Lazy Lester

TrackSingle
I'm Gonna Leave You BabyExcello 45-2095
Go AheadExcello 45-2107
Tell Me Pretty BabyExcello 45-2129
I'm A Lover Not A FighterExcello 45-2143
Sugar Coated LoveExcello 45-2143
Through The Goodness Of My HeartExcello 45-2155
I Love You, I Need YouExcello 45-2166
Whoa NowExcello 45-2206
Lonesome Highway BluesExcello 45-2230
You're Gonna Ruin Me BabyExcello 45-2235

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Lazy Lester photo 2

Lazy Lester

 

Contributors: Dave Stephens – with Cal Taylor

If asked to come up with one word that was particularly applicable to each of the big names in Excello Swamp Blues, I’d probably hesitate for a moment and then respond as follows: Lightnin’ Slim – voice, Lonesome Sundown – blues, Slim Harpo – rhythm. For Lazy Lester there’d be no hesitation whatsoever. That word just has to be harmonica. There were plenty of other harmonica players who worked in the Crowley studio which produced such a torrent of swamp blues for a decade or so from the mid fifties onwards with Slim Harpo of course being one of them, but when Lightnin’ Slim bawled out “blow your harmonica, son”, there was a pretty strong chance it was our man he was pointing at. Lazy Lester worked with most of the Crowley artists at one time or another, and that list included even the aforesaid Mr Harpo. He is rightly renowned for such work. Indeed had it not been for one record, Lester would probably have gone down in history as “that harmonica guy at Excello”.

That record was I’m A Lover Not A Fighter coupled with Sugar Coated Love. It was his fourth single release out of 15 in all and came out in late summer 1958, by which time the other Excello big names were all up and motoring. What made that record instantly noticeable was the urgency with which he and the backing team addressed both songs which was contrary not only to his nickname, but also to the vast bulk of other records that came out of the Crowley, Louisiana studios used by the Excello swamp blues artists. That’s not to denigrate Lester’s other Excello records unduly; what they may have lacked in insistence they made up for via other factors like originality.

In terms of writing, both songs were credited to producer and Crowley studio owner, J.D. (Jay) Miller under his actual name; he also used the pseudonym Jerry West. A portion of Lester’s Crowley output– roughly a third – was credited to both Miller and Leslie Johnson (Lester’s actual name). Certainly, the A-side here has that touch of someone used to stringing together lyrics almost at the drop of a hat, which Miller was. He already had the experience under his belt of selling songs in Music City U.S.A. (Nashville).

Well I met a pretty girl, as pretty as can be
I thought she was my baby till she introduced to me
A great big tall fella, about six foot four
I shivered and I shook, couldn’t do any more

‘Cause I’m a lover not a fighter
Yes, I’m a lover not a fighter
I’m a lover not a fighter
And I’m really built for speed

Built for speed

The treatment was rumbustious with the whole thing propelled along by the twin guitars of Guitar Gable and Al Foreman with a boost approx half way through from Lester’s harp. It’s easy to understand why the Kinks chose this one though their version included touches of rockabilly, cockney and even extremely early punk, that certainly weren’t in the original. Lester didn’t change his approach too much over the years though; the clip at the start catches him telling us he’s still built for speed at the age of 78 in Antone’s Record Shop, Austin.

The tempo on the flip doesn’t let up in the slightest. The two guitarists conjure up something of wonder, a churning, boiling sludge with sharp edges; a number of white US blues groups based their whole act on this approach in years to come. There’s some weird clapping that could almost have come from a Gene Vincent outing. And for the break, producer Miller popped Lester into an echo chamber and out came something more sonorous and pulsating than usual, like sugar coated love – “the kind of love, make the old feel young, and make the north pole hot”.

I mentioned others who took the new Lester beat away and applied it all over the place. Lester himself didn’t. He used a variant of it on the immediate follow-up, I Hear You Knockin’ and that was about it.

