Discover who's Playing on the Backporch at Rev. KM Williams' CountryBluesTown!
Saturday, September 13, 2014
Lazy Lester (born Leslie Johnson, June 20, 1933)is an American blues musician, who sings, and plays the harmonica and guitar. His career spans the 1950s to the 2010s.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 story, 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.”
Best known for regional hits recorded with Ernie Young's Nashville, Tennessee based Excello label, Lester also contributed to songs recorded by Excello label-mates including Slim Harpo, Lightnin' Slim, and Katie Webster. His songs have been covered by (among others) The Kinks, The Flamin' Groovies, Freddy Fender, Dwight Yoakam, Dave Edmunds, Raful Neal, Anson Funderburgh, and The Fabulous Thunderbirds. In the comeback stage of his career (since the late 1980s) he has recorded new albums backed by Mike Buck, Sue Foley, Gene Taylor, Kenny Neal, Lucky Peterson, and Jimmie Vaughan.In the mid-1950s, Lester was on the margins of the Louisiana blues scene. According to Rolling Stone (February 23, 2006), Buddy Guy, before moving to Chicago, had played in Louisiana "with some of the old masters: Lightnin' Hopkins, Lazy Lester, Slim Harpo." When Guy left for Chicago, in 1957, Lester replaced him, on guitar, in a local band—even though Lester, at the time, did not own such a musical instrument.Lester's work on that first Lightnin' Slim session led the producer, Jay Miller, to record Lester's solo and also to use him as a multi-instrumentalist on percussion, guitar, bass, and harmonica on sessions headlined by other Miller-produced artists including, notably, Slim Harpo. "Percussion" on these sessions went beyond the traditional drum kit, and included a rolled-up newspaper on a cardboard box.
Miller dubbed Lester "Lazy Lester" because of his laconic, laid-baLester 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, one direct-to-disc for APO Records and a 2011 release for Bluestown. 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 several years ago 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.ck style.
More than his vocal delivery, Lester is best remembered for songs that were later covered by a wide range of rock, country, blues, and Tex-Mex stars, chiefly, "I'm a Lover Not a Fighter," "I Hear You Knockin'," and "Sugar Coated Love."
Lester stated that he wrote these songs, but almost all are officially credited to Miller, or to Lester and Miller. Lester also stated he received few royalties, which embittered him and made him skeptical of the music industry.
If disenchanted, Lester retained his harmonica, guitar, and vocal talents (the songwriting that had been muse to The Kinks and Dwight Yoakam having dried up long before). In 2003, Martin Scorsese included Lester in his blues tribute concert at Radio City Music Hall, a record of which was released as the film and album Lightning in a Bottle. The group photograph inside the album depicted Lester grinning, dead-center among peers and musical progeny including B.B. King, Solomon Burke, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, Buddy Guy, Levon Helm, Chuck D, The Neville Brothers, Dr. John, John Fogerty, and Aerosmith.