By: John S. Newbraugh
On September 10, 1944, in the small West Virginia coal mining town of Mammoth, located on Upper Kelly’s Creek, Chester “Butch” Lester first saw the light of day.
At the age of six the Lester family moved to Tyler Mountain, near Cross Lanes, West Virginia and this is where the youth began his education. By this time he had already received his nickname “Butch” which would follow him throughout the days he spent in the “Mountain State”.
Butch’s first memories of music were when his mother woke him for school. He remembers that his mother always had the radio on and it was tuned to W. T. I. P. in Charleston. The D.J. was Sleepy Jeffries. Butch recalls listening to Hank Snow and the Singing Rangers, Martha Carson, and West Virginia’s own Little Jimmy Dickens from Bolt, WV.
Butch recalls hearing the radio personalities talking about where they would be performing “live” with Honey and Sonny (The Davis Twins), Little Willie, and other local and national stars. At this time Butch started to formulate the idea of what it would be like to sing in front of a large group of people.
Lester’s uncles and cousins always had guitars and picks laying around which served to further advance his interest in music. Strangely it was the guitar picks that really hooked the youngster on his musical addiction. He says that the guitar picks felt like they were a perfect fit for his hands just like one would expect a glove to fit.
Butch was taught some basic cords by his uncles and about this same time he discovered that he could carry a tune and thus his singing career began.
One day his cousin, who was two years his senior, told Butch that there was going to be some guy appearing on the Ed Sullivan show and that he should be sure to watch. On September 9, 1956 (one day before his 12th birthday), Chester “Butch” Lester, like many other of America’s youth, set in front of his aunt’s TV set and saw the debut of none other than Elvis Presley. From that point on, his life would never be the same again. He was totally hooked on rock-n-roll music.
Now one may think that this was not unusual as Elvis mesmerized many American youths but it is important to remember that Butch was landlocked in a state where country music was the genre of choice and most of the radio stations in West Virginia at that time played a county music format. This was spear-headed by the powerful WWVA in Wheeling, West Virginia.
But Butch was able to turn the radio dial and finds stations playing rock and rockabilly and in addition to Elvis he listened to the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Little Richard. He also found favor with doo-wop groups; but, he was really fascinated when he discovered rhythm and blues. Again we must remember that Butch was living in an area and a state where country music was (and still is) the King!
By this time Butch had acquired an electric guitar and was able to find some friends in the local area who shared his addiction to rock music and as Butch states they spent endless hours getting together and making “noise”. This noise later turned into an expanded repertoire of rock, rockabilly, blues, country and even a bluegrass song or two.
Butch met Jimmy Angel from Charleston, WV. Jimmy went to Stonewall Jackson High School where he played the drums. The problem was that Jimmy didn’t have his own drum set but he did own a set of bongos. The duo united to do a cover version of Preston Epps’ Bongo Rock in a local talent show. Butch remembers that his nerves were on high alert when he faced that first live audience; but, after this experience Butch never looked back. Angel soon acquired a trap set and the two young musicians set out to make their mark on the world of music.
After a period of playing local skating rinks, dance parties, and clubs with his own bands and other groups, Butch joined the Buddy Starcher Show in 1963 as a bass player. Starcher (1906 – 2001) is also a native West Virginian from Jackson County. It was on Buddy’s record label (BES Records) that Butch waxed some very memorable rockabilly songs. Also appearing on Starcher’s BES label was the very first release of “History Repeats Itself”. Butch recalls that Buddy first performed the song on his own TV show and then he went to Nashville to record it. “History Repeats Itself” was a self penned song by Starcher comparing the events of the Lincoln and Kennedy assassinations and the song later became an international hit on Boone Records reaching #2 on the USA charts in 1966.
BES Records (Charleston, W.Va.) by Butch Lester (Circa 1965-1966)
BES #86 “Rosie” / “I’ve Got To get Over You”
BES #89 “The Car and The Keys” / “Patches”
BES #90 “Anytime But Now” / “I’d Rather Fight Than Switch”
Note – Butch recorded other sides for BES that were unreleased
Of these releases “Rosie” has become a rockabilly classic and has appeared on several rockabilly compilations, but, that is not to downplay the importance of Butch’s other BES cuts as rockabilly relics.
