When Leslie Johnson a.k.a. Lazy Lester handed the bus driver the added 25 cent fare to go the seven miles from Raines to Crowley, Louisiana, the driver refused his money. “I heard you talkin’ to that guy,” explained the driver. “And this might be your lucky day.”
It was as if that driver knew that Lazy Lester’s conversation on that bus with Lightnin’ Slim was a game changer. Lightnin’ Slim was on his way to a recording session, and Lester wanted to tag along. That fortuitous hookup in 1952 would be Lester’s introduction to Excello Records. And the sound Lester made on percussion, harmonica and vocals would become an integral part of “the Excello sound.”
Lester recorded with Lightnin’ Slim, Slim Harpo, Lonesome Sundown and others on the Excello roster. His own songs “I’m A Lover Not A Fighter,” “I Hear You Knockin’,” and “Sugar Coated Love” ended up being covered by artists as disparate as The Kinks, Freddy Fender, Dave Edmonds, Dwight Yoakam, and the Fabulous Thunderbirds.
Crowley was known as the rice capital of Louisiana100 miles from Baton Rouge. Studio owner Miller was himself a Cajun musician. He had started recording local rhythm and blues records that he distributed through the Excello Records label in Nashville. Excello would hawk Miller’s records through Ernie’s Record Mart, a mail order company that advertised on Nashville’s WLAC, a 50,000-watt AM station that could be heard late at night all over the country.
Lazy Lester immediately recognized Lightnin’ Slim when he saw him on the bus. “I had seen Lightnin’ a few nights before at The Blue Moon, a club in Arlington. Lightnin’ himself left his guys playin,’ and he was gone for a while. So, I got up and played one or two tunes with those guys, and I went back to the bar. Lightnin’ came back, and he didn’t even know I’d played with those guys.
“On the bus going to Raines, I saw Lightnin’ and said, ‘Where ya going?” He said, ‘I’m going out to Crowley and do some recording.’ And we sit there and talked. I didn’t tell him I’d played with his band. I didn’t tell him nothing. Lightnin’ got off the bus in Crowley. So I got off the bus and went on inside, and Lightnin’ had ordered coffee and biscuits. So, I ordered me a cup of coffee and some biscuits.
“So, we got up and walked over to Jay Miller’s that was about two blacks or something like that. Jay Miller was standing in the door, and he said, ‘Well, Lightnin’ you made it.’ He said, ‘Yeah, I made it.’ He said, ‘Who is the fella you got w
ith ya?’ He said, ‘I don’t know. He’s gonna come over and listen to what these recording things’ all about.’ Just like that. He left it just like I told him.
“So Jay said, ‘Well, let’s go see if we can find Wild Bill,’ which was the harmonica player, Wild Bill Phillips, and he lived in Port Arthur. Jay Miller had that big red Cadillac he bought when he wrote “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” (a number one country hit for Kitty Wells). I said, ‘I’ll go out there with ya. I’m not doing anything. I just came to see what this recording stuff is about. I just came to listen.’
“So I bought me a little bottle of wine and stuck it in my pocket and jumped in the car, and we took off. We went out to Port Arthur looking for Wild Bill. Everywhere we went, nobody had seen Wild Bill. We went to Port Arthur, Orange, Beaumont, no Wild Bill ’cause he was a guy that traveled around a lot. He’s a street musician or something like that, but anyway, they didn’t find him. So we came back to Crowley, and J. D. (Jay’s initials) got on the phone and called for Henry Clemons.
“Henry’s mother said, ‘Yeah, he’s gone to Baton Rouge. He’s gonna start college at (Southern) University. I don’t know when he’ll be back.’ Henry was the same one who played “New Orleans Bound” (singing), “I’m going to New Orleans, buy me a mojo hand.” That was Henry Clemons on the harmonica on that, but anyway he was (out of pocket).
