Cover photo © 2023 Peter M. Hurley
A giant of a stage presence in a diminutive body, Lil’ Ed Williams produces a bare-bones sound so large and so intense that you’d think it should be coming from a man twice his size. And although it’s not apparent as he fronts his band, the Blues Imperials, in some ways, your eyes are deceiving you and it’s true!
It’s been more than 40 years since Ed stepped on stage for the first time, and every time he’s done so, he’s never been alone because the spirit of his uncle, legendary slide guitarist J.B. Hutto, has been standing staunchly beside him all the way.
In more ways than one, Ed’s the living, breathing embodiment of J.B., who left us before getting to see his beloved nephew and protégé soar to fame. After all, they’re almost mirror images of each other — powerful despite being “petite” – with similar vocal deliveries and the same furious attack on the strings. And Ed’s stage appearance is identical to Hutto – right down to the fez that adorns his head and, frequently, to the Airway Res-o-Glass guitar he holds in his hands.
But make no mistake…they’re identical in many ways, but Williams is no copycat. That’s one thing J.B. cautioned against from the early days of teaching his prized student how to play.
“The reason I started making this music in the first place was to keep J.B.’s legacy alive,” Lil’ Ed told Blues Blast in a recent interview. “Sure, I wanted to play music. But before he passed, he said to me: ‘I want you to keep this goin’ and takin’ it all over the world. But don’t play like me. Play like yourself and keep the tradition goin’ — and always remember me when you get it done.’”
One thing’s for certain: Hutto left an indelible mark on Williams – so much so, in fact, that Ed says he occasionally hits a note that literally channels Hutto and is something he’s never done before. The events leave him wondering how he’d done it while enforcing his understanding that his beloved uncle remains close and watching overhead.
The son of a preacher, J.B. spent his youth, playing drums and piano and performing with his dad and six siblings in the family gospel group, the Golden Flames. Born in 1926 in Blackville, S.C., he and the rest of his kin relocated to Chicago in 1949 after his father’s passing. Hutto never talked about his time in the service, but returned to the States from the Korean War with a metal plate in his head after being wounded in action. It was an injury that triggered occasional seizures for the rest of his life – something Ed was unaware of until after his passing.
Deeply influenced by slide master Elmore James, J.B. turned to the guitar after his return, frequently playing Maxwell Street and other venues with percussionist Eddie “Porkchop” Hines before the duo joined forces with guitarist Joe Custom and harp player Earring George Mayweather and started playing as J.B. Hutto & the Hawks in many clubs that populated the West Side.
They were starting to make a name for themselves when they cut three 45s for the Chance label in 1954. Soon after, however, J.B.’s career came to a screeching halt. He was playing a hole-in-the-wall one night when woman grabbed his guitar off the stage and smashed it on her husband’s noggin. He was so disillusioned with show business that he began working as a funeral home janitor and abandoned performing professionally for 11 years.
A master of open-D tuning and delivering a raw sound that drew comparisons to Hound Dog Taylor & the House Rockers, he finally reformed the Hawks as a three-piece with drummer Frank Kirkland and bassist Herman Hassell and rose to national prominence in 1966 when Vanguard Records released Chicago/The Blues/Today! Vol. 1, a compilation that also included sessions from Junior Wells and Otis Spann.
After Taylor’s death in 1975, Hutto changed his lineup, joining forces with guitarist Brewer Phillips and drummer Ted Harvey — Hound Dog’s longtime bandmates – and rebranded the band as J.B. Hutto & the House Rockers. Other iterations, including a unit branded the New Hawks, followed as he cut LPs for Testament, Delmark and other imprints prior to losing his life to cancer at just 57 in 1983.
“At his funeral,” Williams remembers, “I stood over his casket and told him he’d always be a part of me and that I’d never let his legacy die. I keep him alive ‘cause that’s what it’s all about!”
He’s been a torchbearer for the blues and J.B. since.
Other folks claim it, but Lil’ Ed was truly born to play the blues. He came into the world on April 8, 1955, and grew up in the heart of the West Side. His father abandoned the family when he was six. “I remember him sayin’: ‘I’ll see you in a couple of weeks,’” he says. “But I didn’t see him anymore.”
Williams was raised by his great-grandmother for the next six years until her passing and then by an aunt for a short while until she asked him if he wanted to live with his mother, who’d remarried and was raising his half-brother, James “Pookie” Young, who grew up to be his closer-than-blood bassist in the Blues Imperials.
His mom’s new husband quickly became the father he never really had. But through all of his childhood, for Ed, J.B. was both a quiet, calming influence as a favorite uncle and a second father figure, too.
