A Memphis musician is a very unique musician. He dwells in the heart of the Blues, probably on Beale Street in Memphis. He taps out the Blues rhythms everywhere he goes, and spends hours performing for Memphis tourists, whether it be on the streets of Memphis or in the clubs. The life of a Memphis musician is one of tradition, culture, and longevity of the Blues. A Memphis musician holds a special place in the hearts of Blues fans, and the Memphis musician John Sleepy Estes is no exception.
Born in 1904, Sleepy John Estes rose to become a Memphis musician that would help pave the way for all other musicians. His father was a sharecropper who played guitar, which was what most people were who moved to Tennessee looking for a better life. When Sleepy John was 19, he began playing and singing in public when he was not working. He joined forces with two other aspiring musicians, and the rest is history. In 1929 he debuted as a recording artist in Memphis, recording for Victor Records. He would record until 1952, after which he was largely out of the public eye for almost twenty years.
The nickname Sleepy is said to have stemmed from either a blood pressure disorder or narcolepsy that he may have suffered from. Others claim that he earned the name by simply sleeping or ignoring things when things got bad or too much to handle. John Estes voice has been described as a distinctive, unique voice with a crying tone to it. He was a moderate guitar player, often teaming up with other advanced guitarists for his recordings.
In the 1970s it was thought for a time that Estes had died, because he had seemed to vanish without a trace, and his voice sounded so old twenty years earlier, people assumed that he must have been dead by then. However, two men looking to revive the Blues did in fact find Sleepy John, living in poverty as a homeless man on the streets. He had also by this time become completely blind. Nonetheless, he resumed touring and recording, making appearances in Japan and across Europe. Although this was a significant comeback for Sleepy John Estes, many fans agreed that his pre war recordings were sharper, deeper, and simply better than during his comeback tours.
Most of this Memphis musicians music was based on his own life. His lyrical abilities focused on simplicity, the ability to turn clever phrases, and a keen observation about the simplicity of life. He wrote songs about the local banker, going to start a music career, a teenage girl, the local mechanic, and of course, working and the value of good agricultural sense. Sleepy John Estes died in Tennessee in 1977, the victim of a stroke in June of that year. He was posthumously inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.