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Lil' Ed - Interview

  by Lisa Torem

published: 21 / 1 / 2011

Lil' Ed - Interview


Lisa Torem chats to Chicago-based singer-songwriter, slide guitarist and showman extraordinaire Lil' Ed about his lengthy career in the blues and his band of the last two decades, the Blues Imperials

Singer-songwriter, slide guitarist, and showman extraordinaire Ed Williams has played for more than two decades with the Blues Imperials, which also consists of Mike Garrett (guitarist), Kelly Littleton (drummer) and his brother James “Pookie” Young (bassist). The siblings worked hard for years in order to play even harder. Young drove a school bus and "Lil’ Ed" worked ten-hour shifts at a car wash as the young men first launched their Chicago careers. Interestingly enough, Ed draws parallels between working that demanding shift and performing, because they both require one to provide service to others. Ed Williams is an invincible showman who enjoys bringing happiness to others, although he has personally been affected by downward spirals and tragedy. His general attitude of optimism, however, is one in which his loyal “Ed Head” fans are most familiar. “No one can believe his dark days,” says Bruce Iglauer, Alligator Records President, who has developed a long standing professional and personal relationship with the guitarist. The band first came to the attention of Iglauer when, after seeing them perform several times locally, he asked the band to contribute original tunes for an anthology, the New Bluebloods. The band completely astonished Iglauer and his associates when it came time to record those tunes. They had never done studio recording before and their infectious, adrenaline-boosted performance and ability to communicate on “one-take” brought cheers of admiration from those present. Iglauer refers to that session as “the night that a label producer lives for.” That rush of adrenaline was so contagious, that Iglauer recalls, “I can’t dance. I was dancing.” and also added, in a recent phone conversation, that since that evening, Lil’ Ed “has grown as a musician. He’s a much better slide player and better finger player.” On the band's newest release, 'Full Tilt', these skills are brilliantly showcased. In addition, David Bassinger and Eddie McKinley add lush horn texture while pianist/organist, Johnny Iguana. rounds out the already joyous sound. Ed is also known for his outrageous stage antics. Iglauer recalls that he launched himself off stage, “twelve feet into the air,” while touring in Japan, “still playing all the time,” and would often perform while on top of guitarist Mike Garrett’s shoulders. By 12, Lil’ Ed was already a multi-instrumentalist and protégé to his iconic slide master uncle, J.B.Hutto, a contemporary of Hound Dog Taylor, and a fixture of the famous, early Chicago blues scene. Lil’ Ed is one of the few living performers still having a direct link to these early Chicago blues masters. And, although he is proud to perform Hutto covers in his recordings, his repertoire is largely made up of original tunes, many co-written by his wife Pamela. The band continues to play locally, tour internationally and has also been heard at the Thunder Bay Blues Fest, Mississippi Valley Blues Fest, the Doherty Blues Fest, the Sacramento Heritage Fest and the Chicago Blues Fest. PB: Hi Ed. It’s been said that your music is a cross between rockabilly and old blues. Can you elaborate on that? LE: I know that I do have the traditional style of old blues. I’ve got some rockabilly stuff going on. I am into a little country and western because my wife loves country and western and I got into it by listening to some of the stuff that she had, so, yeah, I do combine that. PB: What country western material comes to mind? LE: Oh, well, I like a lot of Willie Nelson stuff and I’m really big on Brooks and Dunn. PB: You’ve got some fascinating titles. You wrote a tune called, ‘Icicles in My Meatloaf’. Where did you come up with that? LE: (Laughs). Actually, that came out at the dinner table. We were just joking and teasing each other about meatloaf and stuff like that, and my mom mentioned something about “icicles in the meatloaf” and I thought,"That would make a great song" and I set out about writing that down. PB: When you and your wife Pam co-write, do you sit down together at a certain time to work or does it happen randomly? LE: Well, no, she does what she does and she’s there and she hands me stuff and says, "Do something with this" (Laughs). PB: How long does this process of collaboration usually take? LE: It depends on our working mode. If she’s not real busy during the day she probably can come up with a couple of songs within that day, and it is the same thing with me. I have to be focused on a lot of stuff. Right now, we’re doing songs for my next CD – I’m going to be presenting these songs to Bruce Iglauer within another week or so. PB: You’re already working on your next CD after 'Full Tilt'? LE: Oh, yeah. PB: And, how will this new album differ from 'Full Tilt'? LE: Well, this CD I’m working on, I’m focusing on jump dancers and the old time, because dancing is getting to be more style, now. People like to jump dance. They like the sentimental dance stuff. They really like that jump music now because it carries a feel of the old type of music, so I’m focusing more on that now. PB: What’s special about 'Full Tilt'? LE: Full Tilt is a jump up. It’s like I’m climbing a ladder. It’s a little bit higher up than the last one. I want the people to know that I’m doing a little more picking on this one, I’m doing various styles of music and I want the people to know that Lil’ Ed is into a little bit of it all, not just the straight Elmore