At first Lil’ Ed Williams kept his speed at 35 to 40 mph. After all, the young teenager had never driven that big Ford Monterey on a highway before, but soon he began to get the feel of that big boat of a sedan built to be the poor man’s Lincoln Continental. “That baby opened up w-i-i-i-i-ide, and I drove about 65. That was one of the most exciting moments of my life.”
No stop signs, no traffic lights, no other cars on the road. It was 5 o’clock on a Sunday morning, and Lil’ Ed was in the “Green Light Groove.”
Almost half a century later, he’s still putting the pedal to the metal with green lights all the way. Winner of the 2017 Blues Blast Band of The Year and celebrating 30 years with his band The Blues Imperials this November, Lil’ Ed sings about that “Green Light Groove”onThe Big Sound of Lil’ Ed & The Blues Imperials, the group’s latest CD on Alligator Records.
Abandoned by his father in 1961 when he was six years old, Lil’ Ed went on to find his family in his band members, Alligator Records President Bruce Iglauer, Ed’s wife Pam, his daughter, and other close family members including his uncle, slide guitar master J. B. Hutto. It was his aunt who gave him the tip to take his first ever drive on the pre-dawn expressway even though she herself had never driven.
“I couldn’t drive. I was scared, so my auntie told me, ‘Get your butt up at like 5 in the morning and get out there and drive ’cause there ain’t no cars out there. You can drive and figure out what you need to do.’
Family has always been broadly defined in Ed’s life. “It was growing up that made me appreciate being with my family. My aunts and uncles seemed to have so much fun when they were together. When their friends would come over, (I’d hear them say,) ‘Oh, you’re my brother, man!’ As a kid, you listen to these things. When you hear that, you say, ‘Why is he (saying) brother? I heard you telling Leo he was our brother. Is he our brother?’ She said, ‘He is our brother.’ My family would say little things like that to me ’cause my aunt and my grandmother raised me until I as about 12 years old.”
When he was six or seven, Ed and his two sisters would sing in church Sundays from nine to three. “Then, we’d come home and Uncle J. B. would pop up. He had his guitar. He’d bring out his guitar, and they’d start playing music. The kids wasn’t allowed in there. We was just in the background watching ’cause we couldn’t hang out with the grownups when they was drinking. That was the rule. I could hear ’em from the next room, and I’d kind of peek in on ’em.”
Uncle J. B. Hutto was a slide guitarist influenced by Elmore James who took over Hound Dog Taylor’s band, the House Rockers, when Taylor died in 1975.
“J. B., he’d see me peeking through the door. He’d say, ‘Come here, boy.’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ You like to sing, don’t ya?’ ‘Yes, sir.’ He say, ‘You want to play it?’ And he handed it to me. I was just banging on it.
“He said, ‘Let me show you something.’ So, he’d start showing me how to play it. And the cool part about it was he showed me just one section at a time. He wouldn’t show the whole run of the song. Then he’d leave and that’s all I knew was the first bar. I’d play on. He’d leave his guitar with me, and I’d pluck it, pluck it. He’d come back just before he was ready to go out of town, and I’d say, ‘Uncle J.B., I got it! Listen to this.’ And I’d play that little part I’d learned, and he’d say, ‘Yeah, but can you do this?’ And then he’d go to the next section. It was so cool the way he learned me.”
It was J.B.’s shimmering guitar string style that would come to define Lil’ Ed’s playing and remind Alligator CEO Bruce Iglauer of Hound Dog Taylor, the first artist Bruce recorded to his fledgling Alligator Records label in 1971.
“That’s just all in the wrist,” explains Ed. “You want to be loose. You can’t be a stiff player. I see a lot of jammers do that. They moving their whole hand instead of letting it shimmy a little bit. And that’s why you can’t get that because they’re stiff in the wrist. You gotta be loose in the wrist.
“J. B. showed me. It freaked me out ’cause I was doing the same thing, and he said, ‘˜Let me show you something, boy.’ He said, ‘Matter of fact, you’re holding it too tight. Let your finger be loose and let your wrist be loose and don’t be thinking about what you’re doing. Just do it.’ I couldn’t understand that. Not think about what you’re doing and just do it at the same time. Do it! But I learned.”
