Sonny Lester

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Many instrumentalists have acquired the nickname "Shorty" based on physical stature, or lack of it, and the list of musical Shorties is long, not short, with enough players to fill the chairs of a marching…
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Many instrumentalists have acquired the nickname "Shorty" based on physical stature, or lack of it, and the list of musical Shorties is long, not short, with enough players to fill the chairs of a marching band and big band combined. As for Shorty Lester, half of a pair of musical brothers who joined the East Texas Serenaders for the group's final Brunswick recording sessions in 1937, the name might also have been based on the man's career, which seems to consist only of this session. He came into the band to replace tenor banjoist John Munnerlyn, who had been part of this popular string band since it was formed in the late '20s. Munnerlyn had decided to pack up his tenor banjo and head for Houston, and replacing him also seems to have involved a decision to create a dual-fiddle lineup involving the fiddling Lester brother and band frontman Daniel Huggins Williams, who prior to the switch had been the group's only violin player.

Biographers like to say Lester stepped into Munnerlyn's shoes "without missing a beat," and it is a perfectly appropriate description of what transpired. Both players were solely rhythmic timekeepers for the group, in which the unorthodox three-string cello playing of Henry Bogan provided forward momentum akin to the running legs of a startled ostrich. Keeping the beat was a familiar role for the tenor banjo or the more expressive five-string model in both old-time string bands and New Orleans jazz band, and it wasn't a nonsensical use of the instrument, since the banjo was loud enough to slice through all competing instrumental sounds in order to lay down that all-important beat. In the case of the East Texas Serenaders, that would often be a waltz. The ensemble, originally formed by two talented players from a small town near Tyler, TX, had a program heavy on such three-step music, as well as jazzy ragtime numbers that were a great influence on the Texas Western swing scene.

Sonny Lester's banjo work can be heard on waltzes such as "Del Rio Waltz," "Serenaders' Waltz," "Sweetest Flower Waltz," "Shannon Waltz," and last but not least "German Waltz"; the latter was the first time this group had let its guard down in terms of the German musical influences that were such a big part of the Texas scene, including the Mexican norteƱo styles. Perhaps this was the influence of the Lester brothers, arriving at the session with a steaming batch of "weiss wurst." "Fiddlin' the Fiddle" and "Arizona Stomp" are examples of sides that give the banjoist a chance to bear down a bit harder rhythmically. The only really valuable recorded document of this group is the Complete Recorded Works compact disc issued by Document; but most listeners come into contact with this group via a fleeting glimpse offered on any number of compilations, ranging from old-time Texas string bands to broad overviews of the entire history of American pop music, in which the East Texas Serenaders occupy a valuable niche as well. The group posed for publicity pictures alternately as hillbilly rubes and smooth city-slicker types, a contradiction in images that becomes more clear upon exposure to the music. The group played in a sophisticated style that was not all that hillbilly, thus free of the sandpaper edge characterizing other string bands from the region.