When I meet a great soul singer I always expect them to have a philosophical side to their personality. To me, performing soul music requires a refined understanding of the human condition. A great soul singer must be able to convincingly channel the entire spectrum of emotions, from ecstasy to sorrow.
Lonnie Lester is one of the truly great Hoosier soul singers. And in his nearly 60-year career in music Lester has racked up enough wisdom to fill up a library's worth of self-help books. But Lonnie Lester isn't writing any self-help books. He manifests his deep emotional creativity in song.
Much of Lester's artistic legacy rests on a series of classic soul 45 RPM singles he cut for the Midwestern record label Nu-Tone in the '60s. Original copies of Lester's Nu-Tone release are scarce and frequently fetch $100 to $200 on the collector's market. Recently, German-based label Tramp Records reissued Lester's Nu-Tone catalogue. The reissues have brought a renewed interest in Lester's work which culminated last year with the singer's performance at the Dig Deeper event series in New York City. Lester keeps a busy concert schedule here in Central Indiana, with upcoming dates at Rick's Boatyard on June 21, Zionsville Park on July 8th and Banbury Park in Noblesville on July 29.
Lester and I met recently at the WFYI studios where he shared many reflections on life and music with me.
Listen to the entire interview this Wednesday night at 9 p.m. on 90.1 WFYI Public Radio.
NUVO: I've read that you started singing in 1943 at age six in your grandmother's church. What do you remember about that moment?
Lonnie Lester: I'll never forget it. I was crazy about my grandmother. I loved my mother, but I was just crazy about my grandmother. I guess because she always read to me and told me things. She had patience with me and I was always curious. My mother didn't have time for all my curiosity, but my grandmother did.
We were in church and they were having people get up to speak and sing. She went to church all the time, so just to make her happy something in my mind told me to get up and sing just for her. I got up there, sang my little church song and when I finished people were applauding and carrying on. That's when it dawned on me what I had done. I couldn't get back to my seat fast enough after that. It felt like it was a mile away.
After that I was curious about music. I started listening to the radio and I always felt good when I heard music. So I thought this is what I want to do.
NUVO: Your family left St. Louis in the mid 1940s. You moved to Gary, Indiana and you started getting involved with the early doo-wop music scene in Gary.
Lester: Everybody was doing doo-wop back then. I went to school with The Spaniels and that's when I decided I was going to write songs. I remember when they wrote "Goodnight Sweetheart, Goodnight" and all those songs.
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NUVO: That song went on to become a smash hit. It's one of the defining pieces of doo-wop music and, to an extent, early rock and roll. Seeing their success must have inspired you to throw your hat in the ring and try to make some money with your music.
Lester: I really wasn't thinking about the money that much. Because a lot of times we didn't get paid. We ate and that was about it. The idea that you could write something is what I kind of liked. That's why I never stayed with groups. I wanted to write my own music. I was impressed with guys like Nat King Cole and Billy Eckstine. Then later on Sam Cooke, Little Richard and Jackie Wilson.
NUVO: After high school you joined the Air Force. And after that you came back to the Midwest and in the '60s and recorded a series of 45 RPM singles for the Nu-Tone label. What do you remember about those sessions? I particularly wondered what you remember about your funky soul classic "You Can't Go."
Lester: The sessions were quick. You'd go in and run through it and they'd say, "That's fine." Now people work on stuff forever. You couldn't do that then. You had to hit it and get it.
I wrote "You Can't Go" in about ten minutes because they wanted it right away. We were recording and I didn't have a lot of time to spend in the studio. The trumpet player and I went and sat down together at the organ and he got the idea of where I wanted to go with it. If I would've had more time to spend on it, it probably would've turned out worse. Because I had lots of ideas after we did it. It was something we did quick. That's the way we did it then. Go to the studio, record, jump in the car and head to the next job.
NUVO: Soul music fans around the world love the singles you made for Nu-Tone, but I get the feeling you're not particularly proud of the music you recorded for the label.
