Lil' Ed, A Big Name in the Blues Lil' Ed and the Blues Imperials have been together for almost 25 years. The group has a new CD, Rattleshake. Ed talks about his music and the influence on his life of his uncle, the legendary Chicago bluesman J.B. Hutto.
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Lil' Ed, A Big Name in the Blues

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Lil' Ed, A Big Name in the Blues

Lil' Ed, A Big Name in the Blues

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The luminaries of the Chicago School of Electric Slide Guitar were bluesmen like Elmore James, Hound Dog Taylor and J.B. Hutto. In the 1950s and '60s they helped create a raunchy and ruckus-style of play that could keep a juke joint jumping till dawn. Before J.B. Hutto passed away, he passed along his magic to the next generation, his nephew, Ed Williams, better known as Lil' Ed.


LIL: (Singing) Well, little baby let me try to explain. It's the miserable chain across my heart and holding my hand. (Unintelligible) playing the game and that's true, wouldn't tell you no lie. It was a (unintelligible) comply.

SIMON: Lil' Ed and his band, The Blues Imperials have been playing together for almost 25 years. They just released their sixth album on Alligator Records. It's called Rattleshake and features this cover of the J.B. Hutto tune, That's the Truth. Lil' Ed Williams joins now from the studios of WBEZ in Chicago. Mr. Williams, so nice to meet you, thanks for being with us.

LIL: It's a pleasure to be here.

SIMON: Do you mind if we begin the obvious and start talking about your uncle, what you owe him, what you learned from him?

WILLIAMS: No, I don't mind. When I first started to actually getting in - into the music, he used to come over and play for the family and they would have outdoor, backdoor parties and J.B. would come out and start playing, and there was a time he would play and walk on the garbage cans and just around the whole - we had this huge big yard and he'd just walk around this big - this big yard with all garbage cans, you know. He had this really long cord, I don't know, a hundred foot, maybe two, I don't know, but...

SIMON: Now, you - you started playing with him at some point, didn't you?

WILLIAMS: Yeah, well, that came later on in the years after he had started showing me because - how to play guitar because one day he was playing and I was sitting right up on him, you know, I was sitting right there on him because I was trying to keep up with the slide. The slide is what really fascinated me so much, because it would shimmer, because I - we had dim lights in the house and it would shimmer in the lights. And I was sitting real - right up on him and he said, you like that, huh? And I said, yeah. And he said, well, let me show you some things, and he started just showing me how to do Elmore James humps. And he would show me a little bit and then he'd leave out of town and when he'd come back, I would be done learnt that and I would say, (unintelligible) I got this - I got it. And he'd say, yeah, but can you do this? And then he'd show me something else and confuse me all over again. That's the kind of teacher he was, but he was a great teacher.

SIMON: What was it like to play with your uncle?

WILLIAMS: It was really fun. I started just showing my brother what J.B. had taught me for his rhythm base, you know. So, my brother was playing the bass for me and I was trying to do the slide thing. So he took us to a place called Vegetable Buddies in South Bend, Indiana and he took us there and me and Pookie(ph), which is my brother...

SIMON: Pookie's your brother, yeah.

WILLIAMS: ...yeah, he took us to South Bend, Indiana and we were terrified because we had never played in a really huge bar before. And this place must've held 300 people and we got on stage and J.B. cut out, he started off a nice fast Elmore James boogie-woogie, you know, and we were right with him, and I think that was one of the highlights of my life to be able to play with him in front of all these people. I had never played in front of that many people before in my life.

SIMON: Yeah, how old were you, would you guess?

WILLIAMS: Oh, I think I was 17 or 18.

SIMON: Did - I've heard a story that you - you looked so long that you - well, you tell us the story. Did you have to convince people you had a mustache, how did you do that?

WILLIAMS: J.B. used to paint a mustache on me with a mascara pencil and take me into South - take me into (unintelligible) on...

SIMON: On Lincoln Avenue?

WILLIAMS: ...Lincoln Avenue in the city and the owner would walk up to him and look at me and go, you know, J.B., you know this child is not old enough to get in here. And J.B. would say, yeah, he's 21. Look at him, he's got a mustache and everything, you know.

SIMON: Hell, why not give you a beard if he's got the little mustache brush out, you know.

WILLIAMS: Yeah, it was - and they'd put this big wide hat on me, you know, and I'd wear one of J.B.'s trench coats, you know. It was wild.

SIMON: Well, let's listen to your uncle for just a moment if we could. J.B. Hutto, 1966, Hip Shakin'.


HUTTO: (Singing) You've got to stop, baby, you really gonna go. Get your way out on, on the floor. Everybody in the good time good, (unintelligible) looking for the neighborhood. Your hip shake, your hip shake. I say, (unintelligible), yeah, girl, you're shakin' for me.

