John Adam Estes was born on January 25, 1904 in Ripley, Tennessee. His recording career spanned six decades from the '20s until his death on June 5, 1977. "Sleepy John Estes was one of the most individual of all recorded blues singers. He sang with phrasing that fairly dripped with expressiveness in a high crying tone that seemed often like he was speaking to the listener. The songs he wrote were well suited to this treatment, dealing frequently with his and his neighbors' lives in Brownsville, Tennessee." Gerald Brennan. This session from July 19, 1974 was recorded just before Sleepy John and Hammie Nixon departed for a tour of Japan. None of these performances have ever been issued. Sleepy John Estes, vocals, guitar; Hammie Nixon, vocals, harmonica, kazoo.
Track listing: Love Grows In Your Heart; Potato Diggin' Man; Talk; I'll Be Glad When You're Dead; Holy Spirit; 80 Highway; When The Saints Go Marching In; Corrine, Corrine; President Kennedy (Take 14); IGA; T Model Ford; Do Lord Remember Me; Vernita Blues; Mary Comes On Home; President Kennedy (Take 13); Talk; Brownsville Blues.
Recorded just three years before his death in 1977 (Elvis Presley wasn’t the only musician of note to die that year), On 80 Highway is a collection of 17 studio tracks by blues vocalist, guitarist, and songwriter Sleepy John Estes. Accompanied by longtime cohort Hammie Nixon on vocals, harmonica, and that most underrated of instruments, the kazoo, Estes offers rough and evocative interpretations of traditional songs, as well as a couple of his own songs.
First the obvious: this CD most likely will not appeal to a wide audience; it’s not going to set the charts aflame and it’s probably not going to posthumously catapult Estes into the spotlight. You won’t hear these songs during a particularly heart-wrenching and overwrought emotional moment on one of the many current indistinguishable television dramas, nor will any of these songs make the cut on the next Guitar Hero video game. But for fans of blues music or those simply interested in the rich history of how traditional songs are reinvented and reworked, On 80 Highway is a welcome release.
In many ways the album falls neatly within the boundaries of the blues, both in terms of subject matter and style. Songs like “Holy Spirit,” “When The Saints Go Marching In,” and “Do Lord Remember Me” cover familiar religious ground, two versions of “President Kennedy” are reminders as to how the blues could be both topical and political, and songs like “Corrine Corrina’ and “Mary Come On Home” are laments for the gal who got away. The specter of death is overtly invoked in some of the songs – Estes’ aggressive take on “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead” in particular – while Estes’ own “Brownsville Blues” also hints at mortality. And in true blues fashion, there’s also at least one bawdy and suggestive track as well, in the form of “Potatoe (Dan Quayle alert!) Diggin’ Man.”
The traits that defined Estes as a unique bluesman are apparent throughout the session. His guitar playing, never considered to be outstanding or top-notch, is passable but rough, with the occasional bum chord being noticeable. In many ways this warts-and-all approach actually enhances this release; it captures the singer at a particular moment of time, seemingly unconcerned with such technical shortcomings.
Though Nixon provides excellent textures to many of the songs – his harmonica and kazoo playing ranges from subtle and reserved to frenzied and manic, and also compensates for the singer’s sometimes shaky guitar work – Estes’ unique voice is what really carries these songs. Estes’ approach has often been described as “crying the blues,” which is still an apt description. His voice carries an emotional weight to it; in his mid-70s at the time of this recording, Estes’ voice is plaintive, weathered, and worn.
The album also offers interested fans another chance to revisit Estes’ often-tragic life. Completely blind at the time of this recording, Estes lived in poverty and anonymity in Brownsville, Tennessee for much of his life. Because he tended to sing like an old man, even in his youth, it was assumed that he had been dead for years as he seemingly dropped off the blues map (Samuel Charters and blues historian Bob Koester, who provides liner notes for this release, are credited with “finding” Estes in 1962 and getting him to resume recording and touring). After a long professional recording and touring career that started in the 1920s, Estes died of a stroke in 1977.
While some blues aficionados might argue that On 80 Highway doesn’t carry the power and emotional qualities of Estes’ earlier songs (his recordings for Victor Records, Decca, and Bluebird still sound relevant today), it’s still a welcome release for one of the blues genre’s most enigmatic and fascinating figures.
Tennessee blues legend Sleepy John Estes (1904-1977) spent the early part of his career recording sides for the Victor, Bluebird and Decca labels. In his later years, Estes was recorded in Chicago by Delmark Records. On 80 Highway, recorded in 1974, is a previously unreleased session from the Delmark vaults featuring Estes singing and playing guitar with his long-time collaborator Hammie Nixon singing and accompanying on harmonica.
