Lil’ Ed & The Blues Imperials Back in the Game

It’s been eight years since Lil’ Ed & the Blues Imperials put out a record. He got the Covid twice and lost his oldest sister and a couple of friends to the disease. Alligator Records CEO Bruce Iglauer, whom he calls his father, lost his wife. Yes, the pandemic may have slowed Lil’ Ed down for a while, but at age 69, he’s far from done. He plays the Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs, New York this weekend, and is working on a new LP.

Lil’ Ed and The Blues Imperials came out of Chicago’s rough and tumble West Side, original home of a young Buddy Guy. The longest tenured band in Alligator Records’ history as the premier blues label, this band is fronted by the rawest of the raw on guitar. This group puts on a show that would peel paint off a classic Cadillac, let alone an Imperial.

Lil’ Ed’s uncle J.B. Hutto, a West Side guitarist, taught him how to play. “J. B. was fun. He taught me rhythm ’cause he knew I was gonna lead myself. This was the thing that (taught) me because when he first asked me if I wanted to play the guitar, I said, yeah, I thought he was gonna teach me the slide right away. 

“That’s what I was interested in ’cause I like the way slide shimmied in the room when he was playing it ’cause the Living Room (a Chicago night club) is kinda dark. They had 40-watt light bulbs, and all the grownups was in there, and the kids wasn’t allowed in there when the grownups was doing their thing. (chuckle) I was 11 or 12 around then. 

“He knew I was watching him. That’s why he called me in the room. He said, ‘Boy, what are you looking for?’ He was like, ‘What do you want? What are you looking for?’ And I told him I like what I heard.’ He said, ‘You wanna play this thing?’ ‘Yeah!’

“When J.B. taught me that rhythm, I got mad because I wanted to do the slide. I started the rhythm to my brother Pookie (also in the Imperials band) so he could play the rhythm, and I would learn how to play the slide. That’s what J. B. was doing all the time. He would show me rhythm that I had to learn, number one. I had to learn rhythm before I could learn how to lead, and I didn’t think about that until after he passed. When I started teaching my brother, then I started to lead. I thought, ‘Hey, I can do something here.’”

Today, Lil’ Ed’s razor-sharp shimmering vibrato on guitar is almost dangerously feral in the blues canon. He mixes smoking guitar boogies and raw-bone shuffles with deep slow burners for a power punch that makes one forget that Howlin’ Wolf and Freddie King are gone.

Lil’ Ed performing at City Winery Chicago April 2021 / Credit: Phil Solomonson for American Blues Scene

The band’s next album sounds like it’s worth the eight-year wait. “Actually, I got a chance to think about different grooves and different ways of playing (during the pandemic.) I’m thinking the pandemic was a really hurtin’ thing. I’m trying to review it. I’m trying to give ’em something they will be happy with ’cause that was a troublesome time. We have to regain ourselves and get back in that happy mode, you know? So, I got some good stuff coming up. I love doing some interesting coloration.

“During the pandemic I was listening to J. B. a lot because I had nothing else to do. I had nothing else to do except sit around the house and look at my wife.  I’m surprised we didn’t start growling at each other. I mean, we might have growled a couple of times, but we didn’t argue. We didn’t fight. We stayed together. I got sick. She got sick. I got Covid twice. And it was really pretty bad, man. I was laid up in bed. I went back to the car wash ’cause I wasn’t working.” 

It had been more than three decades since Lil Ed worked in a car wash before he became a full-time musician. “It was something close by my house. I looked up and found one. I worked there about two weeks, and I got in somebody’s car. I don’t really know the lady, but when I got in the car, I immediately started gagging and coughing. I’m like, what the hell is going on? Ten minutes later, I was feeling like I was gonna throw up, and I told my boss, ‘Look, I gotta go.’ She said, ‘What’s your problem?’ I said, ‘I’m sick as a dog, and I don’t know why.’ And she didn’t want to let me go, and finally I told her. I said, ‘Listen, if you don’t let me go, I’m going anyway ’cause I’m gonna sit here being sick like this,” and she said, ‘Well, ok. Go ahead home.’ I came home and sure enough, I had it.”

Playing the Caffe Lena is an anomaly for a band that almost always performs in raucous barrooms, but Ed’s a veteran. “Ed’s gonna be Ed no matter where I’m at. I’m gonna do what I gotta do. Maybe they’ll hate me!”

Hardly!

Lil’ Ed & the Blues Imperials

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