“Uncle J.B. was always there,” he says. “Sometimes, he’d kick off his shoes and stay for two or three weeks” – during which he’d perform whenever their large family got together. Realizing he had two willing and highly motivated students, he took Ed and Pookie under his wing, teaching them the rudiments of playing an instrument along with instructing them about the do’s and don’ts of the music business, too.
“The first time we seen him play was in the livin’ room,” Ed remembers. “Back then, on Sundays, they’d go off into church and sing the gospel songs. Then they’d come home in the evenin’, he’d pull out the guitar and they’d go into the livin’ room to play the blues. The kids wasn’t supposed to be in there, but he’d catch me peekin’ in.”
As great as those nights were, however, the seminal moment in Ed’s life came when J.B. brought his band to the family’s home at Lake and Paulina – before the neighborhood was torn down and replaced by a housing project – and played for the neighbors in the expansive yard.
“They called it the ‘Honeymoon Building,’” Williams says. “There was another big buildin’ sittin’ to the right of us, and we had this big, open space — a big backyard with chickens, pigs, about 13 dogs, 25 or 35 cats and all that shit. It was huge, man. It was huge!
“Once in a while, my youngest uncle – his name was Pepper – would chop the head off of one of the chickens and make me go grab it. Back then, you had to do what they say…and if you didn’t…I got scars to prove it!
“We had a potbelly stove in the dinin’ area…where I slept, and my auntie was whippin’ me so bad one day, I run from the livin’ room, lookin’ back to see where she was at. I run right into that hot potbelly stove and fell back. But if you think that stopped her from whoopin’ my butt…(chuckles)…”
Lil’ Ed was on the second floor porch of the Honeymoon Building one afternoon, watching the action unfolding beneath him. Another uncle was stacking garbage cans in the shape of a pyramid into the sky as J.B. and the Hawks got ready to play.
“I guess he knew what uncle J.B. was gonna do,” he remembers. “People was startin’ to crowd around, and they kicked off into a tune. All of a sudden, Uncle J.B. was walkin’ these garbage cans! I was up there watchin’ him, and my older sister had to pull me back because I almost fell over.”
Lil’ Ed Williams, the musician, took root that day.
In the early years, he cut his teeth sitting in with J.B. and playing alongside other Chicago stalwarts, including Hip Linkchain and Little Howlin’ Wolf, while working ten-hour days as a buffer at the Red Carpet Car Wash to make ends meet. In those days, Pookie drove a school bus.
The first time this writer met Lil’ Ed, in fact, came one afternoon in the late ‘70s at Silvio’s – where the real Wolf held sway at night. He showed up at the gig after coming straight from his day job and played the entire set alongside Little Wolf – aka Lee Solomon — still dressed in the rubberized/waterproof, yellow jumpsuit he’d worn at work. Back then, it was an outfit that probably weighed as much as he did.
After playing together through their teens, Pookie and Ed formed the first iteration of the Blues Imperials with another J.B. protégé, guitarist Dave Weld, after an introduction from Hutto. They made their debut at Big Duke’s Blue Flame — one of dozens of blues clubs that existed along the Madison Street corridor back then – in 1975, making a whopping $6 in the tip jar, which they split four ways.
It was a memorable night, Williams notes, because they shared the stage with a shake dancer who billed herself as Sugar Lips and whose “talent” was the ability to squat down and pick up a dollar bill from the floor by using her private parts and nothing more. “They were still havin’ shows like the ‘olden’ days,” he still says in amazement. “First they had the dancer, then the comedian and then the band.
“But in this case, the comedian was actually the singer…us…because the guy said he didn’t want me to sing ‘cause I wasn’t ready yet. He wanted me to play.
“So I’m playin’ and he’s singin’. And all of a sudden, he’d lean over to the side and the audience would go ‘Ah-h-h-h-h!’ I was thinkin’: ‘Wow, he’s really gettin’ down. I’m gonna see what’s goin’ on.’
“So the next time he stepped up, I stepped up with him and leaned over to look at him. He turned his head and looked at me – and his eyeballs was sittin’ on his cheeks! It scared me about half to death!”
One of Lil’ Ed’s favorite memories in that era came at a jam when he and Pookie were finally invited up to play a jam one night after chomping on the bit on the sidelines as others took the stage. “Both this piano player we called Foots and Sunnyland Slim were there,” he recalls. “I knew Foots, but I didn’t know Sunnyland well – and didn’t know he’d just recorded an album with J.B. So I asked Foots to join us.
“Me and Pookie got up there, and I hit that slide. Sunnyland was sittin’ down, talkin’ to somebody, and I seen him look up and his eyes was like poppin’ out. He ran up over to the stage and said: ‘I know that song…that’s J.B. Hutto.’ He pushed Foots off the piano and took his place.