But as usual I’ve got ahead of myself. Some words on Lazy Lester/Leslie Johnson’s origins wouldn’t go amiss.

He was born in 1933 in Torras, Louisiana near the Mississippi state border, but moved to Scotlandville, a suburb of Baton Rouge for work, initially of a non musical nature. He had started out strumming his brother’s guitar in his teens but his interest in music really went up a gear when he bought a harmonica while in Baton Rouge. According to manager Fred Reif’s sleeve notes to the Ace UK compilation I’m A Lover Not A Fighter, an early influence was the blue yodelling country star Jimmie Rodgers. However it was the Little Walter record Juke, that really lodged in his brain followed by a few from Jimmy Reed.

His first band was an outfit called the Rhythm Rockers, led by one Big John Jackson. This gave Lester experience playing live gigs at high school dances and proms, etc.. He met Lightnin’ Slim on a bus and tagged along as the latter journeyed to Crowley, home of Jay Miller’s recording studio. According to Lester, as retold in both the Fred Reif sleeve notes and the excellent book by John Broven, “South To Louisiana: The Music Of The Cajun Bayous”, the harmonica player who was meant to be recording with Lightnin’ that day, Wild Bill Phillips, didn’t turn up leaving an opening for young Leslie. That doesn’t seem to quite fit with the Lightnin’ Slim discography published by Stefan Wirz though elements of it are undoubtedly true. Wild Bill did play on Lightnin’’s first session but didn’t turn up for the second. Leslie/Lester’s arrival would appear to have been a little further down the line. However it’s a lovely story so let’s not muddy it any more.

Leslie started playing harmonica and sometimes guitar behind the Crowley greats like Lightnin’ Slim and others, and it wasn’t too long before Miller offered him the opportunity to record as the leader on a session. His first record, which came out in late 1956, coupled I’m Gonna Leave You Baby with an instrumental titled somewhat unimaginatively, Lester’s Stomp. The A-side, a slow to medium tempo affair with a very deliberate Lester and an ominously riffing guitar (from Guitar Gable), featured the lazy one answering his own statements with short harmonica phrases. There was also a clippy cloppy rhythm thing going on from something unconventional, a feature of several of Lester’s records plus a few on which he wasn’t the front man. The lyrics sounded autobiographical and probably were. The final line was the killer, “I’m gonna leave you baby ‘cause you stay drunk all the time.” This was one of those songs credited to West and Johnson so one would imagine that Lester walked in with it and Jay tidied it up. An impressive debut.

The flip came about because he only turned up at the studio with one song. Well that’s the official story but my bet is that our man wanted to wax his own “Juke” and, who knows, this might have been his last visit to a studio as the main man.

And he needed a name of course. Leslie Johnson wasn’t likely to stick long in a record buyer’s memory. Jay Miller came up with Lazy Lester. According to Lester in Fred Reif’s sleeve notes: “He said that I was never in a hurry to do nothin’, that I moved slow and had this lazy accent, so he just decided to call me Lazy Lester. Didn’t bother me none.”

In addition to making his own records and appearing on records from others, Lester’s contribution to the Crowley scene was considerable, very much belying that “lazy” sobriquet. He was often first man through the door ensuring the studio was set up correctly, and he provided both musical support via a range of instruments and “less obvious” musical support to many of the Crowley artists, across a range of genres. Stefan Wirz in his discography labels this not-so-musical support as “percussive” which is a good word; it usually implied banging, flicking or brushing something with something where neither of the somethings were drums or drum sticks. An example could be a rolled up newspaper against a cardboard box. One suspects that Lester also had a significant hand in many of those off-the-cuff arrangements. Perhaps if he’d had the ambition and opportunity he could have become a producer like Miller. I’m sure it’s too glib to say he was too lazy. It’s also true that there were very few black producers operating in the fifties so it wouldn’t have been perceived as a natural career path. Mention of colour reminds me that a significant number of the support musicians at Crowley were white. This was particularly true with Lester where in his later years he often worked with musicians like Al Foreman (guitar), Bobby McBride (bass) and Warren Storm (drummer) who were all white. This comment comes almost verbatim from the John Broven book wherein he also observes: “They were white, but they were such good musicians, so steeped in the South Louisiana tradition, that they enhanced rather than diminished the authority of the blues recordings. Quite simply, they swung.”