BES Artists (All members in this picture recorded for BES records which stood for Buddy E. Starcher whose real name was Oby Edgar Starcher). (l to r) Pudgy Parsons , Norman Chapman, Roscoe Swerps (Herman Yarbrough), Buddy Starcher, Mary Ann Starcher, and Butch Lester. (Circa 1964-1965)
Buddy also had a local radio and TV show in Charleston and Butch was a member of the cast. Buddy was notable in giving some young musicians air time as was the case when in 1962, eight year old Keith Whitley appeared on Buddy’s show. The very next year 19 year old Butch Lester joined the Buddy Starcher Show.
The Buddy Starcher Show (1 to r front row) – Mary Ann Starcher, Buddy Starcher(l to r back row) Morrie Hamilton, Wick Craig, Roscoe Swerps (Herman Yarbrough) , Norman Chapman, Butch Lester (Circa 1967-1968)
After the Starcher show, Butch stayed in the Charleston area and formed a band with Norman Chapman. In 1970 another band was formed and they were named “The Keys”. This group waxed a single on Bill Browning’s Alta Record label out of Milton, West Virginia.
Alta Records (Milton, WVa.) – “The Keys” – (Butch Lester’s Band) - 1970
#145a – “Lookin’ Home”
#145b – “Love’s Gonna Get You Everything”
The Keys toured the Midwest and were booked by Artist Corps. of America. After two years on the road Butch went back to Charleston and took a job with the George Legg Trio playing a smorgasbord of music including dinner music, rock, jazz, or whatever else the audience requested.
(l to r) Butch Lester, Emory Brown, Larry Fisher, and Ernie Dunlap. (1970 – Milwaukee)
About this time, Butch had another release on the Artic label out of Nashville:
Artic Records (Nashville,Tn) – Butch Lester (circa 1972-1973)
#444 – “Hello Guitar” / “Brother Jesus”
While Butch was on the road with The Keys, his wife sent some of the songs that he had written to Tommy Jennings (brother of Waylon Jennings) and this resulted in some of his original material being published be Waylon’s and Tommy’s publishing Company – Baron Music. This opened up a whole new line of interest for Butch as he started to do more writing and less “on the road” performing and thus he moved to Nashville in 1975 to actively pursue songwriting.
Some of Butch’s works were picked up by steel guitarist, Russ Hicks, who was also from West Virginia. Russ had formed a production and publishing company with Jimmy Crawford and Buddy Emmons. They signed Chester “Butch” Lester to his first Nashville contract as a writer and performer.
In 1979 Butch had several major career changes. First he dropped his nickname “Butch” which had identified him for 35 years. He started using his real name Chester Lester and most importantly his music took a switch toward the country genre; but, we must remember that by this time he had been living in Nashville for four years and Nashville is the Country Music Capital of the world. Also in 1979 Chester went to Con-Brio Records and had two country music releases. He was also signed as a writer by Con-Brio.
Con Brio Records (Nashville, Tn) – Chester Lester – 1979
#148 – “Mama Make Up My Room” / “High On Love”
#154 – “If Only We Could” / “Woman From Kentucky”
The next step in Chester’s career came with Bob Montgomery’s House of Gold Music and it was during this time that he had his first real success as a writer. Chester had a #1song with “She Left Love all Over Me” by Razzy Bailey. Bailey would go on to record other Lester compositions and eventually House of Gold merged with Warner Bros. in 1985.
This success opened some doors for Chester Lester as a song writer and he had his compositions recorded by numerous others artists including the following: Tammy Wynette, Joe Stampley, Conway Twitty, Dean Martin, Bobby Vinton, Mark Grey, Con Hunley, and Waylon Jennings.
