Blues Bytes


March 2009

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Lil' Ed and the Blues Imperials
Alligator Records

Lil Ed

In 1986, Bruce Iglauer was putting together an anthology of up-and-coming Chicago blues artists called The New Bluebloods. One of the bands that he selected to be a part of the album was Lil’ Ed and the Blues Imperials, fronted by Ed Williams, who happened to be a nephew of Chicago slide master J. B. Hutto. Arriving for their session at Streeterville Studios, the band was pretty nervous. For some, it was their first time in a recording studio. Williams showed up still wearing his work clothes from his day job at a local car wash.

Once they recorded their two tracks for the anthology, Iglauer saw that he still had a couple of hours of studio time left, so he decided to ask the band if they had any more songs they wanted to record while they were there. As Iglauer recently stated in his monthly ad in Living Blues, it was “one of the smartest decisions I’ve ever made.” The band launched into their live set for Iglauer and the gathering audience in the studio, complete with Williams’ usual backbends, toe-walks, leaping, and sliding on the floor. After recording ten tracks, each a single take, Iglauer offered to make an album with the band, who eagerly accepted. The band ended up recording thirty songs, with no second takes or overdubs.

Ten of those tracks were collected into that debut Alligator release, Roughhousin’, which fits the label’s slogan, “Genuine Houserockin’ Music” better than any disc in their impressive catalog. Williams captures the wild fun and energy of his uncle and Hound Dog Taylor with his dirty tone and stinging slide guitar. Vocally, he’s a bit similar to Hutto, a bit rough but very expressive. Manning the bass for the Blues Imperials on this disc were James “Pookie” Young, Williams’ half-brother. Dave Weld served as second guitarist, and Louis Henderson played drums.

Of the ten tracks, seven were written by the band, including the wild opener, “Old Oak Tree,” featuring plenty of that nasty slide work. Other highlights included “Everything I Do Brings Me Closer To The Blues,” a slow blues that ranks with Williams’ best compositions, “Pride And Joy,” and “Car Wash Blues,” an autobiographical tune, given Ed’s regular occupation at the time. There were three well-chosen covers: Percy Mayfield’s “You Don’t Exist Any More,” a hard-driving version of Arthur Crudup’s “Mean Old Frisco,” and an entertaining take of “Walking The Dog,” which closes the disc and gives each of the Imperials a few moments to take center stage.

Lil’ Ed and the Blues Imperials’ debut release was hailed by some as the best blues album of 1986, and they remained one of Alligator’s most popular bands until the mid ’90s, when the stress of constant touring and gigging drove Williams to break up the band and gave him a chance to get his life together. After a brief hiatus, the group returned to Alligator in the late ’90s and the rest is history, with Williams and the Blues Imperials having recently released their seventh disc for Alligator and celebrated 20 years together. They also enjoy a devoted following of fans (affectionately called “Ed Heads”).

Chicago blues fans who like their blues raw and old-fashioned need look no further than Roughhousin’.

--- Graham Clarke


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