A reader who’s already had a dip into the essays on some of the earlier artists in the Swamp Blues series will, I hope, have noted the strong streak of individuality that attaches to each of them. I’m very pleased to say that I can put Lester up on that plateau as well. While all these gents seemed to have been marinated in the bayous and little swampy tropes sometimes jumped from record to record, each of these artists had his own characteristics which allowed him his own place in blues history.

Enough preaching, let me try and identify those attributes which made Lester more than just another swamp wannabe.

1. The “Lazy” was completely deceptive even if our man did announce in the song of that name, “They call me lazy, goodness knows, I’m only tired”. When this gent got into the studio, the sounds that came out of the session were at least as inventive if not more so than other music coming out of Crowley. Sure, Jay Miller was involved and the support musicians were excellent but the result seemed to be greater than the sum of the parts.

2. While the expectation would have been for Lester’s records to have been harmonica dominated, overdubbed or otherwise, they weren’t. The harp was there – and, yes, there were two near throwaway instrumentals – but the dominant sonic tone was usually set by guitars, often plural. The occasional sax and/or piano sometimes added extra colour.

3. Lester’s voice, while hardly a thing of beauty, was possibly more “swamp” than any of them. Slurred to the extent that there was melisma on almost every note, accented, raw at times and entirely natural. Nothing forced. Lester wasn’t one to shout and his mode of delivery was entirely suited to the songs, be they slow and lonesome blues, or easing into medium tempo conversational pieces, up to the rather more rare high gear jumpers.

Record #2 from our man was his self-promoting, They Call Me Lazy and it was very good, but it was the flip and I’ve selected the A-side, Go Ahead, which initially sounded like almost an archetype swamp blues with, yes, a lazy intro, and a guitar riffing in similar manner to the sounds you heard on some of the Lightnin’ Slim and Lonesome Sundown records. And yes again, there were the patented Lester percussive sounds instantly identifying the record as a Crowley product. Compared to those other gentlemen’s records, there may not have been anything too drastically new here but Lester already sounded like his own man, not indebted to anyone else.

Single #3, I Told My Little Woman/Tell Me Pretty Baby (seemingly the start of a reported conversation) was something new. That booming drum at the start of the A-side followed by piercing Jimmy Reed style harp and even sharper guitar, announced a sound that has me reaching for adjectives like “heavy” even while the vocal conformed to a blues monologue. But my vote out of this pair goes to Tell Me Pretty Baby which is even better than “I Told”. Like that side it has a sound that hits you immediately only on this it’s the deep, resonant rhythm guitar sound out of which a second guitar emerges to paint some highlights. Again, you feel, this is something you’ve not heard before. Other features hit more slowly like the brushing percussive noise which adds a complementary rhythm, plus the neat way that Lester leads into the final line, kind of hurried but not hurried. And I’ve not even mentioned the lyrics: “You’re going straight to the devil the very first day you die.” A triumph.

The John Broven book tells us that the two sides that made up Lester’s fifth single, I Hear You Knockin’ and Through The Goodness Of My Heart were recorded at the same session as I’m A Lover Not A Fighter and Sugar Coated Love. The sleeve notes to the Ace album referred to earlier (on which Broven was also involved) has it differently, but I’m going to stick with single session theory which for me is backed up by the aural evidence. The two guitarists are still knocking sparks off each other, and on the B-side, which is my pick, the drummer has a real need to be heard. This time it’s that gent who gives us the staccato up-tempo beat while solitary hand claps provide a more sombre note. The title is contained in the opening stanza which just tumbles out all over the listener:

Through the goodness of my heart, babe I gave my love to you (repeat)
All you gave me in return was the low down dirty blues

You know what’s coming and it does, but by the end of the song Lester’s all too predictably taking her back. A curious song title though which one might not have expected from a song writing pro like Miller who ostensibly wrote the number. One wonders whether it was Lester who came up with the phrase.

