Lazy Lester | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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Born Leslie Johnson in Pointe Coupee, Louisiana, in 1933, Lazy Lester was captivated early on by the music of DeFord Bailey, the Grand Ole Opry's diminutive African-American harmonica player; soon he was playing harp himself. Lester learned guitar by jamming with his brother and a local fretman named Guitar Gable, and by his teens he was playing alongside local bluesmen like Buddy Guy and harpists Raful Neal and Slim Harpo. In 1956 he landed a gig in Crowley, Louisiana, as a session man for producer Jay Miller, who worked for the Nashville label Excello. There, along with Harpo, Lightnin' Slim, and others, Lester helped codify the laid-back mix of R & B sensuousness, C & W bathos, and bluesy plaintiveness that eventually became known as the southern Louisiana "swamp blues" style. But after an argument with Miller in 1966 over whether a "colored boy" could play country, Lester dropped out of music. He appeared with Lightnin' Slim at the University of Chicago Folk Festival in 1971, but it wasn't until '79, after performing at the Blues Estafette festival in Utrecht, that he started playing again full-time. His most recent album, 2001's Blues Stop Knockin' (Antoine's), shows that his vintage sound--oily and emotive, with strong elements of C & W balladry--remains intact, and on harp he's still capable of varying his intense squawks and skittering multinote clusters with subtle tonal colorations. Rather than propel himself through songs he suspends himself in them, as though treading water, but even in his most lugubrious moments (as on the sodden, Jimmy Reed-like "Go Ahead") the urgency of R & B is never far from the surface. Lester's music sounds tailor-made for drowning your sorrows at the bar, but it's also perfect for belly rubbing out on the dance floor. Friday, March 14, 9 PM, Buddy Guy's Legends, 754 S. Wabash; 312-427-0333.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steve koress.

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