Blues Hall of Famer Lazy Lester is carving out his own piece of heaven these days at the northern end of the Central Valley in Paradise, California, far away from South Louisiana, where he built his legendary career.
Lester has been one of most prominent voices in South Louisiana, contributing hit after hit for the legendary Excello Records label, including “Sugar Coated Love,” “I’m A Lover, Not A Fighter,” “I Hear You Knockin’,” “You Got Me Where You Want Me” and “Pondarosa Stomp.”
At 80 years old, however, he’s not rocking and whittling his life away. Known best as a harmonica player, he was a guitar player first, and he’s still traveling the world, having survived six decades on the road, two “retirements” from the music business, a horrendous house fire that left him burned over much of his body and a heart attack a couple of years ago.
He frequently works either a solo act in Northern California, accompanying himself with foot percussion, or with a band. It might surprise you to read this, but when he does work with a group, he prefers the six-string, which was his first love, instead of harp. “I’m 50 percent gitar and 50 harmonica — I like to play gitar behind a harmonica player,” he says. “I know exactly how I want him to sound, and I know how to play to get ‘em to sound that way.”
That attitude would have served him well on last January’s Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise, in which he was part of Mark Hummel’s Harmonica Blowout, along with East Coast reed-bender Sugar Ray Norcia. But it was his harp-blowing that most of the passengers expected to hear. He spent a good deal of his free time in the shade at the aft end of the pool deck, however, picking his acoustic guitar and chatting with whoever strolled past. He’s always been in high demand, especially in Europe, where he was headed for a three-week Scandinavian tour when this interview took place.
Not bad for someone who got into the music business by chance. Born Leslie Johnson in Torras, La., in 1933, and raised in the Baton Rouge suburban of Scotlandville, he never was lazy, having worked as a gas station attendant, woodcutter and grocery store clerk. He learned to play guitar, picking it up from an older brother.
Influenced by Jimmy Reed and Little Walter’s hit, “Juke,’ he picked up the harp, too. Not long after, he was proficient enough to play high school dances as a harp player with his first band, the Rhythm Rockers, before picking up club dates with Guitar Gable, the North Carolinian bluesman who recorded for the Excello label. Later, he replaced Buddy Guy on guitar when Guy left another band to move to Chicago.
His life changed for good one day in the mid-‘50s, when he was riding a bus to his home in Rayne, La., and happened to sit down beside another Excello artist, guitar great Lightnin’ Slim, and struck up a conversation. The official story has been that Johnson was curious about the recording process and that Slim offered an invite to watch him work in the studio, which was only a few miles down the road in Crowley. That’s where producer Jay Miller recorded most of his sessions for his Nashville-based label. When Slim’s regular harp player, Wild Bill Phillips, failed to show, the story goes, Leslie volunteered to fill in.
But that’s NOT the way it went down, says Lester today, revealing the details to Blues Blast Magazine for the first time.
“I didn’t tell him I was a harmonica player because I wasn’t,” Lester says. “ I wasn’t gonna come up and start lyin’ from jump street…you know. A lot of guys’ll tell you how good they are and you put ‘em on a stage and, oh, you’ll be so glad when they get to the end of that song.”
The truth of the matter is that when he and Slim got to the studio and Phillips failed to appear, they got into a car and started searching for him or Henry Clement, also known as Big Chief Takawaka, the Swamp Doctah. He’s the Crowley native who recorded one session with Lightnin’ at age 19, when Wild Bill wasn’t available, and is featured on the song “New Orleans Bound.”
After a couple of hours on the road, they returned to the studio minus either harp player and Slim was ready to abandon the session. “I said: ‘What’s so special about these guys?’” Lester recalls. “’I can play better than that.’”
“What’d you say?” Slim responded. Lester repeated himself and asked for harps keyed to A and G. While Lightnin’ was getting them, Lester also tuned Slim’s guitar to be in harmony with the reeds. “That’s what made it so good,” he says today. They hit the first few notes to “Sugar Mama,” an old Lightnin’ Hopkins tune, and Slim was convinced. “Let’s cut it, son,” he said, emphatically adding: “You mean to tell me I’m ridin’ around here all over hell and Texas, looking for ‘em, and I got ‘em right here with me? Why didn’t you tell me?”
“You didn’t ask,” Lester replied. “And from then on, that was my job. He never looked for another one.” It was always him who responded when Lightnin’ spoke his trademark words: “Play your harmonica, son.”
Leslie Johnson became “Lazy Lester” in 1957, when Miller decided to record him as a featured artist with Gable’s band backing him up. He figured the moniker had more of a ring than Johnson’s given name when the company pressed “I’m Gonna Leave You, Baby,” backed by the instrumental “Lester’s Stomp.”
The nickname derived from Johnson’s slo-o-ow way of talking rather than his work habits. But, he adds, “I was never in a hurry to do nothin’.”
