Any time that you see Lil’ Ed & the Blues Imperials, you know that you are going to have a fine time, courtesy of Lil’ Ed’s slashing slide guitar licks he learned from his uncle, J.B. Hutto, along with his gritty vocals delivering one tasty original song after another. Standing next to him, setting the stage so to speak with his own brand of tasty guitar licks, is Michael Garrett (Wolancevich), who has been backing up his boss for more than three decades.
Born in 1962 in Detroit, his father was a factory worker while his mother stayed at home taking care Garrett and his two siblings. His brother and sister were ten years older, so their musical tastes were more advanced, giving their younger brother the opportunity to hear plenty of good music.
“There wasn’t a whole lot else to do where we lived. My brother had a huge influence on me musically. My mother had a collection of 78 RPM records. I would sneak down in the basement to listen to them. My earliest musical memory is listening to Louis Jordan doing “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie,” which was one of her records. Things just built from there.”
His older brother had a guitar that he didn’t play very much, so naturally Garrett would sneak it out when his brother wasn’t around.
“I was a rocker in those days. My favorites were Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones. But I was also exposed to Motown stuff, classic rock, soul, and blues music through my brother. I even had to endure the Lettermen sometimes, because my sister would play their records. That gave me a broad appreciation for music. And I have loved it ever since!
“Through it all, I had an affinity for the blues. I started going backwards from Jimi Hendrix and Robin Trower to wondering who is the McKinley Morganfield that wrote this great song, making new discoveries that way. Then there was the Detroit Blues festival, with John Lee Hooker on the bill every year, and Bonnie Raitt would be there, sitting in with Sippie Wallace.
“When I heard Freddie King, that was it. That was what got me playing the blues. That was while I was still in Detroit, where I also developed a love for the Elmore James style of slide guitar playing. I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into, or how lucky I was at the time. But it sure was great.”
When he was fifteen, Garrett left his home to stay with some folks who lived in northern lower Michigan. One of his hosts was a bluegrass player, imparting plenty of knowledge to his eager student. Those lessons inspired Garrett to start playing more guitar.
‘I liked bluegrass, but I was still a rocker! I learned a lot from him. I took it all with me when I went back to Detroit a couple years later, after high school. That is when I started hanging out with the boys. We started a couple bands, basement band stuff. The bands generated some interest, so we got to play some shows in clubs in the area. But after awhile, I decided to move to Chicago, because I wanted more, and there was only so much you could do in Detroit, although there were a lot of awfully good players there.”
Outside of music, there wasn’t much of interest for the guitarist in his hometown. Most of his cousins had gone off to college, or were working in one of Detroit’s automotive factories. That life had no appeal for Garrett, especially after watching his father do it all of his work career.
“I figured I didn’t have much to lose moving to Chicago, because I could always work in a factory there if needed. In those days, I had an strong interest in cars. I did attend a Chrysler-sponsored trade school for about a year to learn to be an auto technician, and did that when I first moved to Chicago, but it sucked. The blues scene was far more attractive.
“When I made the move in 1985, I knew how to play behind a lot of that stuff really well. That is what I cut my teeth on. That was unique in Chicago at that time, because a lot of people were trying to play like Stevie Ray Vaughan. That allowed me to stick out, particularly with some of the old cats.
“Little Smokey Smothers took a shine to me, so I played with him for a couple years. During that time, he introduced to other musicians like Hubert Sumlin and Brewer Phillips. It went on from there. I started getting calls from more people, not making any money at all, but I was having the time of my life. But I was eating a lot of soup.”
One night, Garrett went to see noted guitarist Jimmy Johnson at B.L.U.E.S on Halsted, a famous blues club on Chicago’s North side. The two guitarists talked on the break, after which Johnson extended an invitation to sit in on the next set. Garrett had no idea how that evening would impact his life.
“Jimmy gave me his guitar, and he played harmonica for the three or four songs that we did together. When I got off the stage, this guy introduced himself to me. It was Bruce Iglauer from Alligator Records. He was impressed that Jimmy let me sit, as Bruce knew that Jimmy rarely did that or allowed someone to play his guitar. He also commented that I did a good job of backing Jimmy’s harmonica, that I didn’t overplay”
“He gave me a copy of Lil’ Ed & The Blues Imperials first recording, Roughhousin’, that had just come out. The band’s other guitar player, Dave Weld, didn’t want to travel, or quit his day job, whatever, so they needed a guitar player. Since Dave was already separating himself, they had Louis Henderson on guitar, who had played drums on the album. They brought in the late “Bald Head Pete” Williams on drums. But they were looking for someone a bit more skilled on guitar. And there I was.”
