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Remembering Sleepy John Estes, Country Blues Pioneer

Born on 25 January 1904 in Ripley Tennessee, Sleepy John Estes was one of the finest country blues performers and instrumental to the 60s blues revival.

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Sleepy John Estes

Blues guitarist and singer John “Sleepy” Estes was born into a family of sharecroppers on 25 January 1904, losing eye in a baseball game in his teens, had a cast eye, which made ‘Sleepy’ a natural choice of nickname.. He played his home-made cigar box guitar at picnics and house parties around Brownsville and by the mid 1920’s he was playing on the street of Memphis, frequently partnered by Hamie Nixon, an harmonica and jug player and James ‘Yank’ Rachel on mandolin.

Estes recorded the first of a dozen sides in Memphis in 1929 for Victor. Two years later Estes and Nixon travelled to Chicago, playing on street corners and at house rent parties and by 1935 he was recording for Decca, cutting over 30 titles before 1940, including ‘Drop Down Mama’.

Early in 1942 he moved back to Brownsville where he lost the sight in his good eye in 1949 having recorded again in 1948 for a local label. In 1952 he was back in Memphis cutting six sides for Sam Phillip’s Sun Records; unfortunately tastes had changed and they went unreleased.

At 53 years old Estes must have thought his career over as he returned once again to Brownsville to live in obscure poverty. Ten years later in Saukville, Wisconsin he was back in the studio, recording and soon he was playing to the new devotees of folk blues on the university circuit. Two years later he was at the Newport Folk Festival and touring Europe as part of the American Folk Blues Festival. He recorded extensively during the 1960’s, working with Mike Bloomfield in 1963. During the early 1970’s Rachel, Nixon and Estes performed throughout America, as well as in Europe and Japan, Sleepy John died in 1977.

Sleepy John Estes and Eric Clapton were born 41 years apart, and have something unusual in common, It’s Ripley, the name of the place where they were both born… they were born thousands of miles apart, Estes in Tennessee and Clapton in Surrey. Did one of the early settlers to that part of Tennessee come from Ripley in the south of England we wonder?.

Listen to some classic Sleepy John Estes here



  1. Bill Douglas

    January 25, 2016 at 12:38 pm

    He deserved a songwriting credit on “Custard Pie” by Led Zeppelin. Probably would have been life changing for him in many ways.

  2. Jesse Wemyss

    January 25, 2016 at 8:50 pm

    Led Zeppelin certainly owes much credit to so many, going unannounced…

  3. Debbie Hamblen

    January 28, 2016 at 12:32 am

    You gotta love Eric – He gave and gives credit where credit is due. So refreshingly un-egomaniacal. What a gift from the usual artists who can’t get enough of themselves.

  4. Michael Clark

    January 25, 2017 at 1:24 pm

    I wonder what the story is on the photograph. That looks like a Silvertone model 1457 made by Danelectro that was sold from 1963-67 via the Sears & Roebuck catalog.

  5. Lou

    January 27, 2018 at 10:09 am

    Clapton? Wtf? Questions about place, persons, guitar, deserve to be answered. But yes, Clapton has been such honest with Skip James, than he could be honoured much more than Zep or most copycats.

  6. Ella Harris

    January 28, 2019 at 4:01 pm

    This is my uncle

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