Sleepy John Estes – Blues Highlights
Sleepy John Estes what fans know him as is a blue’s guitarist, songwriter, and vocalist. In 1915, the family moves to Brownsville Tennessee where his father works as a sharecropper. By the age of 19, while working as a field hand and on the side, he starts performing professionally. In a nutshell, they are mainly local picnics and parties 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.
Recording with Victor Records
In the late 1920s, Estes and Nixon moved to Memphis. While there, they start performing in a jug band called the three J’s with Rachell on the mandolin, and Jab Jones on the jug. Working their way up and down the Beale Street by adding their own twist to the music scene there. In 1929, Victor Records sends talent scout Ralph Peer to Memphis. Estes makes his debut as a recording artist in Memphis Tennessee.
Meanwhile, he records at a session organized by Victor Records. It’s his first professional recording session which produces “Diving Duck Blues” and the influential “Milkcow Blues.” By pairing Estes’s guitar and vocal skills with a mandolin, piano, and harmonica. Furthermore, it establishes Estes reputation as an emotional singer-songwriter.
The Chicago Scene
Around the 1930s, Estes and Nixon work their magic in Chicago by playing locally as well as recording sides for the RCA Victor and Decca labels. The environment is perfect for Estes to hone his craft as well as giving him plenty of professional opportunities. Towards the end of the 1930s, Sleepy John and Hammie Nixon continue their musical partnership, recording for the Champion and Decca labels, traveling throughout the United States, and performing with the popular Rabbit Foot Minstrel Show. During this time, “Drop Down Mama” and the well-known “Some Day Baby Blues” are recorded and doing well for them. Shortly after he returns to his family home.
The Folk Blues Revival
Estes’s vocals are unique and often described as a “crying” vocal style. Estes sounds so much like an old man, that even on his early records, that Blues revivalists delay looking for him because they assume, he’s dead. By the time he’s tracked down by the Blues historians Bob Koester and Samuel Charters in 1962, he was completely blind and living in poverty. He resumes touring with Nixon and recording for Delmark Records. Estes, Nixon and Rachell appeared at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964.
A lot of people enjoy his music due to the fact that he sang songs about things that he encounters. Nothing over the top, just ordinary everyday things that happened around him. But this is what makes his music so important because it gives an oral history of the times that he lived through. Sadly, Estes suffers a stroke as he’s preparing for a European tour and passes in June 1977.
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