James type or the Hound Dog Taylor type or whatever they want to call it. So, I don’t want to be known as a musician who just wants to do one particular thing. I do a little of it all. PB: You worked with Alligator Records president, Bruce Iglauer, on the production of 'Full Tilt'. What do you recall about first meeting Bruce and what was it like co-producing the album? LE: It was great, man. You know, when I first met Bruce we kind of took a liking to each other at first. It was like love at first sight. I needed a father figure and he needed a crazy musician. I think I became a little son to him actually because I don’t think he had any kids at the time and he just took me under his wing. I was one of those types of guys; I didn’t know anything about music. I didn’t know what the music deal was about, the travelling and stuff like that, so he took me under his arm and coached me along the way, and that’s the way we are right now. There’s still a lot I have to learn and that he has to learn about me; the more I change, the more questions there are to be asked (Laughs). PB: Let’s get back to those days when, as a young musician, you were working at the car wash, ten hours a day, then playing the clubs. That must have been a gruelling, but exciting time. LE: When we first started playing, we played at a place called Howling Wolf Duke Showplace (also, referred to as: ‘Big Duke’s Blue Flame’). See, my uncle, J.B. Hutto, started me playing, and then when my uncle started going out on the road – he was getting sort of sickly, too, before he passed - and, at that time, I was searching around. I knew various musicians through my uncle, so they would let me sit in when I stood out and I’d be peeking in at them and they would let me play, so when I actually started doing the clubs, my auntie was helping me and she got me at a place called Garfield’s Club and it was located on Madison St. It was really cool but they wouldn’t give me nothing to drink except Irish coffee and I would get drunk off of that, because I had never had Irish coffee, before. PB: That’s strong. LE: Yeah. These clubs wouldn’t pay me more than $12 or $15 a night. And the Howling Wolf’ paid us $6 a man. PB: Was it worth it? LE: Yeah. It was. We had a ball (Laughs). People were dancing and having a good time. So we thought we were into something, you know? PB: Where did you learn about live performance? LE: Well, I used to watch my uncle walk out on the stage, walk on chairs and stand on tables and the people would go crazy. And, I wanted that feel, you know? I wanted that feel, but I had to learn that. That wasn’t a thing that he pretended to do. The music made him do it. So, I had to feel the music before I started to do it because when I first started to play, I thought, how am I going to run out here on stage and jump off the stage like my uncle does, but I couldn’t move because I was terrified. PB: How did you conquer your fear? LE: I just started to play and the more I played the more I got into the music and the feel of what I was playing. So, if I was playing a real slow blues, by my life, by my going through these changes, in my life, I could feel that. So, if I was playing blues about a woman who left me – I had had some problems with a lady friend before – I could feel it all over again, you know? The music started feeling real good and that’s when it started. PB: Why is it that some blues guitarists use a slide and some don’t? LE: Because some guitarists don’t know how to use a slide and some of them play the slide and still can’t use it, but they try it anyway and some of them just can’t use it. PB: How is it supposed to sound? LE: You’ll hear it. (Laughs). You’ll know it’s not right. PB: Is it more difficult to play slide than to use a pick? LE: Not really. There’s two different ways of playing it. You can play in ‘E natural’ - E natural is in 440 or you can play open E, open D. See, my style is open D. So, it’s a little easy for me because I grow up learning it, but for some people it’s a little difficult, you know. PB: You wrote a piece called ‘Hold That Train’. How long did it take you to come up with that arrangement? LE: ‘Hold That Train?’ It didn’t take long because that was a whim that came up in my mind, late at night, I woke up. I was dreaming about a train and me running after it and (laughs) I was calling, "Hold the train". It just came up and when I got up I started writing it. PB: How many other songs have come up through your dreams? Is that the only one? LE: Oh, a few of them. PB: Really? LE: Yeah. I couldn’t name right off hand, but…this is what happens. Sometimes I dream stuff. I wake up in the middle of the night and I think, "Whoa," and if I can keep it in mind until I get up the next day and I start picking around on my guitar and, I go, oh, man, I’ve got to start something with that; that first thing that was happening to me, you know? PB: Ed, you had some hard times at one point in your career and left the business for a few years. What happened and how did you get back? LE: A lot of good thinking and prayer. I had a little drug problem and I had to clean it up and I had to realize where I was at. I had to see myself really. PB: And, after you recovered, did you find that your music took on a different meaning? LE: It changed a lot of things in my life, I mean, I was drinking at the time, I was indulging in drugs, but my mind wasn’t focused on what I was doing, it was focused on what I was having. But I stopped all that and I felt even more of the music. I sung it better; I was able to think clearly with it. It just made me feel ten times as much better than I did when I actually first started, because I learned the purpose of it. PB: You’ve been with the Blues Imperials for