Last week, Ed Williams of Lil’ Ed and the Blues Imperials talked with me about many things. Lil’ Ed spoke from his longtime home in Chicago about music, Chicasgo blues, the band, his recent album Jump Start and much more. A man with a fine sense of humor and deep knowledge about the Chicago blues musicians, Lil’ Ed Williams had some interesting stories to tell.
Lil’ Ed, as he’s popularly known, started playing guitar, followed by bass and drums by the time he was 12 years old. After receiving lessons (along with half-brother ‘Pookie’, now bassist for the Blues Imperials) and support from his uncle J.B. Hutto, the great Chicago blues and slide guitarist, Ed and Pookie formed the first version of Lil’ Ed and the Blues Imperials in 1975 and blues music fans have been blessed ever since.
Lil’ Ed and the Blues Imperials have been nominated for eight Blues Awards as ‘Band Of The Year’ and have won that award twice. On Sunday, June 21, Lil’ Ed and the Blues Imperials will perform at the Studio Channel Islands Art Center in Camarillo. The show is presented by the Ventura County Blues Society.
Q: Who were your early influences?
Of course my uncle, J.B. Hutto, because he’s the one who started me actually listening to blues music. My family used to listen to it all the time, but it didn’t become interesting until I saw him playing. And then I actually started listening to a lot of records that J.B. Was playing—-Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, John Lee Hooker and Elmore James. Those were the main ones that was catching my attention.
Q: Do you prefer steel or glass slides when you are playing?
I really don’t prefer a steel slide. I used to prefer a steel slide because that’s all my uncle played and that’s why I preferred it, but I’ve grown since then and I have so many slides now! I’ve got a brass slide, I’ve got three or four glass slides, I’ve got one slide that I made out of a graphite water pipe. Slides do different things, so I pretty much like all of them.
I actually prefer a glass slide now because it’s lighter and it’s easier to slide. I can do some pretty wild stuff with a glass slide because I don’t have to worry about the weight. Most guitar players who play with a metal slide wear their frets down real easy because you have to play with your strings strung high off the neck of the guitar. I play with really light metal slides, I like my glass and I like my brass and I prefer a light slide because that way I can put my strings really close to my neck and get the wood tone.
Q: The band has been together for 28 years now. There must be a magical connection between all of you now………
We’re no longer band members, we’re a family now. You know you really graduate when you grow with a person. It’s like when you’re married and you’ve been with your wife, after a while you start knowing exactly what each of you want and what you want to do. That’s cool, you know. So it’s kind of like that when it’s more family, we’re more concerned with what the other person is doing, we know when not to mess with each other. We know when someone’s got a problem and not to bother them. It’s a family thing—it’s way more than just being in a band.
When I’m on the stage, it is band related, but we know each other so well that we don’t have to worry about what the other one is doing. When I first started playing, years ago, I remember getting on stage with some people and I’d keep going over to them and saying ‘OK, I want you to play this louder’ or ‘I want you to play Elmore James style all through this and don’t be changing up’ or telling the drummer ‘you don’t have to be too loud on this, keep it real low’ or telling the bass player ‘slow it down, you’re moving too fast’. These things I don’t worry about, I just play a note and my guys know exactly what I want.
Q: Do you think that the band has more of a Chicago or a Detroit influence to the music?
Well, it is pretty much half and half. I said ‘almost half and half’ because there’s just a tad more Chicago influence to it since those guys came to Chicago for that particular reason. You know, my drummer and my rhythm player is from Detroit. They grew up in Detroit with that Detroit feel in them but they’ve been in Chicago long enough to have that Chicago thrust, they have the Detroit feel but the Chicago thrust, which pushes it and makes it a tad more Chicago than anything, I think.
Q: Do you still have a chance to lay down some live tracks in the studio?
I’m really pushing for my record producer to actually do a live CD. At this age and time of my life he could get some really good potential out of me if he did a live CD because I’m putting so much more in it now than I used to. I was putting eighty, ninety percent when I first started out and that was only because I didn’t know how to kick it in and put the thrust on it so the people would enjoy it.
I’ve learned so much since then now I know what I have to do, just by listening to the crowd, or listening to the people talk. Or just talking with a couple of fans before they get in. You know, I pretty much know what they are looking for, so I’ve come so long, I’ve come a long ways and I’m a better player now, I hit harder when I’m on stage and I can really blast out if I need to.
Some of these things; my God, you look at me sometimes and you’ll see I look and I learn and I listen to the big-timers and the old-school guys. Guys like Albert Collins, he’d open up the set and he was full force, there was no trying to work up to the full force when he’d com out. Lonnie Brooks—–another one—-full force. And a lot of the older guys on the West Side when I was coming up the were working to it.
