Multiple tributes are planed at this weekend’s Baton Rouge Blues Festival to honor Leslie Johnson, the swamp blues pioneer better known as Lazy Lester.
The singer, songwriter, harmonica player, guitarist and percussionist died at age 85 on Aug. 22 at his home in Paradise, California. A fun-loving, gregarious character on and off the stage, Johnson made his final Baton Rouge Blues Festival appearance last year. He also played the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival last year and had co-starred in a Geico commercial with the insurance company’s gecko mascot just a few months before his death.
Johnson appears on the 2019 Blues Fest poster and in the event’s promotional video. At 6:30 p.m. Saturday, the Chris LeBlanc band will play a tribute to Johnson on the Crown Royal LA 1 Stage, and a “Celebration of Lazy Lester” will follow at 7 p.m. on the Aetna Swamp Blues Stage.
Johnson’s songs will undoubtedly be played on many other stages, including at Sunday’s 3 p.m. Front Porch Stage set by the Excelleauxs, a band named after the Nashville, Tennessee, record label that released swamp blues classics by Johnson, Slim Harpo, Lightnin’ Slim, Lonesome Sundown and other Louisiana artists.
Born in Pointe Coupee Parish, Johnson grew up mostly in the East Baton Rouge Parish community of Scotlandville. Influenced by Jimmy Reed and harmonica ace Little Walter Jacobs, a Marksville native, he joined the Rhythm Rockers during his late teens and also sat in with Guitar Gable’s band at clubs.
Johnson’s recording career began after a chance encounter on a bus with Otis Hicks, aka Lightnin’ Slim. Interested in the recording business, Johnson rode the bus with Hicks to J.D. Miller’s studio in Crowley. When the harmonica player booked for Hicks’ session didn’t show up, Johnson filled in, telling Miller and Hicks that he was a better harmonica player anyway.
A key player at Miller’s studio for more than a decade, Johnson appeared on recordings by Lightnin’ Slim, Slim Harpo, Katie Webster, Lonesome Sundown, Whispering Smith, Silas Hogan, Henry Gray, Tabby Thomas and many more.
“Oh, it’s so much stuff I played on, I can’t remember," he told The Advocate in 2006. “I was in France last year and I heard this boy playing. I said, ‘Man, that sounds familiar.’ He said, ‘Hell, that’s you.’ ”
A 2012 inductee into the Blues Hall of Fame in Memphis, Tennessee, Johnson’s Excello releases include “I’m A Lover, Not A Fighter,” “Sugar Coated Love,” “I Hear You Knockin’,” “The Same Thing Could Happen to You” and “Pondarosa Stomp.”
In the 1960s, Johnson and other swamp blues acts were major influences on young British and American recording artists such as the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, the Yardbirds and the Fabulous Thunderbirds.
“Every one of us that recorded in Miller’s studio had something covered by those guys over there,” Johnson said. “But that did us a big favor. They made us big over there. Otherwise, we would have never crossed the bayou.”