about twenty years and the same guys. That’s pretty unusual. How have you successfully performed with the same musicians for so long? LE: Well, that’s something my uncle taught me, years ago, because I was so excited about getting a band, and before he passed, he shot me down. He said to me, he said, "Musicians will come and go. You’re going to go through a lot of them before you actually get the right ones." And, these things that he was saying to me, I was kind of listening to him and kind of not, and he said, "When you get the right ones, you’ll know it." He said, "Now, after you get the right ones, this is the thing you have to do. You have to treat them with respect. You have to pay them to the best of your ability and you have to be family with them." And, when I got these musicians, treating them with respect was really easy; being family with them was kind of hard. (Laughs). It’s kind of hard to be family with someone that you really ain’t really family with. But, then, I pay them to the best of my abilities and I told them, they knew from the beginning, I told them, if I make money, you make money, if I didn’t make money, they didn’t make money. So, if my pay was low, then their pay would be low. I didn’t try to put them on a strict salary. I just told them, if I make money, you make money. If I make a little money, you make a little money. If I make a lot of money, you make a lot (Laughs). PB: What else about your uncle J.B. Hutto made an impression on you? LE: This is another part he told me, and I think this is the very best. He said, "Your fans is your family." Treat your fans right and you’ll make it. Never be rude to your fans, no matter what. Treat them right and you’ll always make it. You won’t get rich, but your fans take care of you. They will take care of you, and that, I dwell on that. So many people, if something happens to me on the road or my car breaks down, and I call some people, they’re like, "Ed, don’t worry, we’re going to get you there" and they will. They’ll do everything in their power. They’ll help me find a place to get my car in there. They’ll come get me if they can. They’ll offer me dinner a lot, hang out with them (Laughs). It’s a big family. J.B. was right. That is, my fans are my family. All my brothers and sisters. We just get together and have a good time. PB: Where have your favourite places been as far as touring? LE: Lincoln Nebraska, Paris, has been one of the good spots, for me, I did Japan once and it was awesome. I can’t deal with the flight to Australia, I’ve been over there a couple of times. I’ve been to Oslo, Norway. PB: Which of your discography really reflects you and your growth? LE: 'Chicken, Gravy and Biscuits'. 'Chicken, Gravy and Biscuits' was like our second album and we were really puffing at that point, at that time, because we were so excited that we were playing and out there on the road and it just came natural. 'Roughhousin’, our debut, was a natural one because it was one of the first ones that I did and I was just giving it all that I did; I gave it all that I had. But 'Chicken, Gravy and Biscuits', I had started, I had been out on the road and I had learned more, I had experienced a little bit more so that was one of the highlights of mine. Then, the third one,‘What You See is What You Get', was after I had that problem and that had brought out another part of me. So, all three of those, all of those are really good ones because you’re talking about part of my life. PB: Bruce Iglauer mentioned to me that your standing in regards to the Chicago blues culture is unique. The new musicians coming up are not going to know what you’ve done, what you’ve seen, what you’ve been through. What advice would you give to a new musician that wants to access the blues scene? LE: I would tell him, "Just live." That’s all. It’s all about life. It ain’t about what people actually think about. You’ve got to be down in the dumps, you’ve got to be… I mean, I’ve been down a lot of times, but I’ve been up. I mean, I had no problems when I started playing the blues. There was nothing to have a problem about. I had a good old lady. I had a good job. I mean, I was working at the car wash, but I was making good dough. I wasn’t down in the dumps or in the gutter, but a lot of young musicians think that you’ve got to be in the gutter or have the blues. You don’t have to be in the gutter. It’s just about experience, about life, waking up the next day, what that person told you yesterday that’s still pissing you off (Laughs), how much fun you had with that, that, that lover of yours, how much togetherness you all had, how good it is, and because that other woman left you, that don’t mean it’s going to rain around the corner, because the grass is always greener, and it’s about life and living (Laughs). PB: You jammed with Justin Berg, pitcher for the Chicago Cubs, at Buddy Guy’s Legends in early January. Was it fun to jam with a baseball player? LE: Justin’s a great guy. He’s a great guy. We had fun together. He beat drums. He and Conan ( O’Brien, American talk show host, 'Late Night with Conan O’Brien': The band has appeared on the show several times-LT), both those guys are awesome. You know, I met these guys and we clicked right together in no time flat and it was just great They gave me a jersey. They’ve got my name on it, it says, ‘Lil’ Ed – # One.’ These guys were awesome. I mean, they liked me. They like my music and I like them because they like music, particularly my music, but they like music, period, and they like blues music, so I had a good time with them. PB: Thank you.

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Lil' Ed - Interview

Lil' Ed - Interview

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