Sleepy John Estes, born into a sharecropping family just outside of Ripley, Tennessee but raised in Brownsville, was a singer, guitarist, songwriter, and generally recognized as one of the most important artists in blues history. He got the nickname “Sleepy” from his frequent naps.
Estes lost the sight in his right eye after an accident that occurred as a child. Afterwards, he learned to play guitar at parties and picnics around his home, often with mandolin player Yank Rachell. In the 1920s, Estes, Rachell and harmonica player Hammie Nixon went to Memphis, where they played on street corners and in parks.
Estes began his recording career in 1929 in Memphis with Victor. Two years later, he and Nixon relocated to Chicago where Estes recorded for Decca. From 1940 to 1941 Estes recorded with Bluebird Records. “Someday Baby” (also known as “Worried Life Blues”), his most noted Bluebird release, became one of Estes’s trademark numbers and a blues standard.
In 1948, Estes returned to Tennessee and ended the first phase of his recording career. He continued to work around Brownsville, occasionally performing in Memphis. Estes and Nixon recorded for Memphis label Sun Records in the early 1950s. By this time, however he had lost the sight in his left eye leaving him totally blind. Estes faded into obscurity with many blues fans thinking he had died.
In 1962, Estes was rediscovered living in poverty in Brownsville. He was swept up in the folk-blues craze of the period and his career was revived. He appeared in two documentaries: Citizen South and Citizen North in 1962 and The Blues in 1963. He signed with Delmark Records and recorded The Legend of Sleepy John Estes and other albums throughout the 1960s. In 1964, he played the Newport Folk Festival and went to Europe with the American Folk Blues Festival package. Estes was featured at the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife in 1970 and 1973 and later toured both Europe and Japan. His recording catalog grew with more releases from Delmark and smaller labels such as Fontana.
Most of Estes’ recordings were original works with “Diving Duck Blues,” “Milk Cow Blues,” and “Someday Baby,” becoming blues standards with adaptations by B.B. King, Muddy Waters, and Taj Mahal. His songs were also covered by Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, The Kinks, Willie Nelson, and Eric Clapton, to name just a few.
Estes was a major influence on his neighbor John Lee Williamson (the first Sonny Boy), whose vocal style came directly from the way Sleepy sang, and his love for harmonica from Hammie Nixon, who introduced him to the instrument. Indirectly through Sonny Boy, Estes’ influence on Chicago blues was immeasurable.
John Adam Estes died in 1977 in Brownsville of a stroke. He was posthumously inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1991.