Looking back on it from today’s vantage point, it seems like a real no-brainer.
But back in the day, it was anything but that, and Ed Williams was faced with a real dilemma.
Should he stick with his job at the Red Carpet Car Wash, or should he hit the road and play the blues?
Because as Lil’ Ed explains it, one was a sure thing, while the other was not.
And the one he considered as the sure thing might surprise most people.
“I was doing fairly well at the car wash. I started out pumping gas and had made it up to buffing and waxing and things really got good, because I had my own customers then. My customers were tipping me $50 and $60 and some days, I’d come home with $300 in tips. That’s on top of my salary, so I’d come home with $500 or $600 in my pocket,” Lil’ Ed said.
“So I was not going to leave the car wash. But I went and talked to my boss at the car wash, Mr. George Levy, and he said, ‘you’ve got an opportunity to travel all over the world. Stay with it (playing music full-time) for at least a month. And then, if you don’t like it, come on back to me and you’ll still have your job.’”
With knowledge that he had a fallback plan in place if needed, Lil’ Ed put down his cans of Turtle Wax and his bag of rags and tore down the blues highway like a buffing machine gone mad.
And some 27 years and nine albums later, it turns out that Lil’ Ed indeed made the right choice by exiting the car wash and playing the guitar full-time, even if he didn’t exactly plan on world dominance in the those early days.
“Well, I dreamed about making a record, a 45, back before I met Bruce. For a $100, you could go into a studio and sing over a tape you brought in and they would put it on a 45,” he said. “And that’s what I was going to do. But then I met Bruce. And the next thing you know, we’re in New York, Massachusetts, Florida, playing the blues. I had no idea back then I was going to be on the road traveling and playing the blues like I am now.”
That ‘Bruce,’ of course, is Bruce Iglauer, founder, owner, producer, visionary and driving force behind Alligator Records, the label that Lil’ Ed and the Blues Imperials have recorded for since 1985, making them one of label’s longest-tenured acts.
“Bruce is just like my long-lost dad, you know. I’ve been with Bruce for a long time and he’s always treated me right. I don’t have any complaints,” Lil’ Ed said.
“I think he’s one of the greatest record producers out there. He is smart and he can feel music. I always rely on his judgment, because he knows what people like and what they want to hear. He hears stuff that nobody else hears (in the recording sessions). It’s amazing what he does.”
Iglauer is once again at the helm for Lil’ Ed and the Blues Imperials’ latest offering, a follow-up to 2008’s Full Tilt, scheduled for a spring release.
“Yeah, it’s in the making … it’s almost there. It turned out real good,” said Lil’ Ed. “We did a little more rehearsal before we went into the studio this time than we normally might do. I tried to do some different stuff on this one – I got some jazzy stuff going, a little rock … but most of all, I’ve got straight blues on there. It’s all blues really, but some of it is in a little different flavor.”
More than just occupying his normal role as producer, Iglauer also broke out his writing pen for the yet-to-be-titled album.
“Actually, Bruce got into the groove and wrote some songs for the album, too. They’re really, really good songs,” said Lil’ Ed. “I put the music to them and he wrote the words and they’re just phenomenal. My wife is writing, too. And she don’t write songs, she writes paragraphs. One of her lyrics is a paragraph. When she gives me her songs, I really have to go to work cutting stuff out. I say, ‘you think I’m going to sing this one song for 40 minutes? But really, she comes up with some good stuff. She’s a good writer.”
The music might have a different twist to it, the writing team might have a different look to it, but as far as the band itself goes, it is business as usual for the Blues Imperials.
With James “Pookie” Young (Lil’ Ed’s half-brother) on bass, Kelly Littleton on drums and Mike Garrett on guitar, the Blues Imperials have been together for over two decades now, outlasting presidencies, musical fads and even managing to avoid the normal pitfalls that can lead to band destruction from within the ranks of the unit.
“Well, we’re no longer band members anymore, we’re all family,” Lil’ Ed said. “We’ve been together so long that we’re all family. And they understand what the bandleader expects and they try and give me that. But I try not to be a hard leader, because band members get tired of hard leaders. When I was younger – in my 20s – I did some of that screamin’ and hollarin’ kind of band leading, but I found out that don’t work. You don’t want to embarrass nobody.”
That doesn’t mean, however, that the Blues Imperials are immune from getting a dose of the ‘evil eye’ from their band leader from time to time.