Lil’ Ed first recorded in 1987 on The New Bluebloods, Alligator’s anthology of young Chicago blues artists. “I wasn’t supposed to cut but two songs, and Bruce said, ‘I’m putting you in for a couple of songs. You’re gonna be fine.’ And they put the headphones on my head. I was standing where I could see the guys, and they could see me. Hearing what was coming through those headphones was great to me. He had like half of the staff back behind the glass.
“People were clapping and going, ‘Yeah. Do another one!’ And before I know it, he walked out of the control room, walked over to me and shook my hand. He said, ‘Lil’ Ed, we’ve cut so many songs right now, why don’t we just make an album.'”
Lil’ Ed had added another member to his extended family. “We shook hands and that came from his truthfulness and my truthfulness. It wasn’t about, ‘Oh, we gotta have some papers done.’ I didn’t know about no contract no way. I didn’t learn about contracts until after I got with him two or three years later.”
Ed confirms the legend that The Imperials split the $6 they made on their first gig three ways and adds, “We dropped off 12 to 13 bucks in beer, and I had to give the guys all of that.”
At the time, Ed worked as a buffer at the Red Carpet Car Wash in Chicago. “I actually was going to stay washing cars. That as my thought ’cause I was scared to go out on the road. I don’t know nothing about it, and I didn’t know what to do, but it was my boss at the car wash that was causing me to make the moves that I did. I’d been with him for 10 years maybe. He said, ‘You been here a long time, but right now you’re on the road more than you’re here. Why don’t you try it out. Just stay out there for a month, and if you don’t like it, come on back. You got your job.’
“And that’s what made me do it.”
The owner of that car wash had become another member of Ed’s extended family.
Ed had a sweetheart deal with his boss concerning the two kinds of wax they sold to customers, polish wax and hot wax. “I was a heck of a salesman back then. The polish was the good stuff. So, he was giving me a quarter on every polish wax that I sold. One month he paid me about $500. So, you know I as selling wax, right?”
It was Ed’s 16-year-old daughter who would become the family member who just may have saved his life in the early ’90s. He was living with her, her brother and an ex-girlfriend in a house full of drug addicts. “She looked me dead in the eye. I’m crying, and she’s crying. I didn’t know what to do at this point ’cause I wanted to stay there. She said, ‘What are you doing here?’ And I said to her, ‘I’m here for you guys. I’m here for y’all. That’s why I’m here.’
“Me and my old lady was pretty much separated. I was staying there, but we were pretty much separated. And my daughter said, ‘Look at the shape you’re in. You’re drinking, you’re drugging. What is it gonna take for you to stop this?’ I had already talked to some people I had been through the program with, and what I was told at the program was, ‘You gotta leave the house that you are staying at now and get straight. You can’ t stay there.’ I didn’t want to hear that. I didn’t want to hear that even though me and the young lady wasn’t communicating. But I didn’t want to hear that, because that was the only place I knew at the time.
“I said (to my daughter), ‘Listen, if I leave here right now, it’s gonna be a long time before you see me again.’ She said, ‘If this I what it takes for you to straighten your life like that, this is what you should do.’
“It was like everything opened up in my mind. I said, ‘Well, I’m out of here.’ I didn’t take my clothes. I didn’t take nothing that I owned. I called my wife-to-be ’cause I had been seeing her at shows, and me and her had been dating a little bit. I called her and I said, Listen, I gotta get away from here. Can you come and get me?’ She said, ‘Where do you want me to pick you up?’ Just like that.
“I was staying on 21st St., and the closest expressway was 290, about a mile and a half away. I told her, ‘You pick me up at 5th Ave. at one of the expressways. She said, ‘Ok, I’m on my way.’”
He ran for a mile and a half.
“I needed to go right then and something was telling me to run. And that was God. He a saying to me, ‘Run as fast as you can.’ That’s all I could hear in my mind, and I just started running. When I got to the expressway, my wife-to-be was pulling up off the ramp.
“That was the grace of God.”
“I didn’t see my daughter until after me and my wife got married. I stayed with her a whole year before we got married, and then I called my daughter and she said, ‘Well, why don’t you come over and see me?’ I said, ‘Ok.’ So, I brung my wife Pam with me. My daughter came out, and I got out. We talked a lot. She said hello to my wife, and she’s crazy about my wife right now today. She calls her mom and all that stuff. It’s all good.”
