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Sleepy John Estes

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 County—Schooled 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

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