Lil’ Ed Williams, although small in stature, is a true giant of the blues, and among the very last authentic West Side Chicago bluesmen. From smoking slide guitar boogies to raw-boned Chicago shuffles to the deepest slow blues, Lil’ Ed Williams is a master bluesman. A gifted guitarist and a remarkably gritty and soulful vocalist, Williams, along with his blistering, road-tested band, The Blues Imperials, has been tearing up clubs and festival stages all over the world for almost 25 years. Not since the heyday of Hound Dog Taylor and The HouseRockers has a Chicago blues band made such a consistently joyous, rollicking noise. Between the band’s wonderfully untamed music and Ed’s flying leaps, his back-bending, his toe-walking through the audience and his sliding across the stage on his knees, it’s no wonder The Boston Globe called Lil’ Ed and The Blues Imperials “the world’s #1 houserocking band.”
Lil’ Ed boasts a direct bloodline to blues history — his uncle and musical mentor was the great Chicago slide guitarist and recording artist J.B. Hutto. According to The Chicago Tribune, “Williams represents one of the few remaining authentic links to the raucous but pure Chicago blues.” The Associated Press agreed, stating, “Williams fills Chicago’s biggest shoes with more life and heat than anyone on stage today.” Adding to the legend is Ed’s storybook rise, taking him from working in a car wash to entertaining thousands of his fans all over the world, to an appearance on Late Night With Conan O’Brien (in a hilarious film with Lil’ Ed teaching Conan how to play the blues) culminating with Lil’ Ed on stage with O’Brien in front of a televised audience in the millions.
On their new Alligator album, Rattleshake, Lil’ Ed’s romping, sizzling guitar and his rough-hewn vocals, his half-brother James “Pookie” Young’s thumping bass, Mike Garrett’s feral rhythm guitar and Kelly Littleton’s unpredictable yet bone-crunching drumming produce a modern blues firestorm steeped in tradition. Produced by Alligator president Bruce Iglauer and Williams, Rattleshake features 13 houserocking songs, and captures all of Lil’ Ed and The Blues Imperials’ legendary live energy on disc. The variety on the CD, from stomping, houserocking slide workouts, to deep, slow blues, to blues-ified country, makes this the most rewarding and soul-satisfying album the band has ever recorded.
Born in Chicago on April 4, 1955, Ed grew up surrounded by the blues. He was playing guitar, then drums and bass, by the time he was 12. Along with his half-brother Pookie, Ed received lessons and support from their famous blues-playing uncle, J.B. Hutto. “J.B. taught me everything I know,” says Ed. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without him.” Ed and Pookie spent their teen years making music together, and in 1975 formed the first incarnation of The Blues Imperials. They played their first gig at a West Side club called Big Duke’s Blue Flame, splitting the $6 take four ways. Over the next few years, the group played every club in the neighborhood, but they still needed day jobs to pay the bills. Ed worked ten hours a day as a buffer at the Red Carpet Car Wash. Pookie drove a school bus. Night after night they played their roaring brand of blues in tiny clubs, and eventually the word reached Alligator president Bruce Iglauer.
At the time, Iglauer was looking for local talent for The New Blueboods, an anthology of some of Chicago’s younger blues musicians. “Ed and his band had a good reputation,” recalls Iglauer. “I had only seen them live once or twice. I knew Ed was a hot slide player, but I had no idea what he and the band were really capable of. I just knew that their music reminded me of Hound Dog Taylor and J.B. Hutto, two of my favorite musicians. It seemed like having a band this rough and ready would be a nice change of pace for the anthology, so I asked them to come down to the studio and cut a couple of songs. I never expected what happened.”
What happened is not supposed to happen. Not in real life anyway. The band — never having been in a recording studio before — treated the studio like a club, playing live to Iglauer, the engineer, and all the people on the other side of the glass. After recording just two songs, the Alligator staffers in the control room were on their feet begging for more. Two songs later, complete with Ed’s signature toe walking and back bends, even the engineer was dancing. Iglauer offered the band a full album contract on the spot. The end result of the session was 30 songs in three hours with no overdubs and no second takes. Twelve of those songs became the band’s debut album, Roughhousin’, released in September of 1986.
The national press reacted with overwhelming amazement. Feature stories ran in Spin, Musician, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune and dozens of other publications. The Village Voice declared, “Roughhousin’ just may be the blues album of the year.” Quickly, the band went from playing local bars to clubs, concert stages and festivals coast to coast, giving national audiences their first taste of the band’s propulsive boogie blues and wild stage show. The band played The Long Beach Blues Festival, The San Francisco Blues Festival, The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and many others before heading off to Europe, Canada and Japan. Spurred on by the band’s rowdy performances, a legion of fanatic fans, proudly calling themselves “Ed Heads,” eagerly spread the word.
Lil’ Ed and The Blues Imperials’ next two releases, 1989’s Chicken, Gravy & Biscuits and 1992’s What You See Is What You Get, brought them to more people than ever before. They toured Australia, then went back to Europe before joining the Alligator Records 20th Anniversary Tour. That tour teamed them with blues greats Koko Taylor, Elvin Bishop, Lonnie Brooks and Katie Webster at sold-out concert halls and showcase clubs. Highlights of the tour are captured on the 2-CD set, The Alligator Records 20th Anniversary Tour. Night after night, Ed’s set was a barn-burner. The New York Times raved, “Raw-boned, old-fashioned Chicago blues has a new young master — Lil’ Ed Williams.”
After years on the road, the stress of touring and recording began to take its toll. Ed broke up the band and, for the first time, truly put his life together. While off the road, he recorded two albums for Earwig Records: a collaboration with his old friend (and original Blues Imperial guitarist) Dave Weld and an album with Chicago vocalist/bassist Willie Kent. After getting his life in order and defeating his personal demons, Lil’ Ed reformed The Blues Imperials in 1998 to the great delight of blues fans everywhere. They returned home to Alligator and released Get Wild! in 1999 and Heads Up! in 2002 to widespread enthusiasm. The Village Voice exclaimed, “These Chicago racket masters give a good name to crazed sloppiness. They’re about going too far and pulling it back just in time.” A June 6, 1999 performance at the world famous Chicago Blues Festival gave the band an opportunity to prove it, as they ripped and roared in front of 100,000 screaming blues fans. The audience jumped to their feet and danced as Ed paraded through the crowd riding on guitarist Mike Garrett’s shoulders.
The Washington Post described Williams’ music as “contagious wildness.” The Philadelphia Inquirer expressed it as “raucous and hugely entertaining.” But no matter how you describe it, Lil’ Ed’s seriously inspired music will take you on a fast trip from your chair to your feet. Now, with Rattleshake and a schedule that will take the band on another non-stop tour across the country and across the ocean, Lil’ Ed and The Blues Imperials will continue to shake, rattle and roll into the hearts, minds and dancing shoes of old-school blues fans everywhere.