“They call me lazy, goodness knows I’m only tired.”
Leslie Johnson, better known as Lazy Lester, the last member of the pantheon of classic Louisiana swamp blues artists, died August 22 at his home in Paradise, California. He was 85.
During the late 1950s until the mid-1960s, Lester made scores of recordings at J.D. Miller’s studio in Crowley, Louisiana, many of which were released on Nashville’s Excello label. He was also a key sideman for nearly all Miller-produced artists.
Greg Izor, who before Katrina was one of New Orleans’ premier harmonica players, was a close friend and pupil of Lester.
“Lester really brought blues and country together. He had a unique approach to words and writing.”
Izor also reflected on Lester’s playing and temperament. “His style on harmonica was very unique and hard to play. He had an unusual way of syncopating things. He was a wonderful guy, funny and clever, and he also knew how he wanted things done. He was a thoughtful guy.”
Lester Johnson was born in Torras, Louisiana, on June 20, 1933. By the time Lester reached his teens he was competent on guitar and harmonica. Little Walter—who Lester saw at the Temple Roof in Baton Rouge—became his major influence. By the mid-1950s, Lester often sat in with Guitar Gable’s band at the Blue Gardenia in Rayne.
In 1958, he caught a break while riding the bus towards Crowley, where J.D. Miller’s recording studio was. Lester happened to share the ride with Miller’s then-favorite recording artist, Lightnin’ Slim, who was on his way to a recording session. By chance, Lightnin’s harmonica player didn’t show and Lester was able to fill the slot. Three months later, Lester made his first record, “I’m Gonna Leave You Baby,” which like Lightnin’s, was released on Excello. It was Miller who came up with the Lazy Lester moniker as Lester often noted, “I was never in a hurry to do nuthin’.”
Lester soon became indispensable in Miller’s studio. In addition to his records—the best-known being “I Hear You Knockin’,” “I’m A Lover, Not A Fighter” and “Sugar Coated Love”—he backed several of Miller’s other artists on harmonica, guitar and woodblocks.
After 15 Excello singles, Lester put his harmonicas away and left Louisiana in 1966. He took manual labor jobs, and by 1970 he was living with Slim Harpo’s sister in Pontiac, Michigan.
Lester pretty much stayed in musical retirement until 1987, when a host of fans convinced him to get back in the studio. The result was the acclaimed Rides Again.
Lester often returned to Louisiana where he remained—or became—a fan favorite. He appeared at nearly all of the Ponderosa Stomps, an event named after Lester’s last Excello single. This past year he played at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and the Baton Rouge Blues Festival.