Leslie Carswell Johnson (June 20, 1933 – August 22, 2018),better known as Lazy Lester, was an American blues musician who sang and played the harmonica and guitar. His career spanned the 1950s to 2018.
Best known for regional hits recorded with Ernie Young’s Nashville-based Excello Records, Lester also contributed to songs recorded by other Excello artists, including Slim Harpo, Lightnin’ Slim, and Katie Webster. Cover versions of his songs have been recorded by (among others) the Kinks, the Flamin’ Groovies, Freddy Fender, Dwight Yoakam, Dave Edmunds, Raful Neal, Anson Funderburgh, and the Fabulous Thunderbirds. In the comeback stage of his career (since the late 1980s) he recorded new albums backed by Mike Buck, Sue Foley, Gene Taylor, Kenny Neal, Lucky Peterson, and Jimmie Vaughan.
In the mid-1950s, Lester was on the margins of the Louisiana bluesscene. 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 one.
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 as solo artist and also to use him as a multi-instrumentalist on percussion, guitar, bass, and harmonica in sessions headlined by other artists whose recorings were produced by Miller, including, notably, Slim Harpo. “Percussion” on these sessions went beyond the traditional drum kit and included a rolled-up newspaper striking a cardboard box. Miller dubbed Lester “Lazy Lester” because of his laconic, laid-back style.
More than his vocal delivery, Lester is best remembered for songs that were later covered by a wide range of rock, country, blues, and Tex-Mex stars, chiefly, “I’m a Lover Not a Fighter,” “I Hear You Knockin’,” and “Sugar Coated Love.”
Lester stated that he wrote these songs, but almost all are credited to Miller or to Lester and Miller. Lester also stated he received few royalties, which embittered him and made him skeptical of the music industry. By the late 1960s, he had given up on the music industry, working manual labor and pursuing his favorite hobby—fishing. Lester moved to Pontiac, Michigan, living with Slim Harpo’s sister.
In 1971, Fred Reif set up a Lightnin’ Slim concert at the University of Chicago Folk Festival, and Lester was brought up from Louisiana to accompany him. A few weeks after that performance, Lester was back in Louisiana. Years later Reif and Lester were 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.
If disenchanted, Lester retained his harmonica, guitar, and vocal talents (the songwriting that had been muse to the Kinks and Dwight Yoakam having dried up long before). In September 2002, he was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award 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 B.B. King, Solomon Burke, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Buddy Guy, Levon Helm, Chuck D, the Neville Brothers, Dr. John, John Fogerty, and Aerosmith.
In 2012, Lester teamed up with British Blues Woman Dani Wilde to play a special double headline concert as part of Gloucester Rhythm and Blues Festival.
Lester appeared and performed in a television commercial aired nationally for Geico Insurance in 2018.
- True Blues, circa 1966, Excello LP 8006 SO-1
- Lazy Lester Rides Again, 1987, King Snake KS007 (recorded in the UK, May 25–28, 1987)
- Harp & Soul, 1988, Alligator 4768 (featuring Lucky Peterson and Kenny Neal)
- Lazy Lester, 1989, Flyright (France) 007 (previously unreleased 1960s Excello session takes)
- I’m a Lover Not a Fighter, 1994, Excello/Ace 518
- I Hear You Knockin’, 1994, Excello/Avi 3003
- All Over You, 1998, Antone’s ANT 10042 (recorded 1997, featuring Derek O’Brien, Sue Foley, Sarah Brown)
- Lazy Lester, (audiophile EP), APO 003 (recorded October 12–13, 2000 featuring Henry Gray)
- Superharps II, 2001, Telarc 83514 (co-billed with Carey Bell, Raful Neal, Snooky Pryor)
- Blues Stop Knockin’, 2001, Antones TMG-ANT 0051 (featuring Jimmie Vaughan)
- Blues On My Radio, 2004, SWMAF 01 (featuring Louisiana Red)
- Family Meeting, 2008, Ruf, double album by Wentus Blues Band
- You Better Listen, 2011, Bluestown records, recorded in Norway (Notodden).
- “New Orleans” , 2011 (featuring Maurice Big Mo Huffman) on Big MO’s album “Torn “
- The Southern Legends Entertainment & Performing Arts Hall of Fame
- San Francisco Blues Festival
- List of swamp blues musicians
- List of harmonica blues musicians
- List of harmonicists
- Music of Louisiana
- Blues harp
- Dahl, Bill (1933-06-20). “Lazy Lester: Biography”. AllMusic.com. Retrieved 2015-08-13.
- Eagle, Bob; LeBlanc, Eric S. (2013). Blues: A Regional Experience. Santa Barbara, California: Praeger. p. 179. ISBN 978-0313344237.
- Russell, Tony (1997). The Blues: From Robert Johnson to Robert Cray. Dubai: Carlton Books. p. 133. ISBN 1-85868-255-X.
- “Lazy Lester – Swamp Blues Pioneer – Blues Profile – Biography”. Web.archive.org. 11 April 2006. Retrieved 23 August2018.
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- GEICO Insurance (26 June 2018). “Lazy Lester Riffs on The Gecko – GEICO”. YouTube. Retrieved 23 August 2018.
- “Lazy Lester”. LazyLester.net. Retrieved 2015-08-13.
- “Here Are 6 Must-See Music Films at Hot Docs”. Exclaim!, April 19, 2016.
- Nash, JD (23 August 2018). “Blues Hall of Famer Lazy Lester Dead at 85 – American Blues Scene”. Americanbluescene.com. Retrieved 23 August 2018.