There's an element of comfort heard in Estes' emotional vocalizing. His high-pitched inflections and relaxed phrasing is irresistible. Like any convincing blues man, Estes' sells his brand of empathy as though he were working on commission. Who couldn't buy-in to the regret and despair heard on "I'll Be Glad When You're Dead" and the title track? Sincerity and a lifetime of heartache pours out of every moan and plead on "Do Lord Remember Me." One of the more endearing tracks on the disc is "President Kennedy," where Estes expresses lament over the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
Although subtle, and relegated to a background role, Estes' guitar playing is rhythmically strong. On tunes like "Mary Comes On Home" and "Brownsville Blues," both Estes originals, the guitarist stirs up a punchy pulse when singing and instinctively backs off with quiet chords during harmonica breaks.
Nixon, who like Estes grew up around Brownsville, Tennessee, outlines each track with colorful harmonica lines. Proving to be more than a mere sidekick, Nixon lends his growling, rough-around-the-edges voice to eight tracks. The seemingly spontaneous harmonizing between the two friends on "Holy Spirit," "When The Saints Go Marching In" and "Corrine, Corrine" is as down-home as it gets. A highlight of the disc is Nixon's expressive vocal lead on the suggestive "Potato Diggin' Man."
Estes and Nixon were the real deal. On 80 Highway is a gem of a recording that captures the essence of southern country blues.
About Sleepy John Estes
Born January 25, 1904, in Ripley, Tennessee, Sleepy John Estes was one of a sharecropping family of ten. His father Daniel was a guitarist, and this influenced his son to play. Young Estes was blinded in his right eye from a baseball accident at the age of six, limiting further athletic endeavors. His interest in music prompted him to build crude guitars from cigar boxes, which he played at local house parties as a child. His nickname "Sleepy" stemmed from a chronic blood pressure disorder that gave him fits of narcolepsy. In 1915, Estes moved with his family to Brownsville, Tennessee, where he met mandolinist James "Yank" Rachell.
Estes teamed with Rachell to play house parties, picnics, and the streets in the Brownsville area from 1919 to 1927. He also partnered with local harmonica player Hammie Nixon, hoboing Arkansas and southern Missouri with him from 1924 to 1927. At this time jug band music was wildly popular, so Estes started the Three J's Jug Band with Rachell and jug player Jab Jones. The Three J's played Memphis, where they competed for exposure in a competitive scene dominated by the Memphis Jug Band. Other rivals included Jack Kelly's South Memphis Jug Band, which played the prestigious Peabody Hotel weekly, and Robert Wilkins's troupe. Estes's band worked Beale Street, vying with Memphis denizens Furry Lewis, Gus Cannon, and Delta bluesman Son House for tips and
house party jobs. When Memphis jobs were scarce the Three J's traveled north, playing the streets and parties in Paducah, Kentucky.
When the Victor recording company sent a field recording unit to Memphis in September 1929, Estes recorded several sides backed by the Three J's, with Jones playing piano instead of the jug. Other acts to record for Victor on this trip included the Memphis Jug Band, Frank Stokes, and Cannon's Jug Stompers. Victor deemed the four songs Estes recorded during these sessions worthy of release. His stature as a Memphis bluesman was assured when he was invited to record again for Victor in May 1930. This session yielded the
up tempo "Milk Cow Blues," a tune Robert Johnson would later record as "Milkcow Calf Blues." In "Milk Cow Blues," Estes's clear, warbling vocals are propelled by his insistent guitar strumming. Jones pounds his piano in double time while Rachell's mandolin trills echo the vocals.
Pursuing their musical careers, Estes and Nixon moved to Chicago in 1931 where they played parties and the streets. Arkansas bluesman Big Bill Broonzy recalled in his memoirs that in 1933, Estes judged a guitar contest that Broonzy lost to Memphis Minnie. The Depression had racked the recording industry, and the Estes/Nixon team did not record until a July 1935 date with the Champion label. Among the sides recorded were "Drop Down Mama" and "Some Day Baby Blues," tunes that became staples for a later generation of bluesmen. Estes's plaintive vocals were ably accompanied by Nixon's mournful harp, creating a subtle shade of blues. They left Chicago in the late 1930s to travel the country playing lumber camps, parties, and street corners for four years.
The Decca label brought Estes to New York City to record in 1937 and again in 1938. Backed by his cousin Charlie Pickett on guitar and Nixon on harmonica, Estes again waxed fine blues but his sound remained rooted in an older Memphis style. He was paired with younger guitarist Robert Nighthawk, perhaps to modernize his sound, for his last Decca session in 1940. A year later he recorded for the Bluebird label backed by kazoos and a tub bass in a swinging session with the Delta Boys, who echoed Estes's jug band sensibilities.
Estes returned to sharecropping in Brownsville in 1941.In 1948, he and Nixon recorded again for the Ora Nelle label but the work went unreleased. Estes went completely blind in 1950 and elected to try his hand at recording again. A 1952 session for Sam Phillips's Sun Records was held at 706 Union Avenue, but the result did not approach his earlier work. Estes was rediscovered in 1962 during the blues revival that revived the careers of Mississippi John Hurt, Son House, and Skip James. He cut several albums for Delmark and returned to touring with Hammie Nixon before health problems confined him to Brownsville.
Sleepy John Estes died June 5, 1977, and is buried at Durhamville Baptist Church in Durhamville, Tennessee.