Jay very occasionally tried something different with Lester in terms of songs. 1959’s I Love You, I Need You is a good example. Any pop expectations immediately disappear out the window with the slow guitar intro which is in blues turnaround mode and the song turns out to be a blues ballad, something you didn’t normally hear at Crowley; it seemed to be more the domain of uptown guys like Little Willie John. Lester handles the material well contributing a harp solo that echoed his vocal, and one wonders if a chance was lost by not recording more in this vein:

Lester didn’t record all that many outright slow blues but ’61’s Whoa Now and ’63’s Lonesome Highway Blues are excellent records in that sub-genre. Curiously there are three versions of Whoa Now on YouTube but I’ve selected the take which according to the uploader was the one on the single, although it doesn’t have the best sound quality (see also Footnotes). It features some simply glorious sax from Lionel Prevost (using his ‘stage name’ of Lionel Torrence) plus the ever reliable Katie Webster on piano.

Lonesome Highway Blues, as a title, sounds as if it could have come from someone like Hank Williams rather than Lester. It’s worth noting that the website in Lester’s name does document a strong influence from Hank as well as Jimmie Rodgers. The record also has a few interesting production/arrangement features: the mouth harp is played by Sylvester Buckley from Silas Hogan’s band, there’s a second rhythm again like on Tell Me Pretty Baby, and one of the two guitarists, possibly Lester himself, makes single slow chord strokes on the up beat. Another marvellous track.

My final track is You’re Gonna Ruin Me Baby which was possibly the slickest sounding thing he ever did for Excello. Slick but still down-home with Lester giving us one of his most slurry sounding vocals, with an accent almost impenetrable at times. The twin guitar interplay is what makes this record though, courtesy of Al Foreman and Bobby McBride with the latter moving up from bass. This track was one of two featuring Lester to appear on the excellent Authentic R&B LP, released in the UK in 1964. It had the honour of following Lightnin’ Slim’s opener.

It was relatively rare for Crowley Excello artists to record songs from writers or performers from outside the Crowley environment (though Slim Harpo was a significant exception to that ‘rule’ with a couple of numbers late in his career for the label). There’s one track from Lester though, that does come in this category but it would appear that Jay Miller didn’t have full faith in Lester’s version since he didn’t send the tape to Ernie Young, boss of Excello in Nashville. The number was called Bloodstains On The Wall and it originated in a record from one “Honeyboy” released on Specialty in 1953. Honeyboy turned out to be Alabama born Frank Patt, the song’s writer, who’d been operating as part of a duo with pianist Gus Jenkins. Gus appeared on the record and Jimmy Liggins guested on guitar. Gus was also present for Frank’s only other single You Gonna Pay For It Baby/Gonna Hold On. The Lester version added plenty more light and shade, with the man himself supplying more harmonica than usual (via overdubbing) plus some fine piano from one Merton Thibodeaux. It’s a track that very nearly made it to the list and I can certainly understand the initial interest in the song from Lester and/or Miller; not many numbers open with the words “sheets and pillows torn to pieces, bloodstains on the wall.”

Before leaving the Lazy Lester Excello years, that is 1956 to 1966, I’d draw the reader’s attention to a nugget of information unearthed by Cal. In 1961, Lester featured in a support role on an LP from a blues artist whose nom-de-plume was Smoky Babe – his real name was Robert Brown. He was born in Mississippi and he died in Baton Rouge in 1973 at the age of 45. The album was Smoky Babe And His Friends and it was released on Folk Lyric in the US and 77 Records in the UK. On this LP Lester’s harmonica appeared on four tracks, one of which is on YouTube, Mississippi River. The June 1961 session details record Lester under the alias Henry Thomas. A few months earlier Lester/Henry supported on one other track that was later released on a Bluesville album in 1963 (note: the 1961 album was later re-released in the early 70s on Arhoolie).