“(Miller said,) ‘Well, Lightnin’ you don’t have a harmonica. What are we gonna do?’ I said, ‘I’ll tell you what. I could play better than them (when I was little).’ He looked at me like a cow looking at last year’s calf. He said. ‘What?’ I said, ‘I play better (than them on record).’ He says, ‘Oh, you gotta be kidding.’ I says, ‘I’ll tell ya what. Go get me an A and a G.’
“So, he went and got me an A and a G. He had a brand new Marine Band harmonica, you know, ’cause I had an old beat up B flat in my pocket. They didn’t know nothing about that either, but he went and got it. When he brought the guitar with the harmonica, I reached and got the guitar. He had an old Harmony. I reached and got the guitar and tuned it in D. I was tuning it to the harmonica, and that’s what really blowed his mind.
“He didn’t know what he had. I handed it to Lightnin’ and said, ‘Let me hear what you got,’ and Lightnin’ (scatting) and my harmonica fell in “Sugar Moma, Sugar Moma.” Oh, man! Jay jumped up and said, ‘I’ll be damned. I done drove all over hell in Texas looking for him, and the guy’s right here with me. Why didn’t you tell me?’ I said, ‘You didn’t ask. Let’s record this thing.’
“And we recorded it. We cut it twice. We put two cuts on it. Then, that’s it. So, we did another one, and I didn’t put the harmonica on it. The next one I took the upright with my fingers at the microphone. That was the flip side of that one. So, “Sugar Plumb” and “I’m Grown” whatever it was. He almost crapped his pants when I tuned on the guitar with the harmonica. He had what he wanted right there with him and didn’t know it.
“And that’s what started that. He said, ‘You know what? You should be shot. Everybody was looking for him, and I got him right here with me.”
It would be a couple of years before Miller recorded Lazy Lester as lead singer on his own songs, but from that first day Lester had become the go-to harp man in the studio. “That was me. From that day on in, they called nobody for nobody for the harmonica.” He also was instrumental in improvising an extra-terrestrial form of percussion that became one of Excello’s trademarks that especially inspired the young musicians of the British Invasion.
The height of Excello’s success came with Slim Harpo’s 1966 hit “Baby Scratch My Back.” Lazy Lester claims to have been actively involved in the sessions for that number one single although credits for all the Excello sessions were rarely written down and differ from source to source. Lester say, ‘“Scratch My Back’ was a thing that came up in Slim Harpo’s mind. He’s a very talented guy, and he had a guy called Bo Melvin and James Johnson was on the guitars on that.
“When he started that thing off, it sounded like it just needed a little something. It had William Bird on the drums, and it had a good beat going. I went and got my percussion box. I got me a conga and put it between my knees. What they call the scrubs. I put that out in front of me, and they had a little drum stick, and I tapped on that. Then, I grabbed me a piece of friction tape, electronic tape, and I taped this penny on my finger. So, I played that – pop, pop. So, he was sitting there looking – said, ‘Ok.’
“He started off again. I started on that conga drum and playing that pop, pop. Everything I did was so stupid until it fits what I did. It fits right in there. So, all that percussion, all that playing on saddle with a drum stick and playing on the side of the wall, all that kind of stuff, that was me.”
Blues renaissance man Dick Waterman likes to say that everyone who becomes obsessed with the blues has an entry point. As a college student in the early ’60s, my entry point was Jimmy Reed’s Live at Carnegie Hall album. In the same way that Frank Sinatra made big band jazz seem so easy and relaxed, Jimmy Reed did it for me in blues. His laconic but raw delivery was a thousand miles from the rock of the British invasion, and yet it seemed to touch the same nerve in me.
If Jimmy Reed was my drug of choice, his style was weed next to Lazy Lester and the other Excello artists’ smack. The Excello sound brazenly boasted a haphazard other worldly production that defied analysis. If the Chess sound with Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters was creating a studio sound under the leadership of A&R man Willie Dixon, Jay Miller was doing the same thing with his rural Louisiana sound. Excello was alligators and Spanish moss in heat, whereas Chess and Vee Jay were dusty Delta dirt roads and hollow logs.
