LIL’ ED & THE BLUES IMPERIALS
Lil’ Ed Williams, though small in stature, is a true giant of the blues, and among the very last authentic of the West Side Chicago bluesmen.
From smoking slide guitar boogies to raw-boned Chicago shuffles to the deepest slow blues, guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Lil’ Ed is an awe-inspiring master. He and his blistering, road-tested band, The Blues Imperials — guitarist Mike Garrett, bassist James “Pookie” Young, and drummer Kelly Littleton — are celebrating nearly 25 amazing years together. Not since the heyday of Hound Dog Taylor & The HouseRockers has a Chicago blues band made such a consistently joyous, rollicking noise. Between the band’s wonderfully untamed music and Ed’s flying leaps, back bending, toe-walking through the audience, and sliding across the stage on his knees, it’s no wonder The Boston Globe called them “the world’s #1 house-rocking band.”
Lil’ Ed boasts a direct bloodline to blues history — his uncle and musical mentor was the great Chicago slide guitarist, songwriter, and recording artist J.B. Hutto. Adding to the legend is Ed’s storybook rise to fame, taking him from working in a car wash to entertaining thousands of fans all over the world. Born in Chicago in 1955, Ed grew up surrounded by the blues. He was playing guitar, then drums and bass, by the time he was 12. Ed and his half-brother Pookie received lessons and support from their uncle. “J.B. taught me everything I know,” says Ed. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without him.” Ed and Pookie spent their teen years making music together, and in 1975 formed the first incarnation of The Blues Imperials. They played their first gig at a West Side club called Big Duke’s Blue Flame, splitting the $6 take four ways. Over the next few years, the group played every club in the neighborhood, but they still needed day jobs to pay the bills. Ed worked 10 hours a day as a buffer at the Red Carpet Car Wash. Pookie drove a school bus. Night after night they played their roaring brand of blues in tiny clubs, and eventually the word reached Alligator Records president Bruce Iglauer.
What happened next is not supposed to happen. Not in real life anyway. The band — never having been in a recording studio before — treated the studio like a club, playing live to Iglauer, the engineer, and all the people on the other side of the control room glass. After Ed recorded just two songs, the Alligator staffers in the control room were on their feet begging for more. Two songs later, with Ed doing his toe-walks and back bends, even the engineer was dancing. Iglauer offered the band a full album contract on the spot. The end result of the session was 30 songs cut in three hours with no overdubs and no second takes. Twelve of those songs became the band’s debut album, Roughhousin’, released in September of 1986.
The national press reacted with overwhelming amazement. Feature stories ran in Spin, Musician, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, and dozens of other publications. The Village Voice declared, “Roughhousin’ just may be the blues album of the year.” Quickly, the band went from playing local bars to clubs, concert stages and festivals coast to coast, giving national audiences their first taste of the band’s propulsive boogie blues and wild stage show. Spurred on by the band’s rowdy performances, a legion of fanatical fans, proudly calling themselves “Ed Heads,” eagerly spread the word. Lil’ Ed And The Blues Imperials’ next two releases, 1989’s Chicken, Gravy & Biscuits and 1992’s What You See Is What You Get, brought them to more people than ever before. They toured Australia, then went back to Europe before joining The Alligator Records 20th Anniversary Tour.
But after years on the road, the stress of touring and recording began to take its toll. Ed broke up the band and, for the first time, truly put his life together. After defeating his personal demons, Lil’ Ed reformed The Blues Imperials in 1998, to the great delight of blues fans everywhere. They returned home to Alligator and released Get Wild! in 1999 and Heads Up! in 2002 to widespread enthusiasm. 2006’s Rattleshake brought Ed and company to their largest audience. Now, with latest release Full Tilt and a schedule that will take the band on another non-stop tour across the country and across the ocean, Lil’ Ed And The Blues Imperials will continue to rock Ed Heads, both old and new, all around the world.
Lil’ Ed & The Blues Imperials appear at 6p.m. Sunday, April 18 at the Beach Shack (1 Minutemen Cswy., Cocoa Beach; 783-2250). Visit Lil’ Ed and the band online at: www.liledwilliams.com.