Back when blues was king and South Louisiana was the breeding ground for a blast of some of the most memorable American music ever recorded, at the heart of it was Lazy Lester. Those days are gone, and so too are most of its luminaries. And yet Lester carries the tradition almost single-handedly around the world several times over each year. As a true living legend, his talents are as much in demand as ever.
After all, there aren’t many living bluesmen who’ve had major hits, as Lester did on Excello Records in the 1950s and ‘60s, and are still performing with the gusto and precision of their youth. Lester hasn’t lost a thing, and as his voice has richened with age, you could make a strong case for him being in his prime now.
Leslie Johnson was born June 20, 1933 in the small town of Torras, Louisiana near the Mississippi state border to Robert Johnson and Maggie Hartford. He was raised mostly in Scotlandville, a suburb of Baton Rouge. As a boy, he worked as a gas station attendant, woodcutter and at a grocery store, where he purchased a harmonica and Little Walter’s famous “Juke” record. Lester began to blow harp, and in a relatively short time became somewhat proficient. One of his brothers had a guitar, which Lester also had learned to strum. He credits Jimmy Reed and Little Walter as his main blues influences, and you can easily hear Reed’s vocal style in Lester’s singing. But Lester isn’t shy about telling anyone that his first love was and still is country – the real, traditional kind. He got hooked early on Jimmie Rogers.
In his late teens, Lester joined his first ever band, a group called the Rhythm Rockers that included Big John Jackson on guitar, Sonny Martin on piano and Eddie Hudson as singer. Lester blew harp. The group played primarily high school dances, and Lester also began to sit in with Guitar Gable’s band on club gigs.
It was in the mid-1950s, on a bus, that fate turned Lester’s way, and the roots to what would become classic music began to grow. As Lester tells it, he was living in Rayne, Louisiana at the time and was on the bus riding home. Lightnin’ Slim, who was already an established recording artist, was also on the bus and was headed to Crowley to cut a record at Jay Miller’s Studio, where so much of the material for the Nashville-based Excello Records was being recorded. Since Crowley was just seven miles further than Rayne and because Lester had a serious itch to be around big-time music making, Lester decided to stay on the bus and accompany Slim to the studio. When they got there, the scheduled harp player, Wild Bill Phillips, didn’t show for the session. Lester told Slim that he had actually played with Slim’s band and thought he could handle the harp parts for the session. Remarkably, Slim and Miller gave Lester that chance, and he did not disappoint. A classic pairing was born, and Lester became a mainstay on Slim’s Excello recordings and his gigs. He’d follow Slim’s guitar licks with short, stabbing solos after Slim’s trademark prodding of, “Blow your harmonica, son.”
Producer Jay Miller was impressed by Lester’s work with Lightnin’ Slim, and in 1957 Lester debuted as a lead artist on Excello, recording “I’m Gonna Leave You Baby” backed with the instrumental “Lester’s Stomp” with accompaniment from Guitar Gable’s band, which included Gable’s brother Yank on bass and Clarence “Jockey” Etienne on drums. Before the record’s release, Miller had decided that “Lazy Lester” had more of a ring to it than “Lester Johnson.” Miller is said to have come up the nickname based on Lester’s slow, lazy style of talking. And as Lester’s said, “I was never in a hurry to do nothing.” In any case, the name’s stuck for almost 50 years now.
Lester’s first legitimate hits came in 1958 with
the release of “I’m A Lover Not A Fighter” backed with
“Sugar Coated Love.” Those two songs established
Lester as a star. Record buyers went gaga when they
heard that nasal-pitched voice and the harp work that
imitated the voice note for note. The arrangements
were tight yet still sounded homemade or organic.
There was a rhythmic edge to the sound – something
that we now know as the “Excello Sound.” These songs
went as far as any others in establishing that
Jay Miller, who wrote the songs along with much of the Excello output, realized quickly that Lazy Lester was a perfect vehicle for his budding vision, and the two collaborated on many great songs and arrangements to come.
Lester hit again with the follow-up record, “I Hear You Knockin’”/“Through The Goodness of My Heart,” which featured a young Warren Storm on drums. Storm would go on to become a major Excello artist himself.
