England, 1987

Leslie Johnson died a few months ago. Who?
Lazy Lester. That’s who.
85 years young. After a lifetime playing the blues.

 They call me Lazy
Goodness knows I’m only tired

BBC disc jockey Andy Kershaw introduced me to Lazy Lester. An exchange teaching year in the north of England in 1987 provided many new experiences. Among them, an investigation into music on the radio. The best offerings were the local programs on Manchester Piccadilly Radio and two BBC2 weekly programs; a blues music show presented by Paul Jones (ex-Manfred Mann) and the other, a contemporary music show hosted by Andy Kershaw.

It was a superb program. Kershaw was frenetic. He bubbled over with enthusiasm. He invaded the room. If Lucky Oceans delivered at a laid back 3313 rpm then Kershaw rated at 78 or higher. He played a mix of rock, roots and blues music along with many not heard before sounds from Africa, part of the emerging music that became known as World music. The music was brilliant and Kershaw made amazing links.

I recorded several of his programs – on C90 cassette tape, no less. One night Kershaw played, successively, tracks from Gram Parsons (Streets of Baltimore), Violent Femmes (Blister In The Sun) and two unknowns, a new singer from Mali with a wonderful ethereal voice, Salif Keita, and an American bluesman Lazy Lester (The Same Thing Could Happen To You).

Lazy was touring the UK at the time and, as I recall, his contribution was recorded live for the program, with the drummer out in the hall to get the best sound. Or some-such.

Back home a year later I foolishly lent the cassette to an Irishman whom I taught with for a while. He promptly lost it – so he said. So the rest of the playlist disappeared into the mists of time. I saw Salif Keita at WOMAD a few years later. His sublime, haunting voice soared into the air on a hot late summer’s night in Botanic Park, Adelaide.

And I sought out the story of Lazy Lester and more of his music. A vinyl album True Blues for a start.

Lazy’s The Same Thing Could Happen To You is a simple, cautionary tale told from the point of view of someone doing time. The lyrics offer words of advice to others about to leave the confines.

Oh, Shot got out, the other day
I told him to watch his step
But he wouldn’t listen to what I said
And was back before he left

 or those perhaps heading for the same predicament

Now when you see something good layin’ round
It’s best you leave it be
If you pick it up they gonna take you every time
And you’ll wind up in here with me

Lazy’s life experiences left him well positioned to offer advice. After an initial foray into the music business he became disenchanted and disappeared for many years, working as a construction labourer, truck driver and lumberjack. Fortunately, he returned.

Musically he was at first an accompanist before making a name as an artist in his own right. Together with Slim Harpo (I’m A King Bee, Raining in My Heart), Lightnin’ Slim and others, Lazy recorded what became known as swamp pop or swamp blues, the music of southern Louisiana around Baton Rouge.

Lazy sang in a compelling, rough-hewn voice and played harmonica, guitar and various percussion devices. Not blues from the delta, not the electric blues of the big cities but blues with a looser feel. The music is rhythmic, seemingly shambolic at times and has an appealing ‘lived in’ touch. A one-off take in the studio rather than hours spent on production.

Lazy and Lightning recorded Rooster Blues, basically an unadorned, rolling country blues equivalent of Little Red Rooster, with Lightning exhorting Lazy to “Blow your harmonica, son.”

 Blues Stop Knocking (At My Door) is another wondrous sound with Lazy’s vocals and insistent harmonica backed by Jimmy Vaughan on guitar and someone playing thumping honky tonk piano.

Lazy appeared in Lightning In A Bottle, the 2003 documentary that showcased many luminary blues artists – “blues royalty and their heirs”.  It is a brilliant, big city production. He was more naturally at home, though, in the 2016 film I Am The Blues. The film is all about the ‘disappearing’ blues scene of the South. Disappearing because all the original artists are in their sunset years and there are not many youngsters learning the blues style.

There is wonderful footage of house concerts and back porch chats from blues artists who, while never reaching the dizzy heights, played great music. Lazy Lester is in his element as an artist and congenial friend.

Swamp pop drummer Warren Storm was in the documentary too. He was also a member of Lil’ Band O’ Gold whom I saw perform at one of Texas Dave’s legendary Moruya concerts a few years back. I wish they’d brought Lazy Lester with them.

As he sings in The Same Thing Could Happen To You:

Now when you cut your toenails off
Don’t ever leave ’em in a crack,
Before you leave the jailhouse, man,
You’re going to meet yourself coming back

 Not only a great bluesman, he was a philosopher too.

RIP Lazy Lester.


This story was first published on our partner site Almanac Music

Peter Crossing is a retired secondary science teacher with a passion for cricket and the history of contemporary music. His course, The Rise and Rise of Rock and Roll aimed to show students the links between their music and that of the past. He has written book reviews on music and sports for the Canberra Times and was formerly a presenter of blues music on Canberra community radio.