Blues on the Ridge

Blues legend Lazy Lester now calls Butte County home

Lazy Lester in Stirling City for his 77th birthday party.

Lazy Lester in Stirling City for his 77th birthday party.

Photo By Karen O’Neill

Lazy Lester turned 77 last Sunday. If you don’t know who Lazy Lester is, you may have been a little lazy yourself. One of the seminal figures in the history of American blues music, a guy who knew and played with some of the legendary figures who created or contributed to this quintessential American art form, is actually living right here in Butte County—in Paradise, with his girlfriend, Pike Kaksonen.

About a hundred friends and fans showed up to honor him at a surprise party held up in Stirling City at the old community center, a remarkable building that once served as the town’s movie theater way back in the silent era when Stirling City was a bustling lumber-mill town with a much bigger population than Paradise, farther down the hill.

People who write about music play fast and loose with the word “legend,” applying it to just about anyone who ever warbled a note or strummed a chord, but Lester is the real deal, a guy whose life and work embody a huge span of blues history. He found his way to Nashville in the mid-1950s, cutting his first hits—“I’m a Lover Not a Fighter,” and “Sugar-Coated Love” in 1957. Rock ’n’ roll was in its infancy then, with Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis recording at Sun Records while Lester was making his first “race records” across town for the Excello label.

His real name is Lester Johnson, born in Torras, La., back in the depth of the Depression. It’s been a long journey from that obscure town to the Ridge. There’s been a whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on for most of those miles and most of those years. Just days before his birthday, he arrived back home to Paradise after a tour that took him to Norway, Finland, Sweden and Spain, and later this month he heads off again, back to Europe, with stops in Brazil and Nepal. In September, he’s going to be featured at a festival in New Orleans named for one of the songs he wrote—“Ponderosa Stomp.” For a guy who bears the nickname “Lazy,” he gets around.

“I’m still out here, makin’ no money, but havin’ a whole lotta fun,” Lester told this interviewer over the hubbub of his birthday celebration. “All the guys who got paid are pretty much dead, but I’m still here, waitin’ for payday.”

He still speaks with the slow Louisiana drawl that earned him his sobriquet.

“The year I put out ‘Sugar-Coated Love,’ he says, “was the year Michael Jackson was born. Michael’s gone, but I’m still here. And I met Elvis when he was on the Louisiana Hayride. I knew him before I paid attention to his name, but after he got famous I sure knew that name. He’d be 75 this year, I think, and here I am, 77. I hope I live forever.”

He’s had a pretty good ride, playing all over the world, rubbing elbows and lending his harp and vocal chops in support of people like Slim Harpo, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Sue Foley, Katie Webster, and numberless others.

Here in Butte County, we now claim him as one of our own, which is how he came to be celebrating his birthday at a party thrown by Stirling City’s own Charlotte Hilgeman, a longtime friend.

Music for the gathering was provided by The Karma Kings, who turned in a terrific blues set, with some inspired guitar work by Alan Rigg and heartfelt vocals by lead singer Jonathan Arthur. As the afternoon drifted toward evening, Lester, among the last of his breed, took the stage himself, playing and singing to a well-fed audience of remaining revelers in that old community center where loggers and mill workers once watched Charlie Chaplin movies a century ago.