No one could figure out where many of these sounds were coming from, especially on percussion, but also in Lazy Lester’s harp playing which was almost as visceral and evocative as Hendrix would later be on guitar. And it all rocked with a primal scream that was way more dangerous and real than the punk movement or death metal decades later. When Lazy Lester rumbles through his 1959 hit “Sugar Coated Love” with its lyric “She’s a real gone baby and I don’t mean maybe, she’s mine,” mothers locked up their daughters.
In the crossover academic white audience of that period, Excello was an acquired taste recognized by few other than young British rockers looking for the creative source to express their angst. One of the tragedies of that reality is that Lazy Lester and the rest of the Excello cadre including Slim Harpo, Lightnin’ Slim, Katie Webster, and Lonesome Sundown were little compensated for their amazingly powerful contributions to a genre that at the time was dismissed by many blues scholars as trash.
Lazy Lester, now 83, is the last major player alive in Miller’s portfolio. At one point in our interview he credited me with knowing more about him than he does himself. I asked him what more he’d like to know about himself, and he shot back, “If I’m ever gonna make any money before I die.” What else, I asked him. He chuckled and said, “Something that you wanted to know but never did get, and you didn’t get it yet.”
That question is why did Lazy Lester leave Excello in 1965 to take on a series of day jobs in road construction. trucking, and lumber jacking for 20 years. “Well,” he said, “I’m gonna see if you get what I get. You can see how close you are.” I told him I thought probably most of the songs that Jay was listed as co-writer on, Lester wrote himself, and he, Miller, basically took what Lester was doing to produce the Excello sound.
“Uh-huh, and the cash,” he said simply, “I wasn’t getting the cash.” And much as he likes Mike Vernon who recorded him on Lazy Lester Rides Again in 1987 for Blues Horizon in England, Lester didn’t get paid for that record either.
And yet, as time goes by, and the Excello Sound’s influence on generations of rockers grows and grows, the value of those early singles multiplies. Lester tells the story of a friend who bid $600 on an original Lazy Lester 78 and lost it to someone willing to pay even more. “He says, ‘Man, you know what? This stuff is worth a fortune.’ If I knew then what I know now, and I could’ve had a place to keep that stuff, I’d be a millionaire. A lot of people don’t realize those little white kids like you as a little youngster was interested in that stuff.”
Lazy Lester says he was Raful Neal’s first guitarist, and he recorded Harp and Soul with Raful’s son Kenny Neal for Alligator in 1988. He recorded two CDs at Antoine’s in Austin “in the late 90s and early 2000s” in sessions that included his “Blues Stop Knockin’” and “All Over You,” but he says the company went out of business before they were released.” Wikipedia credits him with a 2002 Boston Blues Society Lifetime Achievement Award, and he appears on the 2003 Martin Scorsese Lightning in a Bottle CD and DVD with B. B. King, Solomon Burke, Clarence Gatemouth Brown. Buddy Guy, Levon Helm, Chuck D, The Neville Brothers, Dr. John, John Fogerty, and Aerosmith.
He still tours and lives with his girlfriend in California. He incorporates country classics in his current repertoire and once had fellow African American country icon Charlie Pride tell him he should record country, but attitude towards an African American in that game was a hurdle he wasn’t willing to face. “Yeah! I’m gonna be a guinea pig? Beauty is only skin deep, and ugly is to the bone.
“(My lady) was at the laundromat, and so she sees a sign that says ‘white’ and one said ‘colored.’ So she put the white clothes over here and the colored clothes over there. The lady came over and said, ‘Sweetheart, this don’t mean your clothes. This means you’re white, and I’m colored. That’s what it means.’ She got her clothes and walked out of the damn place.”
Visit Lester’s website at: www.lazylester.net.