WILLIAMS: I remember him bringing home a album - that album and I remember me and Pookie sitting up listening to that Hip Shakin'.

SIMON: Yeah, now, as I understand it, that's the studio recording. How do you get a sound that vibrant and alive and live at a studio session?

WILLIAMS: Well, part of that is the way the band plays and the way the instruments are sounding. And the other part of that is I have to give credit to my record producer, Bruce Iglauer, because he's got such a great ear for that type of music.

SIMON: He's a very famous producer, Bruce Iglauer.

WILLIAMS: He is. He's - I remember when I first met Bruce. I remember telling my rhythm player that we were going to save some money up because at that time you could save up some money and go cut a 45 and that's what we were planning on doing. And we started to playing a lot on the North Side and Bruce came in and introduced himself and told me he wanted to do an anthology album and he wanted me to do a couple of cuts on it.

SIMON: I've heard talk of this recording session. Wait, what was it, three hours long and you laid down how many songs?

WILLIAMS: I think it was 30 songs. Three hours we did, 30 songs in three hours, yeah.



SIMON: Not even Frank Sinatra did that.

WILLIAMS: Well, it was fun, you know. Bruce is the kind of guy that he looked at me, I know he knew I was nervous and - because I had never did that before and he said, just be yourself and just, you know, have some fun, so and that's what I did.


WILLIAMS: I started to - playing and doing my duck walks and just like I was in a bar and the people behind the glass was yelling, hollering and screaming and it was making it more exciting and I had never played with headphones on, so that - the music just sounded tremendously big, you know.

SIMON: Were they covers, were they original tunes, was it a mix?

WILLIAMS: Well, a lot of them was original tunes and there were a few covers in there.

SIMON: I want to ask you about some of the music on this new CD. I don't mind telling you, my favorite song, but I've got to ask you about the story of the song, Icicles in My Meatloaf. Let's hear a little if we can, Icicles.


LIL: (Singing) I had a girl, she was divine, she took me home to wine and dine. When we got there, we had a taste and she started to set up the place. I didn't want to I don't know, but there's a little icicles in your meatloaf. I said in your meatloaf.

SIMON: Okay. Any story you want to share about that or should we just move on?

WILLIAMS: You know, that song - it's a real fun song. I wanted to make a real fun song on this CD and what better fun song is the guy going out to have dinner with a girl and there's icicles in his meatloaf. Evidently, she did not heat up the meatloaf good enough.


SIMON: Oh, my, well, I hope you don't mind me asking, but in the - I guess it was the mid-'90s, you had some problems and the band didn't play together.

WILLIAMS: Right, right. You know, when you go out on the road, and this happens all over the world and I think everybody goes through it, at some point, in some way, you know, you get out there, you're having a good time, you don't really think that anything's bad going to happen and then you got fans that love you so much and they like to share.

So we - you know, they give you booze and they give you whatever you want to get, you know, and you do these things and you really don't realize, you know, the outcome that's going - it's going to take. But I do believe that in my heart that, you know, I know I was blessed that I was able to catch the outcome before it got really bad and I was able to salvage my career because without the help of the good Lord, and the loved ones around me, I don't think I would've did it.

SIMON: Yeah, your wife, Pam Williams, I gather was really helpful.

WILLIAMS: Yeah, Pam, my wife, Pam was really helpful and Bruce Iglauer was really helpful to me. Them two stuck with me and they let me know that I didn't deserve to hurt myself and they understood what I was going through at the time.

SIMON: Can I - do you play music everyday?

WILLIAMS: Pretty much, yeah, I do.

SIMON: Now, to enjoy it, to work on it, to try something new?

WILLIAMS: Well, you know, music is in me when I'm - even when I'm sleeping, because there's sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night, I've dreamed of a lyric that I've sung or I'm always playing my guitar all the time, sometimes my wife don't like it, but I do. And I try to listen to all kinds of music, you know, even down to Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., some kind of rock and roll tunes, some reggae, Latin, anything. I just try to listen to it because you can learn and you can grab certain things from certain parts of things.

SIMON: We want to go out with a song by - song by a man we've been talking about a lot here, Elmore James, your rendition of his song, You Know You're Wrong. But first, Mr. Williams, it's just been wonderful talking to you. Thanks very much.

WILLIAMS: Thank you.

SIMON: That's Ed Williams. Lil' Ed and the Blues Imperials' new album on Alligator Records is called Rattleshake.

And you can hear J.B. Hutto's version of That's The Truth, as well as additional songs from Lil' Ed and the Blues Imperials' new CD at our Web site


LIL: (Singing) Yes, you called my job to see if I was there. You started running, running around most every (unintelligible).

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

LIL: (Singing) You just run around, run around from place to place.

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