You get onstage, and you kind of mellow out. Like Muddy Waters; he just mellowed out and his music was so smooth that people had to clap and stamp their feet. They had to stomp their feet, you know what I’m saying? So those kind of guys—I remember seeing James Cotton open up a set and I was on my toes the whole first part of the set because the energy level was so—-like 93.9, you know and when you get that type of energy going out on that very first song, if you have enough people out there, you’re going to get some response.
So I’ve learned so much that when you’re onstage and actually doing a live CD, that’s what I’m shooting for. This is really where I’m going to give it that 99 percent or that 97 percent, or whatever I can give in those minutes. I know it is going to be at that level because I know people will be juiced up because they want to be on the recording too. So everything’s going to work out fine because I’m going to give it all I’ve got and that’s going to make them come out and give it all they got and we’ll share that together. I think that’ll make one of the best live records I’ve ever had.
Q: Kick Me to the Curb—-what was the inspiration to that song?
Well actually my wife wrote that song. What’s good with that is, when my wife writes a song, I know she’s either talking about something that she’s experienced or she’s talking to me! I remember a while back that I had told her that I was going to do something and I didn’t do it and I’d promised her too. Then she wrote this song! And it was all about these promises and I thought ‘Man, that sounds like what me and you were talking about’ and she said, ‘No, no, no’, but my wife can really write. She’s learning a lot now.
When she first started writing she was writing paragraphs. Literally! So I had to slow her down on that because I told her it would take me six hours to sing one song, if I was going to sing that song. Now she is writing the right lyrics and she’s coming up with—-I tell you, the really good part is me putting the music to her songs. Once she writes the song and gives it to me and says ‘Here’ she’s not really thinking about the music so I’ve got to make the music up to it. So that’s where the challenge comes in.
Q: How did you come up with that great slide solo against the organ on You Burnt Me?
I’m glad I touched you with that. I touch a lot of my fans with that. One thing Bruce (Igauer, President of Alligator Records) asked me after I played him that song, he walked up to me and said, ‘That song brings back some heavy memories don’t it?’ and I said ‘Yeah, because of the way I was playing it’.
Q: Jump Right In certainly has that ’40s feel to it. What made you do it that way?
I like jump music, I really do. And the thing about jump music is that I like to dance to it, especially me and my wife, because we try to figure out where we would want to go and just dance. I could go to a place where they play that sentimental stuff and just dance, but we like to move, so we like that jump stuff. I thought to myself, ‘Why can’t I do that?’, you know get that jump feel. I mean, the jump feel with the slide shuffling around should sound pretty good. Actually, I wrote a couple more of those with that feel. Trying to get that Louis Jourdan feeling, you know……
Q: How about a story from the road?
Well if you want to hear a funny one (it must be good, he’s already laughing)……..I was playing in a club and the people were jumping and dancing and I said to myself —-sometimes you talk to yourself when you are up there playing—-‘I think it’s time that we come off the stage now’. So I jumped off the stage and I’m walking through the crowd and the people are just going crazy. Someone said to me that now was the time to turn around and go back to the stage.
I took a running start through the crowd and everyone kind of opened up and let me run through and there was two steps before you could get on the stage. What I was planning was to just jump up on the stage. So I was planning on jumping, but I jumped too short, jumped and hit the first step instead of the second step. I was just high enough to fall on my knees and slide right into the drum set! So I slid, laid there and just kept playing. I didn’t mess up the set, I hit it just enough to make that sound! And the people, I don’t know if they were laughing or they were concerned, but they thought that was the best thing and they asked me to do it again!
Lil’ Ed Williams finished off our conversation with a word about his upcoming show at the Studio Channel Islands Art Center in Camarillo. He said, “I’m very happy that I’m going to be there, I thank God that I’m fortunate He made this craft for me to come see you all and play some music to make you happy!”.
On Sunday, June 21, Lil’ Ed and the Blues Imperials will perform at the Studio Channel Islands Art Center in Camarillo. The show is presented by the Ventura County Blues Society. The opening act is VCBS Band Challenge Winner, Lightnin’ Willie. Showtime is 2pm, with doors opening at 1pm.
Tickets are available online or at the box office.VIP tickets come with early entry, seating in the first five rows and two (2) drink tickets is $50. General admission tickets to the show are $30. Food and drink will be available for purchase at the show. Tickets can be purchased online through the VCBS website.
Also, you can win two tickets to attend the four-day The Big Blues Bender in Las Vegas, the “largest gathering of national blues acts in the world,” in VCBS’ special drawing. Only $10 to enter (good for 2 entries), and you need not be present to win. Click here to enter. Proceeds benefit the Ventura County Blues Society.
Lil’ Ed and the Blues Imperials in Concert
Sunday, June 21, 2015 at 2pm
Studio Channel Islands Art Center in Camarillo
2222 E. Ventura Blvd.
Camarillo, CA 93010
PH: (805) 383-1368
Ventura County Blues Society website (Info and Tickets)
Lil’ Ed and the Imperials website (from Alligator Records)