For almost a decade, Lester remained as a regular Excello artist. Other notable songs from his 15 records for the company include “You Got Me Where You Want Me,” “Patrol Blues,” “Whoa Now,” “If You Think I’ve Lost You,” “The Same Thing Could Happen To You” and “Pondarosa Stomp.” In fact, his “Pondarosa Stomp” number is the namesake for one of today’s most important roots-based music festivals. The Ponderosa Stomp (note the slight spelling difference), begun in 2002, is a two-night celebration held each year in New Orleans between the weekends of the Jazz & Heritage Festival. It features the most legendary surviving blues and early rock and roll artists. The 2006 Stomp will be in Memphis May 9 and 10 and will benefit New Orleans and Gulf Coast musicians affected by Hurricane Katrina. Lester’s song, an instrumental number, was named after a slang term (Pondarosa) for the Angola State Prison, rather than as a tribute to the TV show Bonanza.
Lester was a constant in Miller’s studio, serving in the role of accompanying musician and arranger when he wasn’t the lead artist himself. Lester did everything. He sang. He played the harp. He played the guitar. And he provided every conceivable kind of percussion from actual drums to whacking on cardboard boxes, wood blocks or saddles, tapping newspapers in his lap, or even banging on walls. All told, he played on sessions for Lightnin’ Slim, Slim Harpo, Katie Webster, Lonesome Sundown, Whispering Smith, Silas Hogan, Henry Gray, Tabby Thomas, Nathan Abshire, Johnny Jano and many, many others.
Excello was more than just a blues label, and Lester’s innate talents served every type of session Miller produced, including Cajun, country, swamp pop, rock ‘n’ roll, R&B and blues. As Lester tells it, he knew the country music better than the guys who showed up to play it. But initially Miller wouldn’t allow Lester to perform on those sessions, believing that country was “white” music and having a black man on the record would hurt its sales. “That’s when I was ‘Colored,’” Lester likes to joke, poking fun at the changing labels for minorities through the years. Lester would teach the white country artists how to play the songs before they rolled tape. Finally, it got to the point where some of the country artists said to Miller, “Why don’t you just let Lester play on the song? He knows it better than any of us.” Lester still loves country and includes in all of his performances beautiful renditions of standards by Jimmie Rogers and Hank Williams.
Through all of his influences and associations, Lester’s crafted a style as unique as his nickname. He calls it “swamp blues,” and it’s a mixture of blues, swamp pop and classic country. Lester says it’s a “down home” music without the additions and subtractions that other more urban-styled blues has included.
Lester called it quits with Excello and Miller around 1966 and worked various day jobs including road construction, trucking and lumberjacking. Around 1969, he moved to Chicago for a very brief stint.
In 1971, he reunited with his old buddy Lightnin’ Slim for a concert in Slim’s new hometown of Pontiac, Michigan. On the trip, Lester met Slim Harpo’s sister who also lived in Pontiac, and in 1975, he moved to Pontiac to be with her. After he moved, he retired from music. Like so many musicians, he’d tired of the garbage that can go with making your living as a performer. After a few years, he resumed some occasional playing with a few of the Detroit blues artists. Finally, in the late ‘80s, he began performing regularly and realized he was in significant demand. In 1987, he recorded Lazy Lester Rides Again for the Blue Horizon label in England. The record was released on Kingsnake in the U.S. and won a W.C. Handy Award for Best Contemporary Blues Album. In 1988, Alligator Records released Harp & Soul, further alerting the world that Lazy Lester was done resting. Since, he’s recorded two records for Antone’s and one direct-to-disc for APO Records. All of his Excello material has been reissued by various labels, primarily in the United States and England.
Through the popularity of these recordings and as the Excello story has become the stuff of legend, Lazy Lester has enjoyed tremendous popularity worldwide. In 1998, he was inducted into the Louisiana Blues Hall of Fame. In 2004, he played at Radio City Music Hall in New York as part of Martin Scorsese’s Year of the Blues super concert that resulted in his Lightning In A Bottle documentary. The concert included what was perhaps the most impressive lineup of blues stars ever assembled.
Lester recently moved to Paradise, California to be with his girlfriend, Pike. He regularly performs both as a solo artist (with acoustic guitar, rack harmonica and foot percussion) and as the front man with a band, playing either harmonica or guitar. He knows more jokes than many comedians, and he’ll almost always include a few in his performances. Talk to him off stage, and he’ll tell you quite a few more. He’s just one of the guys and goes about his business without any pretense or ego, always accessible to his fans. You’d be well advised to see him when he hits your town.