Ed Williams: King of the Gutbucket Blues
Ed Williams, the veteran Chicago slide guitarist, singer and songwriter, formed Lil’ Ed & the Blues Imperials in 1975 and hasn’t stopped rocking the blues since. The band has released eight albums and won The Blues Foundation’s “Blues Music Award for Band of the Year” in both 2007 and 2009 and the Best Live Band Award in the 2011 Living Blues Critics’ Poll. When we caught up with Lil’ Ed, he was “messing around in his studio,” but he took a break to share with us why he loves to play the blues, his inspiration and greatest memories, and a few pearls of wisdom he’s learned along the musical way.
Describe your brand of the blues. I’m old-school, gutbucket style. My uncle [J.B. Hutto], an old slide master, taught me, though every once in a while you might hear me get into a little slick blues.
You’ve played in every kind of stage out there, from clubs to concert halls to outdoor festivals. Do you play a certain way in the more intimate clubs like the Harmony? It depends on how the audience is reacting. Sometimes they want to hear fast, sometimes slow. It depends on the vibe I’m getting at the point. After two or three different songs I can tell what the people want.
What’s your touring schedule like? It slows down during the wintertime—the holidays, Thanksgiving and New Year’s—and picks back up in April and May. I play around Chicago a lot in the winter. I’ve been doing this for over thirty years now. I love my music, I love to play and I like to make people happy so that’s the good part of it.
What’s it like playing with your brother, Pookie? We started this thing when we were in our late teens. We try to keep our uncle’s tradition alive. And we know when to stay out of each other’s way!
And the other band members? We’re all family now…. We’ve been together for many years.
What’s the last song you listened to? A Muddy Waters song on my computer. He was singing a Jimmy Reed tune, “Baby What You Want Me to Do?” I listen to all those great guys. They always got that certain flavor for me.
Why do you play the blues? It’s all about heart, honey. It’s all about being in the soul, living it, breathing it, eating it, drinking it. It’s a part of me. It’s not just something I jump on stage and do. I feel all my music and I enjoy it. It’s why people like the blues because it makes them know that tomorrow is a better day. You might be sad today but tomorrow you’re gonna be alright. It livens people up … I do have some down deep blues that will make people say, “Oh yeah, that’s what I’m talkin’ about.”
You write most of your songs. What’s that process like for you? I fiddle around until I come up with something I think, like, “Wow this could be pretty cool.” I got a lot of albums here—Louis Armstrong, Bobby Womack. Here’s a guy named Freddie Jackson. And this cat, George Jones, the country singer. They tell good stories. A lot of those words in those songs were really good words. They sang them in a different way but they were really good words. I use those words and patterns in my own way. It’s just like gospel—a lot of people go to the Book of Psalms. And sometimes I dream about stuff. I get them written down and I build around them.
What’s your favorite Lil’ Ed song? I’ve got several. “Hold That Train,” “Check My Baby’s Oil” … they’ll always work their way in.
Your die-hard fans, including talk-show host Conan O’Brien, are called “Ed Heads.” Where did that come from? I named them. They’re fascinated by the fez. My uncle used to wear them. My aunt made them for him. I started to try to make them on my own. When I got married my wife started making them. She’s a seamstress so she took them to the maximum level.
What’s your greatest memory on stage? A long time ago, I remember having so much fun at this club in Texas. I ran and jumped off the stage and into the crowd and everyone was having a good time. So I had to get back on stage, right? As I was running toward the stage I was going to run and jump back on stage but there was this little step I didn’t notice. I made the jump but I slid and fell on my knees and hit the drum set. I never stopped playing. People were ecstatic. They wanted me to do it again. And I was like, I couldn’t do that if I tried.
That’s what it’s all about, though, having fun and doing what you do. When you can have fun with it and not worry about it. The thing about my music is that there are times I really don’t feel like playing, sometimes, but I hit that stage and I hit that guitar and all that just seems to go away. I think that’s a blessing from God.
Where did the band’s name come from? Me and my brother were sitting down eating popcorn and looking at the TV trying to figure out … thinking maybe Lil’ Ed & the Little Hawks. My uncle was J.B. and the Hawks. All of a sudden I see the commercial for Imperial Margarine. When the music came on–da-da-da-da-da–that was it. Lil’ Ed & the Blues Imperials.
You’ve enjoyed a great career. How long are going to go? I’m gonna go a little bit longer if it’s God’s will. At some point in my life I probably will be slowing down a bit. God gave us this talent to make other people happy and to help solve other people’s problems and it’s a good thing. It’s not something that you come across all the time. I smile all the time. I’m always happy. I learned in life that it wastes so much energy being miserable. My uncle told me that. He smiled all the time and I asked him why and he said, “If you smile all the time, then you don’t have time to frown.”
Come on out and hear Lil’ Ed & the Blues Imperials play his gutbucket blues at the Harmony Bar on Saturday, November 16, 9:45 p.m. $10 cover.