It’s been over two decades since Lazy Lester left Louisiana for Michigan, but the timeless harmonica-driven sound he forged for Excello Records in the mid-’50s and early ’60s still courses through his veins.
On January 23, Lazy Lester’s swamp-blues rise again with the release of All Over You (Antone’s Records), a powerful new cd that pairs Lester with the cream of the Austin, Texas, blues community, including guitarists Derek O’ Brien and Sue Foley, bassist Sarah Brown and drummer Mike Buck. Like B.B. King’s recent Blues on the Bayou, All Over You is a career-defining effort, an album that matches vintage aesthetic musical values with ’90s production. Lester reprises some of his classic Excello hits ("I’m a Lover Not a Fighter," "Strange Things Happen," "I Made Up My Mind") and the swamp-pop anthem "Irene," and picks up the guitar again for haunting solo versions of "My Home is a Prison" and "Nothing But the Devil." His, well, lazy drawl is still arresting, and his harmonica playing packs a piercing tone and succinct directness. All Over You is all the more remarkable considering that a young Lazy Lester (a.k.a. Leslie Johnson) had never even considered a career in music until he took a fateful bus trip some 40-odd years ago.
"I was living in Rayne, Louisiana and working construction for a short period of time, working around Kaplan and Abbeville, around there," Lester remembers. "It had rained and work was off for a while so I went to Baton Rouge, and on my way back to Rayne, Lightnin’ Slim was on the bus. He didn’t know who I was, but I knew him. When I got to Rayne, it was only 25 cents more to go from Rayne to Crowley. So I said, I’m going to keep going to Crowley and see about this recording business they’ve got going on over here. I didn’t have no intention of making a record. So I got off the bus, and I told Lightnin’ that I’m going around with him to see about all this". After we got around there, I introduced myself, and Lightnin’ told everybody I wanted to see what was going on.
"So he went and got this big red Cadillac convertible, he was pretty warm, and we went on out to Port Arthur and Beaumont looking for Wild Bill Phillips, the guy that played harmonica. We rode around lookin’ for him, lookin’ for him, never did find him. So we came back around Lake Charles lookin’ for him, and he wasn’t there"so he had no harmonica player. So Lightnin’ said, I don’t what we’re gonna do. We got no harmonica player here, looks like we’re going to reschedule this thing. I said, ‘What’s so special about this harmonica player y’all are talkin’ about? And he said, ‘Well, he’s the one that does all the recording." I said, "I’m not trying to be funny, but I can play better than that. I’ve been playing that stuff for years." He said, "What?!?" I know what key he’s playin’ in; go get me a G and an A harmonica. Then I reached and got an old guitar he had, and tuned the guitar with the harmonica. His eyes were lit up like a Christmas tree. He said, ‘You’re ridin’ around with me all day and half of the night, and you didn’t tell me you played that good?’ That’s what started me with playin’ guitar with Lightnin’."
After establishing himself as an able sideman for Lightnin’ Slim, Lester became an all-around utility man at producer J.D. Miller’s Crowley studio.
"I was a drummer, and played guitar and bass too. When I started messin’ around with the harmonica in the studio, everybody wanted me to play with the harmonica. I played with Lonesome Sundown, and did some harmonica with some of the French guys down there, like Nathan Abshire. I’d play percussion, washboard, all that stuff."
Lester also established himself as a prolific and gifted songwriter, a valuable commodity for Miller.
"Anything that would come to mind, he would sit down and write, and I would sit down and write. He and I were pretty close. There’d be nobody in the studio but us. I’d go across the street and get a six-pack, and we’d drink a beer and he’d write some lyrics, and I’d put the music to it. Whenever somebody was coming down to record with him, we’d just put it on the record. Of course I wrote most of my songs myself, but he’d put his name on it," Lester laughs.
After his own successful run as an Excello artist, Lester grew disillusioned with the music business, and has played sporadically, alternating performing with day jobs. But All Over You is his first album in a decade, and with recent festival gigs in Europe, the time is ripe for Lazy Lester to be rediscovered by the blues world. Typically, Lester is modest about his recent achievement.
"We were just tryin’ to put a good record together, and I think we did. The stuff is so simple, you know, a three-year old can play that," he laughs.
Studio news"New Orleans harmonica man Rockin’ Jake is set to record his followup to Let’s Go Get ‘Em. John Gros is producing, and Jake’s studio band is top-notch: Brian Stoltz on guitar, Russ Broussard on drums, and David Lee Watson on bass" Joe Krown (pianist for Gatemouth Brown and Amy and the Hank Sinatras) is making preparations for his second CD, which will focus on Krown’s Hammond B-3 prowess. Krown also guested on recent sessions for Jumpin’ Johnny Sansone’s next cd, which features longtime Sansone guitarist Ricky Olivarez and the rhythm section of ex-Sonny Landreth (and John Hiatt) bandmates Dave Ranson (bass) and Kenneth Blevins (drums).
Upcoming shows to look forward to in January include Leon Russell (touring in support of his recent country-flavored Legend in My Time: Hank Wilson, Volume 3 cd) at House of Blues Jan. 7; soul and gospel matriarch Mavis Staples at Levon Helm’s Classic American Caf Jan. 8&9; also on Jan. 9, the biggest, baddest horn band in the land, Roomful of Blues, blows into House of Blues with a new singer (Mac Odom) and new cd (There Goes the Neighborhood). Speaking of Roomful, ex-Roomful sax man Greg Piccolo whose most recent cd is Red Lights on the Fantasy label) plays two shows at Levon Helm’s Classic American Café Jan. 12&13. Teenage whiz kid Jonny Lang’s recent A&M cd Wander This World is perched near the top of the Billboard blues charts, and expect to hear material from that album when Lang plays H.O.B. Jan. 11. Jan. 16 is a blues club-hopping night: Tab Benoit is at Mid-City Bowling Lanes, acclaimed electric bluesman Larry McCray makes a rare New Orleans appearance at the Mermaid Lounge, and the most intriguing show of the night is Louisiana bluesman B.B. Majors (who released one of the finest local blues CD’s of 1998, Evil Woman/Evil Ways) making his New Orleans club debut at Vic’s Kangaroo Café.
Finally, Jon Cleary returns home from his tour with Bonnie Raitt, and plays The Maple Leaf Jan. 22.