“He asked me afterwards: ‘Are you some kin to J.B. Hutto?’ I said: ‘Yeah.’ He said: ‘Oh, my god! I knew that sound!’ From then on, me and Sunnyland was tight.”
For years, the Blues Imperials played for chump change in dozens of small, dark and often dangerous West Side clubs, and J.B. would drop in occasionally to see how they were doing. Sometimes, he’d chastise the audience if they weren’t paying attention. Others, he’d send Ed to fetch his equipment out of the car so he could join them on stage.
Most artists were encouraging, Ed says. But not so when it came to John Littlejohn, he notes. One of the greatest slide guitarists who ever lived, Littlejohn was critical to the extreme. In his opinion, Ed’s attack and tuning were all wrong – something he didn’t hesitate about telling him, J.B. and Hound Dog, too, all because their unorthodox approach differed so much from his own.
Ed took the criticism in stride and avoided contact with Littlejohn for years. But John eventually had a change of heart. Shortly before his passing in the mid-‘90s, he walked into B.L.U.E.S. on Halsted one night when the Blues Imperials were on stage, headed straight to the stage, shook Ed’s hand and told him “you’re a ba-a-ad motherfucker,” gave him his card and told him to call him.
“That blew me away!” Williams exclaims.
Weld was still in the lineup when the band received its first big break. Alligator Records founder Bruce Iglauer invited them to Streeterville studio on the Near North Side to cut two tracks for the Alligator compilation, The New Bluebloods (The Next Generation of Chicago Blues), one of which — “Young Thing” — serves as the closing track on a disc that included contributions from an unbelievable list of rising talent, including Valerie Wellington, Donald Kinsey & the Kinsey Report, Billy Branch & the Sons of Blues, Dion Payton & the 43rd Street Band, Maurice John Vaughn, Michael Coleman, Melvin Taylor & the Slack Band, John Watkins and Professor Eddie Lusk’s Blues Review featuring Gloria Hardiman.
Ed admits that – prior to the invite — he had no idea who Iglauer was and that, at the time, all he and Pookie dreamed about was recording a 45 sometime in the future – something that they knew they were incapable of doing then because they couldn’t scrape together $100 for studio time.
That night launched the band into the stratosphere. They had so much time left after cutting two tracks that Iglauer kept the tapes rolling as they churned out song after song from their usual set list.
“Every time I finished a song, everybody’d be clappin’, screamin’: ‘C’mon! C’mon! Good god, that’s great!’” Williams remembers. “Half the Alligator stars was there.
“I got real excited because, No. 1, we’d never been in a studio before and, No. 2, everything sounded so-o-o good because – for the first time ever — I’ve got headphones on, sayin’ to myself: ‘It’s me soundin’ like this?’ We didn’t know we could ‘cause all we ever heard was our regular little amps when we were just havin’ fun.
“I didn’t wanna stop! I musta played every song I knew…I’m pretty sure I did.”
Ten songs in, Iglauer interrupted long enough to say: “This is great! Why don’t we do an album?”
“I used to listen to uncle J.B. play all those old-time songs, and I’d take ’em and sing ’em, too,” Ed says today. “I think that’s what really got Bruce ‘cause he walked up to me and asked: ‘At your age, how are you singin’ (the John Lee Hooker classic) ‘Black Night Is Falling?’”
But he was also creating new songs “right there off the top of my head – just like Uncle J.B. did. He’d come over the house and sing some shit I never heard before in my life, and I’d say to myself: ‘Where the hell did he get that song?’
“I wouldn’t hear the song again until a couple of years after that when he put it on a record.”
Three hours later, the Blues Imperials had 33 tunes in the can, all of which were recorded with no overdubs. Only a single track requiring a second take. Twelve of them made it onto their debut 1986 release, Roughhousin’. An instant hit, the album drew rave reviews from the New York Times and Village Voice and went on to earn both a Blues Music Award nomination for contemporary album of the year and a second for Lil’ Ed in the contemporary male artist category, kicking off a career that’s included 15 more nominations as well as two wins for band of the year.
“One of the hardest decisions I ever had to make in my life was quittin’ my job at the car wash to go on the road,” Williams insists. “I had some regular customers and was gettin’ some pretty good tips – and, all of a sudden, these other people were sayin’: ‘C’mon, Ed, come out here. We need you.’
“I said: ‘Whoa! What is goin’ on here? What am I supposed to do?’ My boss told me: ‘Go for it for a month. And if you don’t like it, come on back.’”
And the rest, as they say, is history.
