First, the fez: Blues bandleader Lil’ Ed Williams wears it onstage in tribute to his uncle, the late, great J.B. Hutto, who (like his nephew) played a burning electric slide guitar, sang to rock to rafters, and always sported the distinctive circular chapeau.
Williams and his band, the Blues Imperials, are one of the hardest–working and longest–lived (24 years and counting with the same lineup) Chicago blues bands. They headline Blues Night at Forsyth Park Thursday, Sept. 27, part of this week’s continuing Savannah Jazz Festival.
The band’s raw–boned boogie is a worldwide favorite. Readers of Living Blues named them the Best Live Performer for 2012. In reviewing Jump Start, Lil’ Ed and the boys’ latest Alligator Records release, About.com said the music was “about as exciting as the blues can get these days,” and “the over–all effect is of a joyous, raucous and energetic party that doesn’t want to end.”
Connect caught up with Mr. Williams at his home in Chicago.
How does a band stay together so long?
Lil’ Ed Williams: You just do the best you can. And you have respect, that’s what it’s about. I’ve been with these guys 24, 25 years, and we’re family now. We’re not band members any more, we’re family. Like blood brothers, you know? We know how to stay out of each other’s way, and we all have fun together when the time is right. We socialize with each other, and that’s what’s good with us — socializing, trying to make sure we understand one another. Because it can get ugly if you ain’t got the understanding. If one person is going one way and you’re going another, it’s just not going to work.
Did your uncle teach you slide?
Lil’ Ed Williams: I learned some from him, and the rest I pretty much learned on my own. See, when J.B. was teaching me, he was teaching me a lot of rhythm patterns. I’d learn the rhythm and show it to my brother; he would play the rhythm, and that started me playing lead. So when J.B. really started to teach me, I was pretty much up on it. Then he just finalized it for me. There’s a lot of ways of playing slide. Like me and J.B., we use our baby finger. Others used their index finger. Me, Hound Dog and J.B., we play in an open key. There’s a lot of things you can do, and it’s not as hard to chord.
Was it always going to be music for you?
Lil’ Ed Williams: Seeing Uncle J.B. go into bars and play, that kind of put the thread on the needle, you know? It kind of made me think to myself “I think this is what I want to do.” I had no idea that this is what I was going to be doing, because I was working at the car wash. I wasn’t doing great, but I wasn’t doing bad either. Being able to play with J.B. on a gig, that was so fantastic. Once that soaks into the blood it’s like “OK, this is what I want to do.”
You work a lot. Is it still fun for you?
Lil’ Ed Williams: It is still fun. It is a little more work than it used to be, but it’s still fun. I try to don’t make it seem like an eight–hour job. I mean, when I was working a the car wash it was fun! It was a little harder, but it was fun.
What makes a good rockin’ blues band?
Lil’ Ed Williams: It’s heart, and kindness, and love. It’s more than just being able to play. You can be able to play, and everybody can hate you — some people hate some musicians because they’re arrogant. And some people hate musicians because they don’t even talk to them. They don’t want to associate. It’s about having heart, love and kindness, man. Everybody loves me because I’m loveable. I like for people to laugh, and people enjoy that.
Watch Lil' Ed & the Blues Imperials:
Lil’ Ed and the Blues Imperials
Savannah Jazz Festival Blues Night – Thursday, Sept. 27
Where: Forsyth Park
When: At 9:30 p.m.
Blues Night (starting at 6:30 p.m.) also features Amburgey & Hanson, SSU Gospel Choir and the Eric Culberson Band
Jazz Festival schedule:
Wednesday, Sept. 26
At Blowin’ Smoke:
7 p.m.: Bob Mastellar & The Jazz Corner All Stars
8:30 p.m.: Swing ’42 (South Carolina gypsy jazz)
Friday, Sept. 28:
7 p.m.: Doc Handy Band
8:15 p.m.: Jay Stewart Band
9:30 p.m.: University of North Florida Jazz Ensemble w/vibraphonist Warren Chiasson
Late night jam at Blowin’ Smoke at 11 p.m
Saturday, Sept. 29
4 p.m.: US Navy Band Southeast Dixieland Band “TGIF”
5:45 p.m.: Jazz Hall Of Fame w/Ben Tucker, Teddy Adams, Huxie Scott, and Howard Paul. With Warren Chiasson & Quentin Baxter
7 p.m.: Andreas Varady Quartet
8:15 p.m.: Tony Monaco B3 Trio
9:30 p.m.: Savannah Jazz Orchestra with Ed Calle & Sam Skelton, saxophone
Late night jam at Blowin’ Smoke at 11 p.m.
Sunday, Sept. 30
Children’s Jazz Fest at Forsyth Park
4 p.m.: Savannah Arts Academy Skylite Orchestra
5 p.m.: Country Day School Jazz Band
6 p.m.: Coastal Jazz Association All Stars