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Lazy Lester helped invent the swamp-blues sound half a century ago

The Louisiana native’s Blues Festival appearance is a historic occasion.

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URKO DORRONSORO SAGASTI
  • Urko Dorronsoro Sagasti

Louisiana-based guitarist and harpist Leslie Johnson got the nickname "Lazy Lester" in 1957, ostensibly because Excello Records producer Jay Miller thought it suited Johnson's relaxed style, influenced by Chicagoan Jimmy Reed. But as primitive (or "lazy") as that style might've seemed to opportunistic whites such as Miller (who also released virulently racist music on his Reb Rebel label), it proved commercially viable and artistically significant.

In the hands of Lester and his contemporaries (including Slim Harpo, Lightnin' Slim, and Lonesome Sundown), it evolved into the regional subgenre eventually dubbed "swamp blues." Though it never caught on nationwide, it became extremely popular in the south, especially in the Gulf Coast area. Later, its meld of atavism and vivacity caught the attention of collectors and folklorists—aficionados now revere its progenitors alongside the likes of Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf.

Lester's 15-year tenure at Excello resulted in some of the genre's most significant recordings, among them the Reed-like "Whoa Now" (spiced with urban-sounding horn work), "I'm a Lover, Not a Fighter" (with a deep-­twanging guitar line reminiscent of Johnny Cash's signature honky-tonk boogie), and 1967's rollicking "Pondarosa Stomp" (which has since lent its name, with the spelling fixed, to one of the nation's top roots-music festivals, held annually in New Orleans). He also worked as a sideman for other Excello artists, contributing guitar, harmonica, and percussion (including drums, wood blocks, cardboard boxes, folded-up newspapers, and even the studio walls). He mentored some of the label's white country artists behind the scenes—he's a lifelong lover of the genre—but predictably, Miller balked at allowing him to participate in their sessions.

After leaving Excello in the mid-60s, Lester drifted away from music. It wasn't until the early 80s that he staged a full-scale comeback, recording Lazy Lester Rides Again for British label Blue Horizon (released on King Snake in the States). It won a W.C. Handy Award for Contemporary Blues Album of the Year, and over the next decade or so, Lester followed it with releases on Flyright, Alligator, and several other imprints. He was inducted into the Louisiana Blues Hall of Fame in 1998, and he appeared in Martin Scorsese's 2004 concert film Lightning in a Bottle.

It's unclear why Chicago guitarist Rockin' Johnny is paired with Lester for his festival set, since he has no apparent connection to the swamp-blues tradition (though he can turn in a decent Jimmy Reed imitation). That hardly matters, though. Lazy Lester is the sole surviving representative of an important and often underrecognized generation of postwar blues stylists, and his appearance at this year's Blues Fest is more than a highlight—it's a historic occasion.


Lazy Lester (with guest Rockin' Johnny) performs Saturday, June 11, at 3 PM on the Front Porch Stage.

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