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,
smack in the middle of the great Excello studio, was Leslie Johnson, aka 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
After all, there aren’t many living bluesmen who’ve had major
hits 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 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
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
Excello studio. Since Crowley was just seven miles further than Rayne and because
Lester had a serious itch to be around big-time music making, he 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 records and 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 association.
Jay Miller, who wrote the songs along with most 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 the Excello 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, 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 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
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 pretension or ego, always accessible to his fans. You’d
be well advised to see him when he hits your town.