“Bruce told me to go home, listen to the album, and to start practicing playing everything in the key of D! I wasn’t real familiar with the band, but once I started listening, it was all the stuff I love, especially the Elmore James sound. So it was a natural fit.
“A couple weeks later, I went to Wise Fools Pub, where the band had a gig. I played with them on the second set, which was my audition. One week later I was on the road with them heading to Minnesota. My first gig as a Blues Imperial was at the University of Minnesota in Northfield, That was an auspicious beginning.”
After a year, Williams was getting tired of being on the road. He was no spring chicken and traveling constantly no longer held great appeal. One day the other band members went to pick him up, but he said “F**k you all, I ain’t going.”
Lil’ Ed was able to replace one great drummer with another, hiring Ted Harvey, who had been part of Hound Dog Taylor & the Houserockers, among his many gigs. But Harvey was only willing to fill in while they looked for a permanent replacement. At that point, Garrett reached back to his Detroit connections for some help.
Kelly Littleton had been one of Garrett’s running buddies in the Motor City. While the two had never played in a band together, they both had a strong affinity for rock music. They did jam at parties from time to time.
“I was always floored by Kelly’s playing. Ed decided to offer him a place in the band. Kelly couldn’t get away at that time, so that is when Ted Harvey filled in One day I got a call from Kelly, saying that he was ready to give it a try. Thirty years later, he is still trying it!”
With Littleton on drums and Ed’s half brother, James “Pookie” Young on bass, Lil’ Ed & the Blues Imperials have been together for more than thirty years, a remarkable achievement in any era. The band developed a sound, and a strong fan base, that has never wavered due to the four members being so dialed in to each other.
“Luck is our secret. I never meant to do this for all of these years. I never considered that it would even be an option. It’s just been gig after gig, and Ed keeps calling me. There have been a couple of breaks in there. One time Ed had to take some time away to deal with some issues and get himself together. But I always landed somewhere pretty good. And when that would go out the window, within a couple of days, by coincidence, Ed would call and I’d be back in the van with him.
“We are a family, or like a marriage. We’ve been through so much together that we know we can trust each other. The music is the biggest reason, the magic that happens when we are on stage together. There is nothing like it in the world. I played with other people when Ed was on hiatus. It was good, but never the level of playing with Lil’ Ed, his energy level, and the energy we generate as a band. Everybody knows their job, musically and otherwise. I am the designated hitchhiker!”
The guitarist is thankful that he has the backing of a truly dynamic rhythm section. Their efforts give Garrett the musical freedom to keep things interesting with his timely fills and rhythm playing.
“Pookie is rock-solid, and basic stylistically in his approach to the bass. He doesn’t do much slapping or anything like that. Kelly is one of the best shuffle drummers around. His favorite drummer was Fred Below. So his playing is in the traditional vein. They are usually locked in tight, although if you talk to them after a show, they might not think they locked so well. When they are up there together, that’s a force to be reckoned with.”
As far as his own playing, Garrett is happy with his role backing Lil’ Ed’s fiery slide guitar playing.
“It is OK to call me a rhythm guitar player. That is not any insult. I have always listened to a lot of instruments. And I don’t play many instruments. I am probably the worst piano player there is. When I listen to music, I want to hear what the piano player is doing behind the saxophone lines. My ears fall into hearing what some guys were doing while someone else was taking the solo.
“I don’t mind playing lead guitar. That’s fine too. But I’ve just felt it was so cool to fill the holes, without overdoing it. I am guilty of that some times. Just fill the holes, and keep the groove going, to add to that force Kelly and Pookie are laying down to drive the music. Ed needs that, it is like a battery for him, that driving rhythm that I can do underneath what he is doing. That all goes back to Elmore James and Hound Dog Taylor. When those cats went into the recording studio, they just let it rip. There wasn’t much subtle about it.
“Ed is so good at what he does on slide guitar. He needs that foundation in order to fly. I don’t claim to be the only one that can do that. But that role has always appealed to me, to keep Ed going, literally and figuratively. When you are playing jazz, there is a lot of thinking going on. There is muscle memory at work too, but jazz players have to do lots of thinking. The blues comes from a physically lower part of your body. It is more of a feeling.”
