LAZY LESTER BIOGRAPHY
Lazy Lester (born Leslie Johnson in Torras, Louisiana, 20 June 1933) is a swamp blues harmonica master whose half-century career spans the 1950s to the 2000s. Best known for regional hits recorded with Jay Miller’s Crowley, Louisiana-based Excello Records, Lester also contributed as a side-man to swamp blues classics recorded by Excello label-mates including Slim Harpo, Lightnin’ Slim, and Katie Webster. His songs have been covered by (among others) The Kinks, 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, among others, Mike Buck, Sue Foley, Gene Taylor, Kenny Neal, Lucky Peterson, and Jimmie Vaughan (ex-Fabulous Thunderbirds brother of Stevie Ray Vaughan
Lazy Lester early career
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 career took off when he found a seat next to Lightnin’ Slim on a bus transporting Slim to an Excello recording session. At the studio, the scheduled harmonica player did not appear. Slim and Lester spent the afternoon unsuccessfully trying to find him, when Lester volunteered that he could play the harmonica.
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-back 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. By the late 1960s, Lester had given up on the music industry, working manual labor and pursuing his favorite hobby—fishing. Lester moved to Pontiac, Michigan, living with Slim Harpo’s sister.
In 1971, Fred Rei and Lester accompanied Slim. Years later, Reif and Lester were both in Michigan, from where Reif orchestrated a comeback. Lester recorded and played around the United States and abroad, backed by blues bands including, frequently, Loaded Dice.
Lester’s recordings in this period are on blues labels Alligator and Telarc, alongside releases in Europe. 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 September 2002, a Lifetime Achievement Award was awarded by the Boston Blues Society.