UPDATED 26 January 2017.

Did bluesman Sleepy John Estes influence Marc Bolan’s Tyrannosaurus Rex?

Before there was the bopster electric-guitar-boogie pop of Marc Bolan’s T-Rex, the group that essentially started Britain’s glam-rock phase of the early 1970s, there was the hip underground folk-rock of Marc Bolan’s T-Rex forerunner. T-Rex’s predecessor was Tyrannosaurus Rex, an early hippy-style band whose most interesting record, to me, was the ethereal, almost mystical, “Deborah”.
First released in 1967, Marc Bolan’s quivering vocal was something that struck me as totally unique. But then
I heard the celebrated African-American bluesman, Sleepy John Estes, with a track from 37 years earlier. This was “Milk Cow Blues” and, excuse me if this is drawing a very long bow, but Sleepy John’s singing made me think of Marc
Bolan’s tremulous “Deborah” vocal.

Marc Bolan’s band (mainly a duo) before he founded T-Tex and found glitter.

 

T-Rex’s predecessor was Tyrannosaurus Rex, an early hippy-style band whose most interesting record, to me, was the ethereal, almost mystical, “Deborah”.  First released in 1967, Marc Bolan’s quivering vocal was something that struck me as totally unique. But then I heard the celebrated African-American bluesman, Sleepy John Estes, with a track from 37 years earlier. This was “Milk Cow Blues” and, excuse me if this is drawing a very long bow, but Sleepy John’s singing made me think of Marc Bolan’s tremulous “Deborah” vocal.
Take a listen to both tracks and see what you think. Let’s start with Sleepy John Estes, a Tennessee singer and guitarist, born 115 years ago in 1899. On mandolin
is Sleepy John’s friend from his boyhood home of Brownsville, Tennessee, James ‘Yank’ Rachel, with whom he played for over 50 years.
Milk Cow Blues from 1930 by Sleepy John Estes (1899-1977) pictured here with a classic Fender Stratocaster.

It’s unclear who actually wrote Milk Cow Blues. The song has certainly been around since about 1920 and is usually credited to the great slide player, James ‘Kokomo’ Arnold, who released his version in 1934. But, as you’ve just heard, Sleepy John recorded it in 1930.
The track has since been recorded by everyone from Robert Johnson (who changed the title to “Milk Calf’s Blues” which Eric Clapton covered), to the Kinks (who credited the song to Sleepy John Estes), to Aerosmith and Willie Nelson. Elvis Presley cut a rockabilly version at Sun Studios in 1954 which they called “Milkcow Blues Boogie”.
Tyrannosaurus Rex’s “Deborah” hasn’t got the same pedigree as “Milk Cow Blues”; but if you haven’t heard “Deborah”, it’s worth a listen here. If only to hear the trippy, cosmic, fantasy-driven sounds of early British hippydom, of which Bolan was a guru. And to see if you think Marc Bolan was inspired by Sleepy John Estes.
Deborah by Marc Bolan’s Tyrannosaurus Rex (not T-Rex as described in the video below).

Now, how about this for some pioneering English blues-rock? The Kinks from 1965 with their version of Milk Cow Blues.

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