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