Leslie Johnson, the architect of Louisiana swamp-blues who was better known as "Lazy Lester," died Wednesday afternoon at his home in Paradise, California. He was 85.
In the 1950s and ’60s, Johnson was a key player at Jay D. Miller’s studio in Crowley. Miller’s partnership with Nashville’s Excello Records yielded classic swamp-blues recordings by Johnson, Slim Harpo, Lightnin’ Slim and other Baton Rouge artists.
“Lester helped create the whole swamp-blues scene,” said Kenny Neal, Johnson’s friend and fellow Baton Rouge blues artist. “If you listen to those records, it’s a lot of Cajun influence with the Delta blues. It’s unique. And it comes from a handful of guys who were right here in Baton Rouge. Lester is at the roots of it.”
Johnson’s best-known recordings include “I’m A Lover, Not A Fighter,” “Sugar Coated Love” and “I Hear You Knockin’.” In 2012, the Blues Foundation in Memphis inducted him into its Hall of Fame. In 2004, he performed for Martin Scorsese’s “Year of the Blues” concert at Radio City Music Hall. The all-star event became the documentary “Lightning In a Bottle.”
Johnson’s 2018 appearances included the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and the Baton Rouge Blues Festival. He was also a favorite at the Ponderosa Stomp in New Orleans,
Johnson was a one of kind artist and character, said Baton Rouge Blues Festival and Foundation President Clarke J. Gernon, Jr. “His charm and wit will be missed, but his music will never die,” Gernon said.
In addition to his own recordings, Johnson contributed guitar, harmonica and inventive percussion to recordings by Lightnin’ Slim, Slim Harpo, Katie Webster, Carol Fran, Lonesome Sundown, Tabby Thomas and Nathan Abshire. He’s heard in Miller’s blues, Cajun, country and rockabilly records.
“Jay Miller and I,” Johnson said in 2017, “we’d sit down there and fiddle around with stuff and come out with something different.”
Born in 1933, Johnson grew up in Pointe Coupee Parish and Scotlandville in East Baton Rouge Parish. His early music work included a band with the late Baton Rouge singer-harmonica player Raful Neal.
“Raful and I, we weren’t nothing but little old boys, but we knew what we was doing,” Johnson said in 2000. “We did all the Jimmy Reed tunes and (Howlin’) Wolf and Muddy Waters and anything you wanted to hear.”
Johnson’s recording career began after he coincidentally shared a bus ride with Lightnin’ Slim, aka Otis Hicks, to Miller’s studio. When a harmonica player scheduled for Hicks’ recording session didn’t show up, Johnson told Miller he played harmonica better than the absent musician. “So, he found out I could,” Johnson said later.
Miller gave Johnson his Lazy Lester moniker. “Because I’m never in a hurry,” Johnson said.
In the mid-1960s, Johnson left the music business because he thought he hadn’t been fairly compensated. His many non-music jobs included lumberjack and furniture hauler. Nonetheless, he sat in with Buddy Guy and Jimmy Reed when he lived in Chicago in the late ’60s.
Johnson returned to music in the late 1980s. His 1987 album, “Lester Rides Again,” won a W.C. Handy Award. Chicago’s Alligator Records released 1988’s “Harp & Soul.” Johnson recorded two albums for the Austin-based Antone’s Records, 1998’s “All Over You” and 2001’s “Blues Stop Knockin’.”
Johnson lived in Pontiac, Michigan, from 1975 until his move to California in 2005. Neal visited the ailing musician last week at the home he shared with his friend, Pike Kaksonen. During the visit, Neal cooked gumbo for Johnson, Kaksonen and a large gathering of their friends and neighbors. Despite the pain metastasized cancer caused Johnson, he sang and played guitar with Neal.
“In those moments,” Neal said, “it was so wonderful to watch the music bring him joy and make him not even think about having cancer. And he wouldn’t say ‘pain.’ He said, ‘I’m just a little uncomfortable.’”
“Lester was really a wise, funny man,” Kaksonen said. “He had friends all over the world. He touched so many people.”
Recently he played the unlikely role of co-star to the gecko mascot in a GEICO insurance company commercial, sitting in a rocking chair on a porch in Memphis playing the harmonica.
Before his death, Johnson asked Neal to help him write a book about his life that would set the record straight about his hundreds of sessions at Miller’s studio.
“Lester wanted to name it ‘Straight From the Horse’s Mouth, Not From the Mule’s Ass,’ ” Neal said. “I said, ‘That’s a good title. I’ll buy that book.’ ”
Kaksonen anticipates there will be memorials for Johnson in California and Louisiana.