His first hit, “I’m A Lover, Not A Fighter” backed by “Sugar Coated Love,” struck gold for Excello in 1958. And Miller started using him extensively as an arranger, singer, harmonica player and guitarist in the studio with other Excello artists. The list includes a who’s who of blues superstars of the day, including, but not limited to Katie Webster, Lonesome Sundown, Henry Gray, Tabby Thomas, Whispering Smith and Silas Hogan. And he laid the groundwork for his one-man band routine by providing percussion with whatever he could lay his hands on – from his feet to wooden blocks to newspapers and even banging on the wall. “All that chicken scratch you hear – that was me,” he says.
He was an instrumental part in what became known as the “Excello sound,” which encompassed everything from swamp blues — a term that Lester coined — to zydeco, rock and country.
Lester claims he knew the country material better than the white musicians coming into the studio to record. In truth, country was his favorite, having grown up listening to Hank Williams and Jimmie Rogers on the radio.
“I just lo-o-ove country music,” he says. “I listen to all of ‘em. I got a lot of Merle (Travis). I got a lot of George Jones. Charley Pride was a bad boy, too.”
But his favorite is baritone Texan Don Williams, who’s recorded 17 No. 1 country hits. “Man, I don’t see why they don’t put him on top of everything,” says Lester, who usually includes country songs in his act. Even though he often taught the artists arrangements before they put them to tape, however, it took years and — finally — pressure from the musicians themselves for Miller to allow him to record with them. He feared that if the buying public found out that a black man was part of the session, they wouldn’t buy the record.
Lester stayed with Excello into the mid-‘60s, producing several more hits, including “Patrol Blues,” “Whoa Now” and “If You Think I’ve Lost You.”
He and Miller parted company in 1966, with Lester quitting the music business entirely in favor of a variety of backbreaking day jobs, ranging from truck driving to logging to road construction.
Like many musicians of his era, he felt the industry was ripping him off, and for good reason. It was common practice back then that the label owner or producer would demand part of the writing credit for a song before he’d record it. Don Robey, who owned Duke-Peacock in Houston was notorious for it. The Chess brothers claimed songwriting credit on some of their material. And even Dick Clark, the TV host who later became known as “America’s Oldest Teenager,” was the target of a federal investigation in his recording and publishing operations that he launched following the success of “American Bandstand.” It took dozens of lawsuits and government action before artists finally received their due.
Jay Miller was no better than the rest. “He put his name on a lot of my stuff,” Lester says. “He put Jay West on it. Anything you see with ‘Jay West’ – anybody’s tunes, like Lightnin’ Slim, Lonesome Sundown, that was him. He did write some stuff his self though. But you can’t sue somebody that don’t exist. They all had a thievin’ name. That’s what that was all about.”
Fortunately, Lester was one of the lucky ones when the truth came out, and justice was served. Unlike many of his peers, he lived long enough to receive a settlement.
Lester played off and on for about a decade, moving briefly to Chicago, then back to the Delta before following Lightnin’ Slim, who’d moved to Pontiac, Michigan.
He gave up the business for good, he thought, after settling down with Slim Harpo’s sister, who’d also moved to the region. Occasional gigs in Detroit followed before he realized that he had an audience around the globe that wanted to hear him. After a 20-year absence from the studio and after releasing the “True Blues” LP for Excello in 1967, he returned with “Lazy Lester Rides Again” for Britain’s Blue Horizon label. That release won him a W.C. Handy Award for Best Contemporary Blues Album – precursor to the Blues Music Awards — when reissued Stateside by Kingsnake later in the year.
He’s been a powerhouse ever since, with a dozen solo pressings to his credit on labels that have included Alligator, Antone’s, APO and AVI/Excello in the U.S., P-Vine in Japan, Ace and Flyright in the United Kingdom and about 40 more compilations.
Sadly, though, Lester isn’t writing any new material these days. “I haven’t written anything in ages,” he says. “But I could if I put my mind to it. I got enough stuff out there now that’ll play for ever, you know.”
Today, he works when and where he wants to. And he’s looking forward to returning to England for a tour in the fall, and is planning a Florida tour next spring, when he’s booked for a festival in Gainesville.
Meanwhile, he’s enjoying life with his galpal, Pike, about 175 miles north-northwest of San Francisco. But life in Paradise has its perils, too, he warns:
“We got yellowjackets here, and snakes, too – and the yellowjackets, they eat everything. Some people call ‘em ‘meat bees.’ Way out here in California, we got poisonous snakes and things like that. They always tell you, if you kill a rattler or copperhead or cottonmouth, somethin’ like that, always bury the head real deep…so those yellowjackets won’t get to it. They eat that, get the venom from that, and – bam! – they hit you and the snake does, too, even though he’s dead!”
Visit Lester’s website at www.lazylester.net