Friday, June 21, 2013

"Lazy Lester Rides Again" Rides Again

Lazy Lester

This week, Leslie Johnson, a.k.a. Lazy Lester, turns 80 years old.  One of the first blues performers I got to see live was Lazy Lester.  He was part of a revue headlined by the Fabulous Thunderbirds at Jazz Fest way back in 1987 that featured Dr. John, John Lee Hooker, Bonnie Raitt, Duke Robillard, the Roomful of Blues horn section, Katie Webster, and Lazy Lester.

I will have to admit that the acts I went to see were the T-Birds, Hooker, Dr. John, and Bonnie Raitt.  However, I was pleasantly surprised by the other acts, none of whom I had heard of prior to that night.  Katie Webster came on the stage throwing plastic crawfish out into the crowd and proceeded to pound the piano into submission, the Roomful of Blues horns were awesome, and Duke Robillard teamed with the T-Birds for a couple of swinging tunes.

When they introduced Lazy Lester, this tall, sweaty guy wearing a baseball cap, a sweaty tank top and ragged work pants slowly walked out and took his place at center stage.  I said to myself, "This ought to be interesting."  As the band started into the first song (I'm pretty sure it was "Sugar Coated Love"), Lester seemingly woke up and rocked the house down.  He only did two songs (I think the other was "The Same Could Happen To You," because I remember him and Kim Wilson battling away on harmonica), but the crowd just went nuts.....and so did I.

When I got home, I started looking feverishly for a Lazy Lester recording....any Lazy Lester recording.  Naturally, given that it was the mid 80's, there was nothing to be found.  I didn't know anything about him, but soon found out that he had a bunch of hit songs in the 50's and 60's for Excello Records, starting out as a last-minute substitute for the harmonica player in a Lightnin' Slim recording session, and soon becoming Excello's utility musician on most sessions, playing harmonica, percussion, bass and guitar.

In time, he was recording his own songs, and earned the nickname Lazy Lester from Excello head Jay Miller because of his calm, laid-back style.  Some of Lester's tunes ("Sugar Coated Love," "I'm A Lover, Not A Fighter," "I Hear You Knockin'") have become blues standards and have been covered by blues, rock, R&B, and country artists.  Though Lester wrote these tunes, they were credited to Miller, so Lester received few royalties for his efforts, so, disgruntled, he basically left the music scene in the late 60's for two decades, moving from Louisiana to Michigan.

Lester resurfaced in the mid 80's, and in 1987, not long after the appearance at Jazz Fest, he recorded an album for King Snake Records.  I happened to see the ad in a Living Blues magazine and was able to track a cassette down via mail order.  The album, called Lazy Lester Rides Again, was a mix of remakes of his classic songs and a few pretty good new songs.  Lester was backed by a solid set of journeyman musicians who did a fine job, and he sounded great on harmonica and vocals.

Produced by legendary British producer Mike Vernon, the whole recording was lots of fun and it ended up winning a Handy Award.  I listened to it non-stop and most of my friends loved it, too.  Soon, Lester recorded a follow-up for Alligator, Harp & Soul, and it was equally well-received, but my favorite was still ....Rides Again.

King Snake had some pretty decent recordings over the late 80's through the late 90's.  Sonny Rhodes, Raful Neal, Roy Roberts, and the band Smokehouse had some great releases for the label, but the label closed shop in the late 90's and founder Bob Greenlee died in 2004.  When the label closed down, all the releases faded away, too.

By that time, I had made the cassette-to-CD conversion, but not in time to replace .....Rides Again in my collection.  Over time, I had picked up several King Snake CDs from Rhodes and Roberts on Ebay, but was never able to find Lazy Lester's release anywhere.

A couple of weeks ago, I was browsing through Amazon and did a search for Lazy Lester.  Even though I didn't have the King Snake release, I had still picked up several subsequent releases that Lester had done, including two outstanding sets on the Antone's label.  As I was scrolling through, I couldn't believe what I saw.....LAZY LESTER RIDES AGAIN!!!!!  Available on CD or via download, though with a different cover from the original release.  The UK label, Ace, one of my favorite labels, had reissued it two or three years ago in its entirety, with nearly a dozen extra tracks.

When it arrived in the mail last week, I plugged it in and the great music was back, starting with "Sugar Coated Love," and working through several of his classics and some pretty good new material.  The alternate tracks were mostly different takes of the other songs, but there were two previously unreleased tracks, a laid-back swampy blues tune and a torrid instrumental.

Today's lesson is....never give up.  If you have a favorite recording from your younger days that's hard to find and/or replace, don't give up on finding it.  Thanks to this wonderful invention called the internet, nearly everything can be found and can end up in your possession, usually for a very reasonable price.  It just takes a little time and effort, but patience pays off.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm about to sit back and listen to Lazy Lester Rides Again again.  You should do the same, because there's no such thing as having too much Lazy Lester in your life.  To help celebrate Lazy Lester's birthday, you should treat yourself to some of his music!!

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