The following is a list of Chester Lester penned songs that were recorded by other artists (in chronological order):
Andy Weston – “Early Morning Love” – NSD Records 1979
Vickie Hatfield – “You Can Count On Me” – Survey Records 1980
Razzy Bailey – “She Left Love All Over Me” RCA Records 1982
Jim Chestnut – “Bedtime Stories” – Liberty Records 1982
Marty Robbins “Prayin’ For Rain” – Columbia 1982
Clifford Russell – “She Feels Like A New Man” – Sugartree Records 1982
Bobby Smith – “It’s Been One of Those Days” – Liberty Records 1982
Joe Stampley – “Southern Comfort” – Warners Bros. Records 1982
Diana – “He’s The Fire” – Sunbird Records 1982
Razzy Bailey – “Touchy Situation” – MCA Records 1983
Razzy Bailey- “Keep On Keeping It Up” – RCA Records 1983
Lloyd David Foster – “Love At First Sight” – MCA Records 1983
Conway Twitty- “The Best Is Yet To Come” – Warner Brothers Records 1983
Tammy Wynette – “A Good Night Love” – CBS Records 1983
Waylon Jennings – “Sight For Sore Eyes” – RCA Records 1984
Dean Martin – “In Love Up To My Heart” – Warners Brothers Records 1984
Bobby Vinton – It’s Been One Of Those Days” – Curb Records 1984
Mark Gray – “If All Of The Magic Is Gone” – CBS Records 1985
Johnny Cash – “Goin’ By The Book” – Mercury Records 1987
John Paul Murray – “Watch My Smoke” – Player Records 1987
Waylon Jennings – Too Close To Call” – RCA Records 1990
Willie Nelson – “The Piper Came Today” – Sony Records 1990
Tammy Wynette – “Just For A Minute There” – Sony Records 1990
During this time period Chester managed to release some vinyl 45’s of his own as listed below:
(1) Bob Grady Records (Carlton, Georgia) – Circa 1985 – 1986
#BGR-008 – Makin’ It Easy (Ain’t Makin It Right) – (Mono – Stero Promo)
(2) Winsong Records (Nashville, Tenn.) – Circa 1987
#WS 002 – Johnny Never Came Marching Home ( Mono - Stereo Promo)
(3) InterVision Records (Nashville, Tenn) – Circa 1988
#3001 – Too Close To Call ( Mono – Stereo Promo)
Note – Artist was credited as Ches Lester (factory error) on the InterVision release. All other songs are credited to Chester Lester
All of these songs were written by Chester Lester and he also had an Lp for Bob Grady Records entitled “Too Close To Call” (#2001) released in 1989. Many of these copies were marketed in Europe.
Circa 1987 – 1988, Chester’s contract was up with Warner Bros. and he started his own publishing company (Chester Lester Music). Among the artists to avail themselves to Chester’s newly found business were the following: Waylon Jennings, Tammy Wynette, Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash.
The number of recordings that Lester appeared on as either Butch or Chester as a session player would be almost impossible to list. His services were employed by all types of musical groups. So don’t be surprised in you pick up a gospel lp someday and when reading the credits you see Lester’s name and….yes….. this is the same man who produced some very fine rockabilly hits.
Next Chester began to produce acts for the overseas market as well as independent artists. Currently he is doing his own recordings for the overseas market as well as the internet.
Chester Lester (Circa 1995)
Butch married Margaret Sue Leadman in 1961 and the couple have a son – Clayton Weston Lester and a daughter Christine. They also have a grandson Donnie Wayne Richardson and a great granddaughter – Abby Richardson.
Butch states that his philosophy on life is as follows: “Six degrees of separation refers to the idea that if a person is one step away from each person he or she knows …..and ….two steps away from each person who is known by one of the people that he or she knows …
…then….then every person is an average of “six steps” away from each person on Earth.
In June 2005, Butch was one of fifty West Virginians inducted into the “Art and Soul – West Virginians in Art” This group includes other noted West Virginians such as Don Knotts , Soupy Sales, Little Jimmie Dickens , Kathy Mattea, and Brad Pasley.
Butch is now a member of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame and he has had a long and diversified career in many aspects of the music business from performer to producer. However his early rockabilly releases will stand as a testament to his mastery of this musical genre.
© 2008 – John S. Newbraugh – Chester Lester
Chester “Butch” Lester
291 Southburn Drive
Hendersonville, Tn. 37075
Posted April, 2008
Rockabilly Hall of Fame ®