Garrett has other responsibilities in the band. He is the manager when the band is on the road and, along with Littleton, does a lot of the driving. As the manger, he does whatever is required to keep things rolling. He collects money, keeps the records, pays the guys, provide rides as needed. It is just the four band members on tours, although Ed’s wife does join the fun from time to time.
The band has only done a few shows in recent months. They did several live streams from Rosa’s Lounge in Chicago and Fitzgerald’s in Berwyn.. They also played at a small festival in Sawyer, Michigan.
“We were on the bill along with Larry McCray. The event was sponsored by the city. It was very strange. The fest was outdoors, and everyone seemed to be 20 feet apart. The people that were there had a good time. However, it seemed like everyone was really nervous and afraid. That was understandable. I am nervous and afraid. That happened at the beginning of June.
“After that, I started thinking that things weren’t looking too good. So here we sit. I don’t even know if the clubs are open in Chicago right now. I live 90 minutes outside of the city, so I don’t go out very much, especially now. Besides, I have been in so many bars in my life. My love of the music is still there but it has to be something above ordinary for me to be attracted to going out.”
Garrett does see some glimmers of hope coming up. The band is booked for a weekend at the Kingston Mines in Chicago and also has several dates in Canada booked for December. The band had a show at the City Winery at the end of September that got rescheduled.
“It is all a matter of keeping the virus numbers down. But it seems like a lot of people around here are forgetting everything, like the virus never happened. Then you watch the news and hear that anywhere from 15-30 people a day are dying every day in Illinois. We just have to be careful. My belief is that if we had all gotten on the same page when the virus first hit, we would be done with it by now.”
His love of the traditional blues styles is what Garrett relies on to help him get through these trying times.
“I listen to some of the blues programming on the radio, but what I hear is a lot of guys who play like Hendrix. That doesn’t do it for me any more. B.B., Albert, and Freddie King, T-Bone Walker and one of my favorites, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. After hearing those guys, when you go back to the the rockers that I used to listen to a long time ago, it pales by comparison.
“Buddy Guy still amazes me that he can play at such a high level. I listen to Jimmy Johnson every Saturday. He does a live stream out of his living room. He is 91 years old, so he doesn’t go too many places. He is one of those people with common sense.
“I did go through a phase of listening to some of the country guys, guitarists like Albert Lee and Junior Brown. And Kid Andersen, who plays with Rick Estrin & the Nightcats, is doing some great things. There is so much music out there that is good. But in the end, I always end up going back to Freddie and Elmore. I also love Muddy Waters, as he is one of the greatest.
“I got to meet B.B. King a few times. He was such a great human being. We did some shows with him. He blew me away, because he was the whole package. He truly was the king, as a human and the depth of his talents. Albert Collins is another favorite. His style was unmistakable. You knew it was him after hearing one note. Plus he had the soul and the personality to go with it, to get inside of you.”
“Those are the artists I always gravitate back to. I try to listen to everything, even the bad ones, although I only want to hear those albums once. I want to hear it all before I die! And I love Stevie Ray Vaughan. I saw him six or seven times. But he already did that, so I’m going somewhere else.”
Looking back, Garrett remembered another milestone in his life. It occurred in 1978, courtesy of his older brother.
“He took me to the Cobo Arena in Detroit to see Bob Marley & the Wailers. We had been listening to their Kaya album quite a bit. It was a life-changing experience. Bob was like a preacher, doing a really fine church service. I remember him stating, “A hungry mob is an angry mob.” I was pretty inexperienced at the time, so I had to pick myself up off the floor. I think Donald Kinsey may have been playing guitar with Marley at that time. Glad that I remembered that one, because usually you forget until the interview is over and you hang up the phone!”
Garrett is quite satisfied with the way things have turned out, even after he dealt with some serious heart issues several years ago.
“I came close to death, ultimately getting a quadruple bypass operation. People I didn’t really know, or knew who I was, stepped forward in their own little way, whether it was financial donations or giving me some emotional support. It has been six years and my health is good.
“My wife was an angel, while friends and fans saved my life financially. It was an incredible experience. Not a good experience – I don’t want to do it again! I can’t believe how blessed I was, and still am. I feel so lucky with my life. That is why I don’t have any regrets.”
Find out more about Little Ed & the Blues Imperials at https://www.liledblues.com/