While you may see portrayals of real 1970s musicians ranging from Alice Cooper to Janice Joplin and Robert Goulet on HBO's Vinyl, many of the artists on the series are original characters. Is Lester Grimes on Vinyl a real person? Though he is a fictional creation for the series, actor Ato Essandoh found inspiration for the fallen blues singer in several epic performers.
On the show, Lester Grimes is a fictional blues singer who was wronged by the music industry before the main arc of Vinyl begins. He is introduced in flashbacks in the pilot as a rare talent right off the bat. "It was an audition that I never thought that I had any chance of getting," Essandoh says, "it called for a musician who played like Jimi Hendrix and sang like Sam Cooke." So, no pressure — right?
Lester is also a tragic figure who literally loses the voice that made him special. There's a heart-wrenching scene in one of the early episodes of Season 1 in which Lester imagines what his life would be like if he was a star, but that has up until this point been stripped away. "To play someone who is at the top of his game and then loses everything in [the pilot], that's pretty awesome and it's an honor to play and be trusted with that kind of thing," the actor says.
It doesn't hurt that the show is executive produced by the likes of Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger, who know this stuff inside and out. "[Scorsese] has a savant level of knowledge of New York history, music history, film history," Essandoh says. "So when you're sitting with him you're getting like a PhD level course in all three of those subjects."
As for which real '70s artists Essandoh studied to get a feel for who Lester is, he lists B.B. King, Ike Turner, and Prince in addition to Hendrix and Sam Cooke. "Band leaders, and people who had that electricity when they're on stage," he says. "It's sort of that pure, pure magical 'whatever' they have inside of them that's coming out."
It's more of a feeling in these artists that Essandoh is trying to portray, rather than any one person in particular. I think we all know performers like that, who have an undefinable star quality that kicks in at the right moment. "Jimi Hendrix is legendarily ... kind of shy offstage. And Prince is also, you know, sort of quiet and soft-spoken. But as soon as they get up on stage it's a completely different animal," he says. "It's like you can't believe what is coming, pouring out of their pores and so I wanted — I modeled Lester off of that. Offstage he's kind of like a shy, maybe not so shy, but a quiet, soft-spoken, non-boisterous sort of guy. But onstage there's something that happens to him."
Hopefully we'll get to see more of that magic onstage for Lester — even if it's just in more flashbacks. He's one of Vinyl's most interesting original characters, who exemplifies the time period in a lot of ways. I look forward to seeing what happens next as the HBO series continues on Sunday nights at 9 p.m.
Image: Macall B. Polay/HBO; Giphy