In the early fifties the Baton Rouge-Crowley area of South Louisiana was a hotbed of Cajun, blues, zydeco, country and that new music called rockabilly. There were three men who wanted to record it all: Eddie Shuler, Floyd Soileau and Jay Miller.
Leslie Johnson aka Lazy Lester recorded The Call me Lazy in 1958 for the now legendary record producer, songwriter, Jay Miller in his studio in Crowley, Louisiana.
Lester was born in Torras, Louisiana in 1933 and moved with his family to Scottlandville, a suburb of Baton Rouge, when still a small boy. He began to play the harmonica at the age of nineteen, listening to the sound of Chicago harmonica bluesmen like Little Walter and Jimmy Reed, who was his favorite. “I’ve got my own style. I just kept foolin’ around wit it ‘til I got the sound outta it that I wanted.”
His introduction to Miller was in the manner of many other Miller artists – they came to his studio hoping to get the chance to cut a record. Around 1957 he got his chance, Miller recalls.
“One day Lightnin’ Slim (father to the ‘Swamp Blues’ sound) walked into my studio to cut a record, accompanied by a tall, slender, young stranger, introduced to me as Leslie Johnson. I learned that Lightnin’ had met Leslie on a bus to Crowley, but had not heard him sing of play. Having a few minutes to spare before the session, I put Leslie in the studio and the rest of us went into the control room to listen. I was surprised at what I heard. It was much more than I expected. I was immediately convinced that this was an artist of great potential – not only as a recording artist in his own right, but he was the harmonica player to use on Ligntnin’ Slim’s recording session.”
Miller continues, “During the audition, I could not help but notice the slow lazy-like manner in which Leslie handled himself. I was convinced that Leslie Johnson was not the right professional name for him. It just had to be Lazy Lester. When I made the suggestion to him, I was pleasantly surprised that he actually liked it.”
Miller had found another fine bluesman and invaluable session-man, appearing on many records, not only blues but also Cajun, Zydeco and even some early rockabilly. He not only played harmonica, he played a pretty good guitar, washboard and drums – actually using brushes on a cardboard record box or slapping on a newspaper laid across his thighs. Usually Lester was the anonymous figure behind Miller’s famous percussion sound – just listen to any of Slim Harpo’s fast songs – the Rolling Stones did – listen to I’m a Kingbee.
He continued to back Lightnin’ Slim on his famous ‘swamp blues’ recordings as well as many others. He also became a member of Lightnin’s band, playing the roadhouses, juke joints and Saturday Night Dances all over the South and as far North as Chicago.
Miller began recording Lester in 1957 and continued to do so until 1966. He recorded a number of songs including I’m a Lover Not a Fighter, later covered by the English group The Kinks. He also recorded Sugar Coated Love and I Hear You Knockin’, both covered by The Fabulous Thunderbirds in the 1980s. An album was released in 1967 called True Blues which comprised of 12 songs featured a good cross section of Lester’s record output.
From 1966 to the end of 1970 he continued to live in the Baton Rouge area. In December of 1970 I was promoting blues and had just rediscovered Lightnin’ Slim living in Pontiac. I sent a bus ticket to Lester to come up North to do a reunion concert with Ligntnin at the 1971 Chicago Folk Festival, being held at the end of January. The gig went very well – he also got to jam with his old friends Buddy Guy and Junior Wells. “What a night!” But a few weeks later, Lester was back in Baton Rouge.
In the mid 1970s Lester moved to Pontiac and has been living there since. He gigs around the Detroit, Pontiac area, sitting in with Willie D. Warren. In 1980 he performed at a big blues festival in Holland.
Lazy Lester deserves recognition. He was there at the beginning to help pioneer an identifiable Louisiana swamp-blues style through his accompaniment of Lightnin’ Slim and others, and he never tasted real success on his own. His unmistakable harmonica sound was unique one-phase and as Lightnin’ Slim hollered out on most of his recordings: ‘Blow your harmonica, son!’
Please Lester, blow it some more.