LAZY LESTER with MICHAEL PICKETT at the Silver Dollar (486 Spadina), Saturday (August 10), 10 pm. $15. 416-763-9139.
Today Lazy Lester is best known as the harp-honking blues man behind the rave-up I'm A Lover Not A Fighter covered by the Kinks. Like it or not -- and Lester doesn't -- the song has become his signature tune. The fact that the feisty 69-year-old Louisiana swamp rocker always felt the song misrepresented his ass-kicking abilities just makes it an even more appropriate theme song for a man whose entire career has been fraught with such misconceptions, not the least of which is the "Lazy" handle.
As Leslie "Lazy Lester" Johnson clarifies in the song They Call Me Lazy, he was actually just tired. And that's completely understandable considering the hours he put in as a session musician at Jay Miller's famed Modern Recording Studio in Crowley, Louisiana.
Besides playing harmonica, guitar, bass or pounding on boxes on Excello label jukebox faves by Slim Harpo, Lonesome Sundown, Katie Webster, Lightning Slim and Whispering Smith, Lester also backed just about every country, R&B, zydeco, rockabilly and swamp pop artist that Miller produced in the early 60s.
Lester revisits a number of those classic Excello sides on his stompin new Blues Stop Knockin' (Antone's Records), although the disc isn't so much a tribute to Miller's operation -- Lester still has questions about unpaid royalties -- as it is a way of redressing an historical oversight.
The choice of Al Ferrier's Blues Stop Knockin' as the title track is particularly significant.
"Growing up, I used to listen to DeFord Bailey on the Grand Ole Opry," recalls Lester, sipping a beer on the front steps of his home in Pontiac, Michigan. "I would've loved to record some country songs, but I never had the chance.
"The song Blues Stop Knockin' was a rockabilly tune. I was there in the studio when Jay Miller wrote it, and I wanted to cut it, but Jay gave it to Al Ferrier instead. I had to teach Al how to sing it. All those pretty country songs Jay wrote -- I'd be the one to show those white boys how to sing 'em, because Jay couldn't sing a lick.
"One time Warren Storm came into the studio saying, "Jay, you've got Lester teaching these boys how to sing your songs and he's better than any of 'em. Why the hell don't you record Lester doing country?' Jay just said, "Because he's coloured.' Ain't that pitiful?"
With Austin top guns Jimmy Vaughan, Speedy Sparks and Mike Buck backing Lester on Blues Stop Knockin' (he'll be accompanied by Detroit's Doug Deming and the Jewel Tones for the Silver Dollar show), the album is more swamp rock than country or blues.
Yet despite producer Derek O'Brien's best efforts to conjure some of that Crowley hoodoo in Austin's Arlyn Studios, that sleazy-sweet Excello sound Miller got at Modern Recording remains elusive. According to Lester, the secret is all in the echo.
"The Crowley studio started out as Miller & Sons Electric," he explains, "and as part of the family business they had a photo-finishing operation. We turned the darkroom into an echo chamber. I'm the one who put 14 coats of oil paint on those walls. Man, if you snapped your fingers in there, it'd just about blow your ear drums.
"We set up the speakers facing the walls, and two microphones also facing the wall, not the speakers, so they'd pick up the sound on the bounce, one at a time. It was a natural echo. That's how we got the sound nobody else had."