By David S. Rotenstein
©1991 D.S. Rotenstein
Atlanta, Ga., March 1991
"I never get in a hurry; I'm never in a hurry," says Leslie Johnson of why he is called Lazy Lester during a recent phone interview from his home in Michigan. In 1957 he became Lazy Lester during a recording session with Lightnin' Slim. Record producer Jay Miller gave him the name after noticing his slow, lazy-like harmonica style.
The 57-year-old harmonica ace plays what he calls "swamp blues." A mixture of blues, Cajun, zydeco, and country, swamp blues emerged in southern Louisiana during the 1950s. During his childhood in the suburbs of Baton Rouge, Lester cut his musical teeth on them. "Downhome stuff, we call it," says Lester.
"We all playing practically the same thing," explains Lester of what sets swamp blues apart from other styles like Delta and Chicago. "But when it [the blues] goes to Chicago and stuff like that, they always add something to it, or [are] subtracting something from it.... What we kept as downhome stuff, I just call it swamp blues for some reason, I don't know. I never could explain why."
Lester moved from his native Louisiana to Pontiac, Mich. in 1975. "When I first came here, I didn't think I'd like it, when I came here in `71, worked with Lightnin' from January until the 15th of March in Pontiac and then I went back home," recalls Lester. The gig that brought Lester up north was a reunion show for him and Lightnin' Slim held at the University of Chicago Folk Festival.
During that trip to Michigan Lester met Slim Harpo's sister. What Lester describes as a "long story" ensued and the two fell in love. "And I came back up here in `75 and I've been here since," he says trying to avoid that particular "long story."
Between 1976 and 1987 Lester went on a performing hiatus. "Well, I didn't want to do it any more. Like I say, long story, long story," says the evasive artist. "I don't even remember, I couldn't explain the reason, you know, that jazz, you know."
In 1987 Lester revived his performing career by embarking on a tour of England. After his return to the States, the English label Flyright released a sampling of some of Lester's early Excello label singles from the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Most of Lester's repertoire consists of covers of country blues classics like Eddie Boyd's "Five Long Years" and Slim Harpo's "Raining in My Heart." "It's old material, but different versions," he says of the many covers preformed on his albums.
Last year, during a tour of Finland, Sweden, Norway and Holland, Lester visited with guitarist Eddie Boyd in his Helsinki home. "Oh, man, it was great. We stayed there about 3 or 4 hours talking with him. Real great guy, he's 75 years old," Lester offers, without prodding.
One of Lester's favorite songs is "Bloodstains on the Wall." Lester explains, "That song was written by Jimmie Rodgers, I think. I don't know for sure. It was one of my favorite songs; there wasn't nothing special about it, I just like the song." When Lester performed at the 1987 WRFG Blues Barbecue, he "dedicated" the tune to a noisy little girl playing near the stage whose mother, upon hearing the dedication, immediately snatched the girl up. "I remember something like that," says Lester.
Although Lester is best known for his fluid and emothional harp style, his musical career began with the guitar. "I started playing on an old Bluebird acoustic my brother bought for me a long time ago from a man in Arkansas -- he played some beautiful slide, that old man did," remembers Lester.
When he was young, Lester listened to the country station from New Orleans and played guitar. He credits much of his country style to imitating many of the songs he heard played by disc jockey Ray Rogers. "I was fond of country music and that's how I learned so much about the guitar."
To date, Lester has cut 7 records and he is unsure about future recording plans. In 1988 he recorded his first new album at King Snake Studios in Sanford, Fla. "Harp and Soul" fully displays Lester's country roots, with masterful covers of "Five Long Years" and "Dark End of the Street."
Lester's rollercoaster career aside, his harmonica virtuosity earned him a write-up in 1979's Blues Who's Who. Before his comeback in 1987, Lester was best known as a side-man to bigger acts like Lighnin' Slim. Since 1987, he has played with a myriad of artists who now back him up. These days he is traveling with Loaded Dice, who include guitarist Rob Nelson and promoter Fred Reif on washboard. On Mardi Gras, Lazy Lester and Loaded Dice will spice up Blind Willie's. So "Faissez le bon temps rouller" and get ready to do the "Alligator Shuffle," Lester's back in town.