Rollin’ and Tumblin’,” and they hit the road together playing country blues throughout the south. Estes was a solid guitarist, although not particularly innovative, but his singing impressed everyone that heard him. He continued working the family farm between gigs until his father died in 1919, when he started playing full time with blues mandolin player "Yank" Rachell. The duo became popular and played dances for both white and black audiences. They started a loose quartet with harmonica player Hammie Nixon, who went on to teach "Sonny Boy" Williamson the basics of blues harp, and guitarist Son Bonds, and gained a strong local following.
Estes and Rachell also played with Jab Jones, from the Memphis Jug Band. as the Three J's Jug Band, with Estes on guitar, Rachell on mandolin, and Jones blowing jug. They were discovered by RCA and cut some records in 1929 with Estes on guitar, Rachell on mandolin, and Jones playing piano on "Milk Cow Blues," "Street Car Blues," and "The Girl I Love She Got Long Curly Hair," which became a big hit due to Estes’ unique vocal delivery. The depression put an end to his recording career for a few years, but various configurations of the four musicians with Estes singing lead continued to work around Tennessee, Arkansas and Missouri. In 1934 Estes and Hammie Nixon went to Chicago to record for Decca and produced two classics "Someday Baby" and "Drop Down Mama." Estes moved to Chicago, started writing songs and recorded his classics "Floating Bridge” and “Fire Department Blues." He played sessions with Charlie Pickett, Son Bonds, Lee Brown, and recorded as the Delta Boys with Bonds. These sides are collected on Sleepy John Estes: Complete Recorded Works 1929-1941 Vol. 1 (1994 Document UK) and Sleepy John Estes: Complete Recorded Works 1929-1941 Vol. 2 (1994 Document UK.) After being rediscovered in the 60s, Delmark reissued some early Estes sides as Brownsville Blues (1969 Delmark.) In 1942 Shellac rationing and the musician’s union strike against the major labels brought the first chapter of Sleepy John’s story to an end. He moved back to Brownsville and went completely blind.
In the 1950s, folklorists and blue lovers started seeking out the surviving members of the 30s blues recording boom. In 1962, Estes was discovered living in a shack on an abandoned farm with his wife and five children. He was 58 but looked like he was 70. Bob Koester, owner of Delmark Records, gave him a record deal and started booking him at folk clubs and festivals. The Legend of Sleepy John Estes (1962 Delmark) with Hammie Nixon sitting in, introduced Estes to a new generation and it stands as one of the best albums Estes ever made and one of the jewels in the Delmark catalogue. Estes’s songs of the hard life of Southern blacks like “Lawyer Clark Blues,” “Working Man Blues,” and “Hobo Jungle Blues,” gave white people a glimpse into the everyday tribulations of African Americans with an uncanny power and grace. Broke and Hungry (1963 Delmark) reunited Estes with Hammie Nixon, Yank Rachell and a kid named Michael Bloomfield for another set of Estes' originals. His appearance at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival with Nixon and Rachell was a sensation as you can hear on Newport Blues (2002 Delmark.) He toured Europe twice in 1964 and in 1968 with the American Folk Blues Festival.
In Europe (1966 Delmark), with Hammie Nixon matches updated takes of his classics like “Drop Down Momma” and “Need More Blues” with newer tunes like “Blues for JFK.” Delmark sent Estes into the studio with an electric Chicago band for Electric Sleep (1969 Delmark, 1991 Delmark) and he sounds right at home; an unreleased session from 1974, possibly his last recording, was issued as On 80 Highway (2009 Delmark.) Estes was the first country bluesman to perform in Japan in1974 and he continued to make albums and perform until his death in 1977. He was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1991. Worthwhile compilations include the 22 track I Ain't Gonna Be Worried No More 1929-1941 (1992 Yazoo) and the two disc 38 track compilation The Essential Sleepy John Estes (2001 Classic Blues.)