Lazy Lester, a Louisiana-born singer and harmonica player whose rough and rollicking style of swamp blues influenced musicians on both sides of the Atlantic, died Aug. 22 at his home in Paradise, Calif. He was 85.
His death from cancer was announced by Alligator Records, which recorded him in the 1980s.
Lester’s recordings from the 1950s stand at the nexus of blues and rock-and-roll, with a tinge of Cajun and country music thrown into the mix. He sang with a bayou twang, while his amped-up harmonica seemed to be charging out in front of a strident, repetitive electric guitar.
Though Lester’s singles were initially sold only in the South, they were often performed by others and, with time, became staples of barroom blues and rock bands. Freddy Fender took Lester’s “Sugar Coated Love” (1958) to the country charts in 1977, and British rockers the Kinks had covered the rockabilly-flavored “I’m a Lover, Not a Fighter” (1958) on their first album, in 1964. The Ponderosa Stomp, a music festival in New Orleans devoted to “the unsung heroes of American music,” is named for his 1965 harmonica instrumental.
Lester was a mainstay of producer J.D. Miller’s Crowley, La., recording studio, where he often accompanied Miller’s cadre of blues singers — Lonesome Sundown, Lightnin’ Slim and Lester’s cousin and fellow harmonica player, Slim Harpo.
Through Miller’s use of tape echo and primitive percussion — often played by Lester — the Miller studio crafted some of the era’s most atmospheric down-home blues records. Lester played woodblock on Slim Harpo’s 1966 “Shake Your Hips,” and on other recordings, he played harmonica or rhythm guitar. But he also drummed on cardboard boxes and beat rolled-up newspapers against the studio walls in place of snare drums.
“I’d just grab whatever was in the studio and try to get a groove going,” he told the Austin American-Statesman in 1999.
Miller, who leased the recordings to the Nashville-based Excello label, bestowed the colorful stage names on many of his performers. And though Lester, born Leslie Johnson, protested in one song, “they call me Lazy — goodness knows I’m only tired,” the appellation fit his relaxed and behind-the-beat singing style perfectly.
“His words flow into one another,” Peter Watrous wrote in a 1988 review for the New York Times, observing that even on up-tempo songs, Lester “makes his melodies amble along as if they were enjoying a summer day.”
Leslie Carswell Johnson was born June 20, 1933, in Torras, La., near Baton Rouge. His parents were farmers. His early influences included DeFord Bailey, a black harmonica player who performed on the Grand Ole Opry in the 1930s, and yodeling country singer Jimmie Rodgers.
As a teenager, he worked as a gas station attendant, woodcutter and grocery clerk and joined a local blues band, the Rhythm Rockers.
While riding the bus, he met singer-guitarist Lightnin’ Slim. Slim, frantically trying to replace a missing harmonica player for a recording date, gave him an on-the-spot audition and brought him to the studio. The two recorded “Bad Luck and Trouble,” a Southern jukebox hit for Slim in 1956. Lester’s first vocal, “I’m Gonna Leave You Baby,” came out later that year.
Lester claimed that he wrote or co-wrote most of the songs he recorded but had to give all the writing credit and publishing royalties to Miller, the studio owner.
“I had an idea that what we were doing was very special to me, but I didn’t have an idea it would be so big,” Lester told the San Antonio Express-News in 1999. “I didn’t get paid for a lot of what I did, but it was very educational. I got credit [as a performer] but no cash.”
In 1966, Lester and Miller had a falling out when Lester proposed recording a country song. Miller, a successful country tunesmith who had written hits for singers Kitty Wells and Lefty Frizzell, did not want to take a chance on a black country singer. Miller also had a sideline recording pro-segregationist country songs by singer Johnny Rebel.
For the next two decades, Lester worked construction, cut timber and drove trucks. In 1975, he moved to Pontiac, Mich., where he met blues promoter Fred Reif. A popular Texas band, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, recorded three of Lester’s songs and revived interest in his music.
Reif eventually persuaded him to resume performing. The album “Lazy Lester Rides Again,” recorded in Great Britain with English musicians, won the 1988 Blues Foundation award as Best Contemporary Blues Album. In 2015, Lester was inducted into the foundation’s Blues Hall of Fame.
He was featured in a recent Geico commercial, playing harmonica in a scene with the Geico gecko.
A detailed list of survivors could not be determined.
Lester felt comfortable as both a performer and sideman.
“I could concentrate on what other people were doing,” he said in 1999. “I’ve always had a good ear for hearing stuff and putting stuff behind it. A player, a songwriter and a singer, it takes all these things to make one thing. Either I’m good, or I’ve got everybody fooled.”