Lil' Ed Williams has learned a lot about the blues, about music in general and about life.
Take for example his relationship with his band the Blues Imperials. It's the same four men who have been with Willliams since 1987.
"You just gotta treat 'em right and pay 'em decent," says Williams. "We're like family now. We're not just a band anymore."
Since the mid-1980s, Lil' Ed and the Blues Imperials have been one of the bright lights in Chicago blues. Williams is the nephew of famed Chicago bluesman J.B. Hutto, and it was Hutto who inspired Williams both as a musician and as a person.
"He was a real settled guy," says Williams. "He'd come over and have us laughing and having a good time. Then he'd play his music and we'd have a better time!"
He was, says Williams, the sort of guy who rarely got mad, but got instant respect when he did.
"I always wanted to stand in his shoes and make people happy like he did and have that subtleness about me so that if somebody was going to mess with me they'd look at me and say, 'This is NOT the guy to mess with!'"
When he began giving Williams guitar lessons, Hutto insisted his nephew started on rhythm guitar, not lead or slide.
"He was teaching me Elmore James rhythms. He'd show me a little bit of it and be gone for 30 days or a couple of weeks."
When Hutto would return Williams had learned how to play what he'd been taught and taught it to his brother James "Pookie" Young as well. Eventually, the two were good enough to back Hutto on a gig in South Bend, Ind.
"I was scared half to death when I got onstage," says Williams. While the lessons in music had been private, the lessons in showmanship were delivered onstage. Hutto used to leave the stage and walk across the tables, and insisted Williams follow him. When Williams shook his head 'No,' Hutto gave him a look that let him know 'No' was not an option.
When Williams' pants ripped in a show while getting down into the crowd he jumped back on stage backward. He says audiences loved it.
Williams and Young formed the first version of the Blues Imperials in the mid-1970s. Williams kept a day job as a buffer at a car wash. Young drove a school bus. In the early 1980s, the group came to the attention of Alligator Records president Bruce Iglauer, who was looking for artists to feature on a young blues-act compilation. The band assembled in a recording studio two record two songs with Iglauer and Alligator staff in attendance. All present were so enthusiastic that the recording session became a 30-song marathon, at the end of which Lil Ed and the Blues Imperials had more than a full album for the label.
Guitarist Mike Garrett and drummer Kelly Littleton joined the group the following year and things really began to take off.
The group wowed audiences all over the country. Williams says at one point, though, the lifestyle got the better of him.
"There's all sorts of stuff you can get into on the road. Fans will give you anything they can think of to make you go a little crazier on stage and they'll do it with you."
Williams was out of the game for a couple of years with drug problems.
"My band knew I had a problem and I told them I was going to get over it," says Williams.
The band members said they'd wait for him. Iglauer at Alligator told him the same.
"You start seeing stuff crumbling around you and you know enough is enough. Some people will just let it all crumble ... but I said, 'This is not me. I was raised to know better.'"
The band members took temporary gigs with other artists, but always called to check on Williams and when he booked a gig for the band on the North Side of Chicago, everyone showed up.
"It was a blessing," says Williams. "It just felt great. Any other guys would've run off and forgot me."
Williams seems proud to carry on his uncle's legacy as well as cutting his own path. But he carries on more than just the music.
"Now I'm like the clown of the family," says Williams. "I try to keep everybody laughing and have a good time."
Lil’ Ed and the Blues Imperials
When: 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 26
Where: Brackins Blues Club, 112 E. Broadway Ave., Maryville
© 2012, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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