Saturday night’s headliner, Lonnie Lester, has played Albany and Buffalo, but never made it to New York City. Lester, a native of Gary, Indiana, has been a singer since 1959 when he opened for The Drifters. He’ll turn 77 in April and stays busy singing at restaurants, corporate functions, and retired living communities near his home in Indianapolis. “I didn’t live like the big boys, but it was a job.”
I can’t do splits anymore, but I can entertain the crowd, and if I do a split they’re going to need to have some kind of ambulance near the stage,” Lester says. “My voice is still pretty strong; I’m never going to sound like I did anymore, but you’ll know it’s me.”
Lester performed at Dig Deeper at Littlefield on Saturday, March 8 in Brooklyn NYC.
Lonnie likes to call himself “Just a Working Musician”; however he is often described as Tom Jones smooth, with the swagger and smile that make the ladies feel like they’re the only ones in the room. His magnetic personality draws couples to the dance floor and persuades even the timid to join him in singing a couple bars of “My Way”.
The Indianapolis rhythm and blues singer – was on the road for 40 years, opening for The Drifters, Aretha Franklin, Sam & Dave, Little Willie John, Johnny Mathis and many others, making his living in juke joints and opening for rhythm and blues groups. One of his biggest shows was in Chicago, opening for jazz vocalists Lambert Hendricks & Ross at the Morrison Hotel.
Lonnie was born in Dorena, Missouri in 1937, the oldest of thirteen children. He first started singing at the age of six at his Grandmother’s church in Murphysboro, IL. He continued singing through grade school, and loved listening to Nat King Cole, Billy Eckstein and the hit parade on the radio.
In 1946 his family moved to Gary, Indiana and as a teenager performed with doo-wop (a style of music popularized in the 1950’s sung in harmony) groups in and around Gary, Indiana. He also sang in mixed chorus at Gary Roosevelt High School, along with Gerald Gregory, who created a famous base line, Pookie, Piller T and Courtney who later called themselves the Spaniels, and went on to write “Goodnight Sweetheart” recorded by Vivian Carter on the VJ label.
In 1955 after serving a stint in the U.S. Air force, he ended up in Oakland, California. Needing money he entered and won several talent contests. After spending most of the money he made buying nicer clothes (Nob Hill suits) and having them cleaned, he and friends would go in Chinese restaurants and ask for hot water, put catsup in to make soup and eat crackers. He finally started getting gigs in clubs working with cover bands.
In the early 1960’s he returned to Gary, Indiana and became the lead singer with the Chuck Danzy Band , who was playing for the “Drifters” (their hit was “There Goes My Baby”). He cut several R&B singles on the Nutone label, “You Can’t Go”, “Ain’t That a Shame, and the Meanest Man in Town. After leaving Chuck Danzy, he traveled through Michigan with a band playing in clubs. In the late sixties he traveled, and was the lead singer with the Jackie Ivory Trio performing in jazz clubs, in Pittsburgh, PA, Chicago, IL, Dayton, OH and all around the chitlin circuit the collective name, given to the string of performance venues throughout the eastern, southern, and upper mid-west areas of the United States, that were safe and acceptable for African American musicians, comedians, and other entertainers to perform during the age of racial segregation in the United States (from at least the early 19th century through the 1960s). Many notable performers worked on the chitlin circuit.
In the early 70’s Lonnie formed his own band Lonnie Lester & Touch, and traveled all around the country, before settling in Indianapolis, Indiana in 1974 where he now makes his home. In 2000, he released his first CD “In a Perfect World”, his second in 2003 “The many flavors of Lonnie Lester” and in 2008 a 2 CD collection of R&B/Soul/Motown, “Talk to Me” and “Lets Get Together”, along with a 1986 live from the archives “In Touch” CD. Also in 2008 his concert “Lets Get Together” was broadcast on WFYI Channel 20 TV Public Broadcasting. In 2012 he released “Retrospective”, a CD of songs all written and arranged by Lonnie Lester. “Music is my passion and this album is a reflection of the progression of my life.
Over the years Lonnie has donated time to many community organizations. In April 2002 Governor Frank O’Bannon appointed Lonnie a “Sagamore of the Wabash”. This award is the highest honor the Governor of Indiana bestows. It is a personal tribute given those who have rendered a distinguished service to the State or the Governor. In addition Lonnie was honored by Mayor Bart Peterson with a Proclamation declaring April 6, 2002 Lonnie Lester Day, in recognition of his contribution to the city.
Lonnie recently celebrated his 76th birthday and continues to perform in the Indianapolis, Indiana area.
For booking and other information, email LonnieLester@yahoo.com