The sound


By Michael Swanger


Lil’ Ed has earned his dues playing deep blues

Traditionalists who understand that authentic Chicago blues run deeper than covers of “Sweet Home Chicago” and “Mustang Sally” share the joy when a band like Lil’ Ed & The Blues Imperials get their due by winning the 2009 Blues Music Award for “Band of the Year.” Not since the heyday of Hound Dog Taylor & The HouseRockers has a Chicago blues group had so much fun consistently making a joyous, rollicking noise of smoking slide guitar boogies, raw-boned shuffles and deep slow blues while eliciting smiles from an audience.

But true to form for most blues artists, recognition from outside their own community is slow to come (if ever). And in the case of traditionalists like Lil’ Ed & The Blues Imperials, acknowledgement from within the blues community can be even more hard-won while legions of young, Stratocaster-wielding, rock-n-rollers prematurely steal the spotlight.

“They’re trying to change it on us,” said bandleader Lil’ Ed Williams. “The youngsters are trying to make it a rock ‘n’ roll thing, but it’s not. It’s good ol’ fashioned blues. You listen to Elmore James, John Lee Hooker and all the old guys and you can tell there’s a different feeling to it.”

Williams seemingly feels the blues deeper than his rock counterparts judging by his playing and his pedigree, which includes invaluable lessons bestowed upon him and his half-brother-bassist James “Pookie” Young by their late uncle, J.B. Hutto, a renowned Chicago blues slide guitarist. But Williams doesn’t see the blues as a competition.

“I’m old school, but everybody’s got their own way of playing the blues,” he said. “It’s about keeping people happy.”

Earlier this year, The Imperials (including drummer Kelly Littleton and guitarist Mike Garrett), and their devoted fans known as “Ed Heads,” were all smiles when the band won its second coveted BMA for “Band of the Year.” Living Blues magazine critics this year also proclaimed Williams as its “Best Live Performer,” two years after they and their readers named him “Male Artist of the Year.”

For Williams, it’s restitution for 10 years of working 10-hour days as a buffer at the Red Carpet Car Wash while playing gigs in Chicago taverns by night. The Imperials’ first gig in 1975 paid $6.

“It means a lot,” Williams said. “We try to play to the fullest. It keeps us pushing ahead.”

For more than 20 years, the current lineup of Lil’ Ed & The Imperials has been pushing the envelope of traditional blues without overstepping its bounds. Williams is the bandleader, but each member is an integral part of the band’s collective, high-energy sound and show.

“We’re not band members anymore, we’re family,” Williams said. “We can look at each other and know what the other is thinking.”

That kind of telepathic communication helps make The Imperials one of the tightest groups on the blues circuit and in the studio. Last year, the group released its eighth, critically acclaimed album, “Full Tilt,” and they’re already thinking about the next one.

“I’m always working on music,” Williams said. “It’s an everyday thing kind of like the wife does the dishes.”

Williams and his wife, Pam, have been married for 13 years. She is credited for helping Williams overcome an addiction to drugs that temporary sidelined The Imperials during the late 1990s. The married couple recently moved to Lake Forest, Ill., a Chicago suburb. The new house affords them the necessary space as Williams’ daughter and two grandchildren have moved in.

“I don’t know if that’s good or bad,” Williams said with a laugh. The affable musician with an infectious smile always seems eager to please others. While conducting this interview on his day off, he was voluntarily shampooing the carpet at his church, where he plays drums and sings when he can.

“You know, I shampooed cars for years, so I know all about that stuff,” Williams said. “I was taught to respect everybody and take care of everybody.”

At age 54, it seems Williams is finally seeing his hard work and good deeds pay off. But don’t expect him to rest on his laurels any time soon.

“I never thought I’d go this far in life with the blues,” Williams said. “I saw my uncle struggle and I just hoped to make one record. And here I am, and I’ve got eight albums and I’m still working it. I know I’m truly blessed.” CV


Caption: Lil’ Ed & The Blues Imperials perform Friday, Dec. 18 at 9:30 p.m. at Blues on Grand. Admission is $10.

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