Published on July 14th, 2014 | by TLV News0
Lazy Lester: Road Trip to the Blues, Summer 2014
This article originally appeared in The Local Voice #207. To download a PDF of this issue, click here.
by Rafael Alvarez (alvarezfiction.com)
Before there was Global Warming—at least our carbon-driven version of it—there was the sultry blue heat of Lazy Lester, born Leslie Johnson in 1933 in the long-vanished river town of Torras, Louisiana.
It was with Lester that my Summer of 2014 blues voyage—Ralphie on the Road, Volume 61—began in my native Crabtown; a late June gig at an American Legion Hall organized by the Baltimore Blues Society.
Best known for his harmonica work, Lester is one of the last of the old school greats, a 1950’s star for Excello Records and a multi-instrumentalist whom Buddy Guy, a compadre from the Pelican State, calls “one of the old masters.”
With former Nighthawk Pete Kanaras on guitar, Joe Maher on drums and Tommy Hannigan playing bass, Lester launched the evening with a bit of preaching: “If the Great Master made anything better than music, he kept it to Himself …”
It’s a quote of fabled elasticity, often credited to Kris Kristofferson in regard to pulchritude—perhaps the greatest subject of the blues—and to William S. Burroughs on the subject of heroin. I’m with Lester on this one.
Just as Lester, who left Baltimore over the Fourth of July holiday for a tour of Norway, Finland, and Spain, was with Lightnin’ Slim [Otis Hicks] on a 1956 Excello single called “Sugar Plum.”
As a session man for the Nashville-based Excello, which used recording studios in Crowley, Louisiana, Lester sometimes provided percussion with a rolled up magazine on a cardboard box.
“Anything we could get some noise out of,” said Lester.
Getting his turn in the spotlight, Lester cut 15 singles for Excello under his own name between 1958 and 1966, all in a sexy, gyrating groove—the sound that put the kick in “The Pondarosa Stomp”—which non-musicians would later call “swamp blues.”
On stage in Baltimore, Lester wore a t-shirt with an image of his 1958 Excello 45 “Sugar Coated Love,” a blues as close to rock and roll as corn husks are to tamales.
“Love,” has been covered by many, including The Fabulous Thunderbirds and their Lone Star sister Lou Ann Barton. The Leland-born Johnny Winter, who began following Lester as a teenager in Beaumont, Texas, included it on his 2004 Virgin Records release, I’m a Bluesman.
One of the highlights of the current blues season is the four-CD release of Winter’s True to the Blues on Columbia, a career-spanning anthology featuring Winter’s ten-minute shellacking of B.B. King’s “It’s My Own Fault.”
Winter, whose upcoming release, Step Back, will feature Billy Gibbons and Dr. John, headlined the 2013 Oxford Blues Festival, set this year for July 17th–19th and featuring Big Joe Shelton and Castro “Mister Sipp” Coleman.
A week before his Baltimore show, on June 20, Lazy Lester turned 81; and his voice remains strong. After “Sugar Coated Love,” he made a technology joke known to every Elvis fan in search of a “45 adapter” and long lost on the iPod generation.
“I’m gonna turn this over and play the flip side,” he said, smiling.
And then rocked into “I’m a Lover Not a Fighter,” a gem which Ray Davies and The Kinks Merseyed-up for their self-titled UK debut LP in 1964.
Afterward, sipping a beer with his wife, Finland-born Pike Kaksonen, the affable Lester talked about shepherding the true blues from the Eisenhower-era into the 21st century.
“Just keep on keepin’ on,” he said between sets. “It feels great to be one of the last ones standing, still performing.”