Most stories about the blues involve a train, but in Lazy Lester’s case, it was a bus.
Lester, born Leslie Johnson in 1933, grew up in Scotlandville and spent his teen years playing harmonica with a local group, the Rhythm Rockers, cutting his teeth on gigs with Guitar Gable. But he hungered for the big time. One fateful day in the mid-1950s, he headed to Rayne on the bus and spotted Lightnin’ Slim riding to Crowley to cut a record at Jay Miller’s Studio for Excello Records. Lester skipped his stop and followed Slim to the studio. The scheduled harp player, Wild Bill Phillips, was a no-show, and Lester convinced Miller and Slim he was up to the task. From there he became a mainstay on Miller’s roster.
In 1957, Lazy Lester, a nickname bestowed on him by Miller because of his languid vocal style, saw the first single under his name, “I’m Gonna Leave You Baby/Lester’s Stomp,” released on Excello. He followed that with a string of hits like “I’m a Lover Not a Fighter” and “I Hear You Knockin’,” with his nasal drawl and explosive harmonica skills helping to define the Excello sound.
From the jump, Lester was recognized as a singer and harp player with soul and grit. His impact on Southern blues is evidenced by the Mystic Knights of the Mau Mau naming their annual swamp blues festival the Ponderosa Stomp after a Lazy Lester Excello side from 1966.
Most artists slow their pace in their 70s, but Lester has lost none of his punch. His 2001 Blue Rose album, Blues Stop Knockin’, proved Lester still to be a powerhouse performer for whom age has only made him stronger. And at a May 2006 performance at Buddy Stewart’s Rhythm Museum, Lester was in fine form, howling like a blues coyote, even putting the usually unflappable Kenny Neal through the paces. Lazy Lester’s appearance at this year’s Baton Rouge Blues Festival on April 26 promises to be no less exhilarating. lazylester.net
Blues Week 2008
Various venues around the Baton Rouge area
For a full schedule of Blues Week shows, click here.