Once again, Ed’s growing family support structure made up for his being abandoned by his dad. Ed was off the Alligator label for a couple of years, but Bruce Iglauer never abandoned him through that period of drug rehab. “Bruce looked out for me along those years, too. I mean I had some problems, and he was there for me. I think we found out how close we were to one another when the problems started. That’s when you really find out who are your friends, your buddies, and your family. that’s when you find out how really close you really is when you start having problems.
“He was like, ‘Whenever you get ready, call me.’ And there were times when I needed to call him ’cause I needed cash or whatever, he was there for me. He was like, ‘You know you’re not working now. You got to pay this back when you start,’ but it was the trust and kindness that Bruce had that let me know that he was the right guy. He was the right person that I was with.”
Thirty years later, Ed considers his band part of his family with his half-brother James “Pookie” Young on bass, guitarist Mike Garrett, and drummer Kelly Littleton. And, yes, it’s the same lineup 30 years in. With nine albums on Alligator, and a touring schedule that takes them around the world, they bring one of the most energetic live shows to their fans. He shimmies, shakes and undulates like a snake. His sound remains old school Hound Dog Taylor by way of his uncle J. B. Hutto. He wears a fez just like J. B. did, and no matter how fast he moves, that fez stays positioned on top of his five-foot, one-inch frame.
Lil’ Ed is now one of the longest tenured artists at Alligator Records. He doesn’t record his albums in three hours anymore, but he is constantly refining the process. “I’m trying to get me a studio going, a little studio built so when I’m making my music, I have different tracks I can tweak the way I want to tweak it. I can lay down all the tracks and then my guys go from there. I lay down bass, drums and rhythm tracks, and they listen to what I make and tweak whatever they want to lay on it. I like my guys to be adventurous. I like ’em to take my stuff and put it in their own words.”
Ed says they spent about three days in the studio recording their most recent album. “It don’t take us long to cut. We have a certain technique that we do. We go into the warehouse and rehearse. I make out my little tracks, put ’em on the CD, give ’em to Bruce. He calls me back. ‘Ok, I like this song. I like that song. This song might need some changes.’ Then, I work on ’em a little bit more. Then, he comes over, helps me a little bit with the lyrics sometimes, and then we get the guys, and we go into his warehouse and we rehearse there.
“We make a few extra changes if we need to. Then, we go into the studio. It seems to take a little more time than I really want to have. The more time you spend in the studio, the more money it costs. I’m just gonna let ’em put their own tracks down. We gonna work on it until we think it’s good. I’m gonna present the record to Bruce. That way, when he says, ‘Ok, I like these tunes,’ everybody will know exactly (what to do). Instead of trying to learn what I’m doing, they’ll know exactly what they’re gonna do. We get in the studio and we should be able to pop that stuff down in no time.”
Even songwriting becomes a family affair. “Black Diamond Love” on The Big Sound was inspired by a conversation with wife. “We were talking about diamonds and we was overseas. Pam bought me a ring with black diamonds on it, and I said, ‘Now, that’s black diamond love.’ And she said, ‘You ought to write a song about that.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I think I will.'”
“Whiskey Flavored Tears” came from a dream his mother-in-law had. “We’re sitting down at dinner, and she says, ‘I dreamt that you wrote a song called “Whisky Flavored Tears.”‘ And I said, ‘Really?’ She says, ‘Yeah. I don’t know what the lyrics was. All I could hear you saying as whiskey flavored tears.’ I’m like, ‘Wow. That’s pretty cool. I’m gonna work on that.” A perennial Lil’ Ed favorite “Icicles in My Meatloaf” was also inspired by his mother-in-law. “She was telling the story about how she thought she had worked up the material. She tried to cut it and there was ice in it. (Chuckle)That hits me right there. I’m like wow.”
Lil’ Ed’s view of life today is no longer defined by the difference between polish wax and hot wax. “I’ll tell you what. Watching my family, listening to them and parents always taught me to respect any and everybody, black, white, green or yellow. Respect them and they’ll respect you back. This is the most important thing in life for parents to learn their kids. Respect everybody no matter how rude the person is, no matter how crazy he acts. Treat him with kindness and he’ll treat you with kindness.”
Check out Ed’s Facebook page at: https://www.facebook.com/LilEdandBluesImperials
Interviewer Don Wilcock has been writing about blues for nearly half a century. He wrote Damn Right I’ve Got The Blues, the biography that helped Buddy Guy jumpstart his career in 1991. He’s interviewed more than 5000 Blues artists and edited several music magazines including King Biscuit Time.