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Lester: I don't even know how to explain it. I would've never recorded it like that now. Because I've heard too much and been through too many transitions musically to accept something like that. That's why when they call me now to perform that music I'm like, "You must be kidding." It's like elementary music in a way. It was not sophisticated, I'll put it that way.
NUVO: In the early '70s you were offered a gig at an Indianapolis club called The Honeydripper and you've been pretty much based in Indy since. I'm curious what the club scene was like here in the '70s for a working musician.
Lester: In the '70s, Indy was like Chicago was in the '50s as far as music. In the '50s and '60s in Chicago there was all kinds of clubs you could work. But by the early '70s so many of them were gone. And if you did find a job they wanted you to play eight hours unless you were a big name artist. The blues guys would start at night and play until day.
But Indy was wide open. Indy was ready for it man. I said "I'm not going to tell anybody about this secret." Indy was a good place and things worked out for me here.
NUVO: From the '70s on you worked as a club singer and from the sound of it you never really looked back at those sessions you did for Nu-Tone. But at some point during the '80s and '90s, these Nu-Tone releases started circulating around the world and developing a cult following among soul fans. How did you find out about this interest in your work for Nu-Tone?
Lester: They were contacting my wife all the time. But I didn't even want to talk about it. The first time I went to New York City she booked me before I even knew it. She said, "You going! These people out there have been worrying me for a year."
NUVO: And it's a younger generation of fans that are discovering your Nu-Tone recordings. You mentioned your recent concerts in New York. There's a group called Dig Deeper who throw big soul parties in Brooklyn. Dig Deeper brought you out to NYC last march to perform your classic Nu-Tone sides, and you were such a big hit with the crowd that they brought you back again for their New Year's Eve celebration. That must have been surreal. You recorded those tracks for Nu-Tone over 40 years ago and moved on with your life. Then almost out of nowhere you're onstage in New York City performing these tunes to a crowd of young, hip folks in Brooklyn who know all the words.
Lester: They did know all the words! I couldn't believe it. I was shocked. I had to learn all those songs all over again. And when I got through with the show I said "did I really just do this?"
When they were driving me to the concert there was a line outside the door. I said, "Who is this for?" They said, "These people are getting here to see you." There was a line! I could not believe that. I started thinking, what have I got myself into?
NUVO: I saw some clips of the concert on YouTube. You were 77 at the time of the performance and you were still hitting all the dance moves.
Lester: I moved once or twice then I stopped. I could see the guys in the band saying, "Hey, don't do that." Musicians will tell you in a minute don't do that because you get wore out and out of breath.
NUVO: You've been a hardworking musician for decades. In the last ten years or so you're starting to become aware of this international attention for your work, your music has been reissued, your getting offers for big concerts. Does it feel like you're finally getting some recognition for your music?
Lester: I don't even care that much about the recognition. If you're doing something you like doing and you're doing it the way you want to, that's a big part of the satisfaction in it to me. If it blew up, I don't think I could hold up. At this age? I'll be 80 in three years. I can't be jumping up, walking on tables, spinning onstage and carrying on. I can't do that anymore.
I just hope I come up with something that relates to people and they like it. And if they don't like it, you just keep going. I like the business now. I gotta like it, I been in it all my life.
NUVO: You've been in the music business for nearly six decades. You've outlasted many of your peers and you're still happy and healthy and playing the music you love. I'm curious if you have any advice to share with young musicians coming up?
Lester: Don't go into it with dreams of grandeur. Most jazz guys don't go into like that. They do it because they like it - no, they love it! They love what they do. If you don't love it enough to suffer - and I don't mean suffer like somebody beating you - but to do without. Maybe you won't have the house with the white picket fence and all that stuff. Later on you might get it. But when I got it, I didn't even want it! So my wife and I got out of it. We said, this is just a hassle.
You've gotta be a certain type of person to get into the music business. It's tough. But if you love it, then do it. Music has kept me going. I don't think I'd be here if it wasn't for music. To tell you the truth I don't think I'd be here.