Other than a break in the mid-‘90s when Ed teamed with Weld on one album and Willie Kent on another, the Blues Imperials have been a true musical family since 1989. That’s when Weld and percussionist Louie Henderson left the lineup to form Dave Weld & the Imperial Flames – and launched an enduring relationship with crosstown rival Delmark — and guitarist Michael Garrett and drummer Kelly Littleton – a pair of transplants from Detroit — took their place.
The eight albums they’ve released since then remain top sellers in the Alligator catalog.
“We’re so much of a family,” Williams insists, “that all we have to do is look at each other and tell how the other one feels. Me and Pookie, we the ones who started this shit. But Mike and Kelly have come a lo-o-ong way with us, too.”
Sure, there have been some changes. In the beginning, Ed was actually making his own fezzes because store-bought hats either came to a point at the crown or had tassels when he preferred a flat-top model. In those days, making them himself was problematic because his were either too heavy to wear or too tall.
Fortunately, that stopped being an issue after he wed wife Pam, who’s also his manager. She took over seamstress duties, and her creations fit just right. She and other members of their extended family all have played a large role in contributing several of the tunes that populate the Blues Imperials’ CDs, including such fan favorites as “Icicles in My Meatloaf,” “Chicken, Gravy & Biscuits,” “No Fast Food,” “I Like My Hot Sauce Cold” and “Whiskey Flavored Tears.”
“‘Chicken, Gravy & Biscuits’ come from Pookie,” Williams notes, “because that’s all he would eat when we’d go to the restaurants. ‘Icicles in My Meatloaf,’ that was my mother-in-law’s idea. She cooked one night then didn’t cook it all the way when she reheated it. We got a big laugh outta that, ya know. We all sat down and crunched in to it and went: ‘Hey, there’s icicles…’
“And ‘Hot Sauce,’ that was my son-in-law’s idea, and I put words on it. He said somethin’ like that, and I said: ‘That’s pretty cool. I’m gonna make a song about that.’”
He and Pam penned both “Whiskey Flavored Tears” and “No Fast Food,” the latter of which was written after Ed received advice from a doctor that he needed to drop a little weight.
As great as Lil’ Ed’s career has been across the past four decades, the past few years have been difficult to the extreme. Like most other artists in the industry, the pandemic waylaid any plan Williams and his musical family had for a new release. The timing couldn’t have been worse for the the band. Their most recent album, The Big Sound of Lil’ Ed & the Blues Imperials, hit the street in 2016.
“When COVID first hit, it scared the shit out of me,” Ed admits, noting that he immediately called Iglauer, who’s been a close friend, adviser and father figure to him from the onset of their relationship. “I was thinkin’: ‘Ma-a-an, I don’t know what I’m gonna do…’
“I didn’t see myself workin’ nowhere because there was nowhere to work at the time.”
Believe it or not, though, Ed actually returned to work at a car wash again for a brief spell. But business was so slow, he says, that “there wasn’t hardly anything to do. I really didn’t make that many hours. I was buffin’ a little bit, shampooin’ a little bit then (the owner) put me on the front. When she put me on the back, that was the last straw.
“I wanted to make sure that we weren’t too far in debt. But one day, I told Pam: ‘Listen, I’m about tired of this,’ and she said: ‘Well, why don’t you just go and quit? There ain’t no sense of you workin’ when you don’t want to.’”
But Williams is ecstatic that there’ll be another album in the offing as Alligator ramps up its business again. He was working on new tunes when we spoke but isn’t in a major rush, he insists, “because it gives me enough time to take time.”
Even today, he says, with the worst of COVID behind us, things still have a long way to go to returning to what was previously “normal.” Several of the clubs the Blues Imperials played regularly went belly-up, and most of the ones still operating aren’t booking like they did in the past. Instead of locking in dates months in advance, many of them are only booking a two-week window, which makes tour planning difficult.
But Lil’ Ed remains optimistic.
“I think I’ve got some pretty good stuff comin’,” he added, “‘Takin’ Good Days with the Bad,’ ‘More Times,’ ‘The Way You Keep Your Nest’…and I’ve got a few more” to consider for a new CD.
Is Pam helping him write? “Oh yeah!” he insists. “She got a little taste of that money, right? She told me: ‘You gotta take it or leave it.’ I said: ‘Well, I gotta take it – I ain’t got no choice!’”
Currently, Lil’ Ed & the Blues Imperials are working in the Chicago area as much as they can and booking short mini-tours. “Right now, it’s slow, but we’re workin’, thank God!” he insists, and looking forward to the time – hopefully, in the not-too-distant future – when things return to the way they used to be.
In the meantime, check out Ed’s house-rockin’ music and where he and the boys will be playing next by visiting his website: www.liledblues.com