Lazy Lester (born Leslie Johnson, June 20, 1933, Torras, Louisiana) is an American Blues harmonica player, whose career spans the 1950s to the 2000s.
One classic blues harmonica, smooth, slippery and cleverly phrased levering in a tough work-song kind of vocal – takes you right there.
Best known for regional hits recorded with Ernie Young’s Nashville, Tennessee based Excello label, Lester also contributed to songs recorded by Excello label-mates. In the comeback stage of his career (since the late 1980s) he has recorded new albums backed by Mike Buck, Sue Foley and many well established others.
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 solo — and also to use Lester 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 including a rolled-up newspaper on a cardboard box.
Miller dubbed Lester “Lazy” because of his laconic, laid-back style.
More than his vocal delivery, Lester is best known for songs that were later covered by a wide range of stars, chiefly: ‘I’m a Lover Not a Fighter’,I Hear You Knockin’ ‘ and ‘Sugar Coated Love’.
Lester stated he wrote these songs; but almost all are officially credited to Miller, or Lester and Miller. Lester also stated he received few royalties , which embittered him and made him sceptical of the music industry – a common issue during that period. By the late 1960s, Lester had given up on the music industry, working manual labour and pursuing his favourite hobby — fishing. Lester moved to Pontiac, Michigan, living with the sister of Slim Harpo.
In 1971, Fred Rei and Lester accompanied Slim. Years later found Reif and Lester 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.
Although disillusioned, Lester retained his harmonica, guitar, and vocal talents. In September 2002, a Lifetime Achievement Award was awarded by the Boston Blues Society.
In 2003 Martin Scorsese included Lester in his blues tribute concert at Radio City Music Hall, a record of which was released as the film and album ‘Lightning in a Bottle’. The group photograph inside the album depicted Lester grinning, dead-center among peers and musical progeny including BB King, Sloman Burke, Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown, (another favourite of mine), Buddy Guy, Levon Helm, Chuck D, The Neville Brothers, Dr. John (and another), John Fogerty (and yet another), and Aerosmith.
Lester currently lives in Paradise, California with his partner.