Lester retired from music in 1966. This roughly coincided with new owners taking over management of the Excello label and bad feelings erupting between Jay Miller and the new lot. Whether this affected Lester’s departure in any way we don’t know and he has remained close lipped. Initially, he moved to Chicago to find non-musical work but returned to Louisiana because he couldn’t take the cold. In 1971 he was reunited with Lightnin’ Slim for a concert as part of the University of Chicago Folk Festival. After the festival and a gig in Detroit, Lester returned to Baton Rouge. In 1979, Fred Reif, the man who’d arranged for Lester to appear in Chicago, persuaded him to appear in a festival in Holland. Very gradually he then got back into performing with encouragement from Reif, sometimes appearing with younger white artists like the Fabulous Thunderbirds and Marcia Ball.

Albums started appearing, commencing with the UK produced Poor Boy Blues in 1987 and Harp & Soul from Alligator in ’88. I own one of these, 1998’s All Over You, and would suspect, based on reviews, that its content with a mix of revisited catalogue, Excello numbers from others, and blues standards, interpreted with one eye on the contemporary record buyer and the other looking back to Crowley, was representative of the other albums. Or to put it less long-windedly, it’s OK (and the others probably are too) but I don’t play it anything like as much as I play the Crowley material.

And once Lester got the travelling bug he didn’t stop. Here he is in St Ouen, France in December 2006:

In his later years when he probably should have been fishing, Lester has devoted a lot of time to travelling and doing what he can to keep the blues story alive. It’s perhaps an irony that for a decade or so in the fifties and sixties he was one of those pioneers who was taking the blues to places where, metaphorically, it hadn’t been before. Long live Lester, lazy or not, and I’m inclined to the “not”.

“There are few artists of his calibre around, who can provide us with the real blues in the best alley traditions, today.” That quote came from Mike Leadbitter and was present in the sleeve notes to the 1971 Blue Horizon album Made Up My Mind. It’s even more relevant today.

 

Lazy Lester photo 1

Lazy Lester (photo by Ursula Coyote)

 

FOOTNOTES

1. The Swamp Blues series on Toppermost covers discs from four of the key artists who recorded blues at Jay Miller’s Crowley studio from the mid fifties to the early/mid sixties. They are Lightnin’ Slim, Lonesome Sundown, Slim Harpo and Lazy Lester. Swamp Blues #5 is nominally allocated to another Crowley/Excello artist, Silas Hogan, but in fact covers other minor Excello artists plus artists whose records appeared on other Louisiana labels. The latter grouping are just as deserved of the ‘swamp blues’ label but have tended to receive less attention than the Excello artists.

The Lightnin’ Slim Toppermost contains discussion on the subject of swamp blues and information on the Excello Records label plus J.D. Miller and his studio in Crowley, Louisiana.

2. The confusion over the three appearances of the song Whoa Now has two contributory factors. Firstly, Jay Miller did record other songs and alternate versions of songs that he didn’t send to Nashville for release. Much of this material has subsequently surfaced. Secondly, Lester made a number of albums after he got back into the music business. These often included old songs and treatments while usually sympathetic wouldn’t be identical to original cuts.

3. If anyone manages to find a copy of the Excello LP, True Blues from Lazy Lester (Excello 8006), I can tell him/her that the gentleman on the front is not Lester. This info comes from Stefan Wirz but I wouldn’t disagree with him.

4. During the course of the research for this essay, Cal unearthed a fact about Lester that doesn’t appear in any of the online biographies I’ve read or the John Broven book. In the Lazy Lester discography on WangDangDula under the heading “COLLECTIONS” there is a Flyright album entitled Poor Boy Blues (also mentioned in the above text) which has a track listed as “Sad Sad City (demo for Dot Records – 61/62)”. Although not 100% confirmed, it seems to suggest that maybe Lester attempted to sign up with another record company during his contract with Excello and Jay Miller. This, in conjunction with Lester’s moonlighting as Henry Thomas on the Smoky Babe sessions in 1961, Cal theorises might have led Jay Miller, when he found out about his extracurricular activity, to punish Lester by restricting his recording to just one small session in the twenty month period from September 1961 to May 1963.

