Sleepy JOHN ESTES

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Sleepy John Estes was born in Tennessee in 1904, one of a family of ten. His father, a sharecropper, also played guitar and had a major influence on his sonís musical interests. When he was six years old Estes was playing baseball when he was blinded in his right eye. He learned the rudiments of guitar playing on crude guitars that he made at home from cigar boxes. He got his nickname as a child because of his tendency to fall asleep as a result of a blood pressure disorder. When he was 11 years old his family moved to Brownsville in Tennessee, and although often away in his early years, this became his home base for the rest of his life.

As a teenager Estes met mandolinist Jimmy "Yank" Rachell and they joined forces to play the streets in the Brownsville area. They also partnered up with local harp player Hammie Nixon and songster 'Hambone' Wille Newborn, and together they wandered around Tennessee, Missouri and Arkansas. In his early 20ís Estes formed the Three Jís Jug Band with Rachell and a jug player called Jab Jones. Estes focussed on Memphis and The Three Jí worked on Beale Street competing with the likes of The Memphis Jug Band, Son House, Walter 'Furry' Lewis and Gus Cannon for tips and patronage. In 1929 in Memphis, Estes with the Three Jís made his first recordings for Victor with Jab Jones playing piano. He recorded with Victor again the next year and this session produced "Milk Cow Blues," later recorded by Robert Johnson as "Milkcow Calf Blues." In 1931, like so many bluesmen of the time, Estes moved to Chicago with Nixon to play the streets.

Recording opportunities were few and far between although Estes and Nixon did produce "Drop Down Mama" and "Some Day Baby Blues," tunes that became blues standards. Estesís plaintive crying style of vocals was perfectly accompanied by Nixonís mournful harp, creating a rather sad shade of the blues. Making little money, Estes and Nixon went back on the road to play the street corners, parties and work camps in the south. Struggling to survive, Estes went back to Brownsville and to sharecropping, eventually becoming completely blind when he was 45 years old. Largely confined to his home, his fortunes were briefly revived in the 1960ís during the period of renewed interest in early Memphis blues, and he recorded again and even went back on the road with Nixon for a while. Estes died in 1977, a respected bluesman but still relatively impoverished.

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