“They know. They’ve been with me long enough to know that if I turn around onstage and look at them, something’s up,” said Lil’ Ed. “They know the look. If I give it to them, they may not know what they did, they just know they did something. And then I’ll explain it to them. But I knew when I got Mike and Kelly that I had the right guys, because it (the music) got good. And man, we shot out like a light.”
Backed by a tight-as-hell rhythm section and fronted by the stinging slide guitar and infectious smile of their leader, Lil’ Ed and the Blues Imperials are truly one of the “must-see” blues bands on the road today.
Put it this way – if you’re not on your feet dancing by the time they’re mid-way through their first number, you must be six-feet under.
The group was twice (2007, 2009) honored as Band of the Year at the Blues Music Awards.
Lil’ Ed came to that command of an audience the honest way.
You could even say that he was born into it, with that power pumping through his veins from an early age, for his uncle was the renowned late, great slide guitarist and song-writer J.B. Hutto.
And according to Lil’ Ed, being around his uncle had a life-changing pull on the youngster.
“I used to just sit and watch him play. J.B. felt everything he played and that’s where I get that from,” he said. “When he felt it, I felt it. I learned right away from him how to feel the music. Not just play it, but to feel it. There was sometimes he would sing so sad that me and my other uncle would be shedding tears. It was amazing. And before he died, as I was getting older and involved with lady friends – I was having some courting problems – to hear J.B. play them songs about women running off and leaving their men … I could feel the power of those songs and understood what he was singing about. And later when I started playing, and I’d play some of uncle J.B.’s songs onstage, I could feel them and would think back to those feelings and would almost start crying, too. To put that kind of power in a song, you have to feel it.”
While they didn’t know it at the time, the stories and experiences that young Lil’ Ed and Pookie heard Hutto reminisce about would later come to
pass as stories and experiences that they would partake in first-hand as working blues musicians.
“J.B. was my mentor and my uncle at the same time. And when you’re younger, you see things differently,” Lil’ Ed said. “I didn’t see this man (J.B.) running up and down the road, working himself silly. I didn’t see that in him. But J.B. had some hard times out on the road. Him and my other uncle would be talking about driving 23 hours to get to a gig and me and my brother thought that was the funniest thing in the world. We didn’t know no better. We didn’t know that one day we’d be out there driving eight hours one day and nine the next and leaving that night and driving another 13 hours. We had no idea that was in the making. But to hear J.B. talking and laughing about all that stuff, oh, man! We thought that was the funniest thing ever.”
Well-versed in the trials and tribulations of trying to scratch out a living by playing the blues, Hutto passed on as much advice as he could to his talented and eager nephew.
“He told me, “Ed, one day when you have a band, there’s a couple of things you have to look out for. One thing, you ain’t gonna’ get rich, so don’t even think about it. But you are going to have a lot of fun and travel and go a lot of places – and sometimes it’s going to be hard to get there. And as far as your band members – you’ll know when you’ve got the right group of guys.
But, you have to treat them right, Take care of them and they’ll take care of you,’” said Lil’ Ed. “And he told me, ‘as far as your fans, love all your fans, good and bad. Because some people don’t even know they’re bad. They’re just having a hard life and you’re singing about their life.’ That’s the stuff he told me and I’ll always remember those words. I really took them to heart and everything he told me came true.”
And nearly 30 years after they first entered a Chicago studio with Iglauer and cut an astounding 30 songs in three hours, turning a session for a compilation album into a full-blown career, one that is destined for a spot in the Hall of Fame, Lil’ Ed and the Blues Imperials are still out on the road, playing that hard-to-resist, houserockin’ music.
“My definition of houserockin’ music is music that gets in your gut and makes you want to dance. That’s my definition. It’s all in the traditional blues style and that’s why I stay in that style,” Lil’ Ed said. “It’s easy to move over to that rock-blues stuff and I see a lot of musicians do that. And I don’t down them, but I think if you’re going to play the blues, you should play the blues. Don’t try and change the blues, because it don’t need changing.”
“It’s all about life and living. That’s what the blues are about. Whether it’s Chicago blues, or New Orleans, or Texas … the blues are about life these days, about the economy, about the way the world is shaping. That’s blues, man. You look at the TV every day and that right there will give you the blues, with all the stuff we got going on. We’re all just sitting in our houses wondering how we’re going to afford things, how we’re going to make ends meet. What’s going to happen tomorrow? And on top of all that, what if you’re also in a bad relationship? Damn! It’s like, just let me lay down and die, right here, right now. That’s the blues right there, my man.”
Photos by Bob Kieser © 2012 Blues Blast Magazine