5. Several biographies on Lester place him in Pontiac, Michigan for a period from 1975 approx. He apparently moved there to live with Slim Harpo’s sister. Within the Lightnin’ Slim Toppermost I recorded the fact that Lightnin’ married Slim Harpo’s sister (and Lightnin’ also lived in Pontiac for a spell). I presume that this is the same lady since there’s no reference along the lines of “one of Slim Harpo’s sisters”. It would have been nice if the lady’s name had been recorded somewhere but that doesn’t seem to have been the case.

6. Something that’s not widely known is that Lester provided that amazing rhythm sound on Slim Harpo’s Baby Scratch My Back. In his own words from an interview with Blues Blast Magazine in October 2016 (and with the “he” being Harpo):

“When he started that thing off, it sounded like it just needed a little something. It had William Bird on the drums, and it had a good beat going. I went and got my percussion box. I got me a conga and put it between my knees. What they call the scrubs. I put that out in front of me, and they had a little drum stick, and I tapped on that. Then, I grabbed me a piece of friction tape, electronic tape, and I taped this penny on my finger. So, I played that – pop, pop. So, he was sitting there looking – said, ‘Ok’. He started off again. I started on that conga drum and playing that pop, pop. Everything I did was so stupid until it fits what I did. It fits right in there. So, all that percussion, all that playing on saddle with a drum stick and playing on the side of the wall, all that kind of stuff, that was me.”

7. In an exchange of mails with Peter Viney I mentioned that Cal & I were working on a Swamp Blues series. He proffered the following piece of information regarding Lazy Lester:

“A guy who used to post on The Band website two decades ago was Lazy Lester’s lawyer and claimed he was the most talented of all the bluesmen.”

Which was interesting particularly in sight of the fact that I hadn’t told Peter that I’d not held back in terms of praise of Lester within this document.

 

Lazy Lester poster

 

Three months after this post was written, Lazy Lester (1933-2018) died, on August 22nd aged 85.

 

Lazy Lester website

Lazy Lester discography

Lazy Lester interview in Blues Blast magazine (October 2016)

“South To Louisiana: The Music Of The Cajun Bayous” by John Broven (1983)

Excello singles discography

Excello albums discography

Lazy Lester biography (iTunes)

Swamp Blues toppermost series
#1 Lightnin’ Slim
#2 Lonesome Sundown
#3 Slim Harpo
#4 Lazy Lester
#5 Silas Hogan

Swamp Pop toppermost series
#1 Rod Bernard
#2 Cookie and the Cupcakes
#3 Jimmy Donley
#4 Bobby Charles
#5 Freddy Fender

Dave Stephens is the author of two books on popular music. His first, “RocknRoll”, is described by one reviewer as “probably the most useful single source of information on 50s & 60s music I’ve come across”. Dave followed this up with “London Rocks” in 2016, an analysis of the early years of the London (American) record label in the UK. You can follow him on Twitter @DangerousDaveXX

Cal Taylor has avidly collected records since the early 1960s, gravitating to deep soul and blues. As time went on he got more and more into studying pre-war blues and accumulated a vast record collection. Cal saw many such artists live in the sixties. He has written several posts for this site including Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, Blind Willie Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, Otis Redding and Betty Harris.

The Stephens/Taylor toppermosts include Johnny Ace, Arthur Alexander, Cyril Davies, The Falcons, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Alexis Korner, Johnny Otis, Junior Parker, T-Bone Walker.

TopperPost #718

1 Comment

  1. Andrew Shields
    May 12, 2018

    Dave & Cal, thanks again for another fabulous piece. Some great music in here too and the video at the top is worth the price of admission in itself.

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