Lazy Lester: The Return of the Last True Bluesman

John Morthland

By John Morthland

on 04.26.12 in Spotlights

Lazy Lester, the last of the Big Four of swamp blues, is enjoying one of his periodic comebacks. His 2011 album You Better Listen netted him nominations for three Blues Music Awards (Best Traditional Blues Album, Traditional Blues Artist of the Year and Harmonica Player of the Year), with the outcome to be announced May 10 in Memphis. The album was recorded in Norway for a Norwegian label, with the star being backed by the Norwegian band Spoonful of Blues. That alone says plenty about the current state of the art. Not only is Lester the last of the swamp blues pioneers, he’s one of the last true bluesmen, period, and his current music is coming, not just from Europe, but from the icy North of Europe? Nevertheless, You Better Listen pulls off a rare feat by engaging purists and non-purists alike, while staying true to the swamp blues heritage. It’s also lots of fun and can leave you feeling good all over.

Born Leslie Johnson, Lester hit Crowley, Louisiana, where producer Jay Miller was cranking out definitive swamp blues for Nashville’s Excello label, in 1956. He made his name first as a multi-instrumentalist sideman to Lightnin’ Slim and then Lonesome Sundown, Slim Harpo (the rest of the Big Four) and others. But in his decade there, he also cut some 30 sides of his own, several of which are available at eMusic on various compilations; among the highlights, “Lester’s Stomp” is a prototypical instrumental, while “Sugar Coated Love” was revived by the Fabulous Thunderbirds. They define his easygoing, rural blues style, and his muddy groove. He has a nasal voice and plays a high-pitched harmonica to match; sometimes, his harp somehow borders on twangy. Critics have gone so far as to call his slurred vocals monotonous, but they couldn’t be more effective at shaping his simple, country-boy persona. His harmonica work is so casual it almost seems like an afterthought, yet it’s also as crisp and airy as a cool breeze. Lester’s sound was his alone; there’s no mistaking him for anybody else.

Despite this, he never enjoyed a hit. After leaving the label, he left the music business for nearly two decades. He wound up joining Lightnin’ Slim in Pontiac, Michigan, in 1975 to live with Slim Harpo’s sister. Then, in 1987, British producer and blues fanatic Mike Vernon got him into the studio to cut Lazy Lester Rides Again, a mix of old and new songs that came out much better than it probably should have considering how long Lester had been out of commission. The sidemen were not exactly the cream of the British blues crop — most came from either Blues ‘N’ Trouble or the Junkyard Angels — but they were especially effective on rockers like the Excello remakes “The Same Thing Could Happen to You” and “I Hear You Knockin’.” And Lester himself hadn’t lost a step, singing and blowing with gusto. He’s equally enthused on the 1988 Harp & Soul, though the backing band this time isn’t as simpatico and tends to overwhelm him. Lester didn’t record again until 1998 and 2001, when he cut a pair of spirited albums for Antone’s (he was a favorite at the Austin blues club that spawned the label). Since then, he’s recorded intermittently for tiny audiophile or foreign labels whose releases are virtually impossible to find, and appeared on compilations.

Until now. Today, 78-year-old Lazy Lester lives in Northern California, where he plays fairly often. You Better Listen draws material from all over — his own Excello tunes along with other swamp pop favorites (the hard groove of Lightnin’ Slim’s “Rooster Blues,” Slim Harpo’s randy “Scratch My Back”), an original instrumental, some blues favorites, even a droopy-lidded interpretation of “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.” Spoonful of Blues turns out to be an ideal backing band for him. Coming from the more garagey end of the modern blues spectrum, they’re as loose and raucous as Lester is. But they also have all the chops they need. “If You Don’t Want Me Baby” sounds slapdash, and constantly in danger of careening out of control, but it never does. “The Same Thing Will Happen to You” has a similar, first-take feel. Some tracks are swampier than others. The laconic title song is one of them, with Lester’s wailing vocals riding an irresistible groove that’s accessorized by uncharacteristic piano. But “Ethel Mae” and “Courtroom Blues” are both more conventional slow blues that rely on finesse. The slinky guitar on Lester’s version of “Scratch My Back” (he played on Harpo’s original) echoes the original without aping it, while “O.J. Shuffle” pulsates with nothing but guitar and harp plus some of the offbeat percussive effects Lester was famous for bringing to Miller’s Crowley studio back when. The album ends with another instrumental, named after Lester’s current hometown in California but conjuring up his Louisiana roots: “Paradise Stomp” is as seemingly anarchistic as “If You Don’t Want Me Baby,” with trash-can drums, and Lester’s driving harp getting strong support from a swinging zydeco accordionist named Runar Boyesen. What a team are Lazy Lester and these Norwegians.