If charm were size, Chicago blues guitarist Lil' Ed Williams might be playing in the NBA rather than staring up at Muggsy Bogues. Whether or not his Napoleonic stature was the wellspring for his high-wattage personality, it certainly comes out in his slide guitar, which he plays with such raucous intensity he could leave skid marks on the fretboard.
"I call myself the 'slide-slinger,' because I sling that thing," says the Blues Imperials bandleader. "I don't give it no mercy. I'm slinging it down the neck past my pickups. I'm torching that thing."
Williams studied at the foot of his uncle J.B. Hutto, the Blues Hall of Fame inductee who was himself a disciple of slide-guitar innovator Elmore James. Hutto would come over to visit and play for the whole apartment complex.
"He started to watch me watch him," recalls Williams. "My uncle was always cool, calm and collected. He would never say too much. He'd just kind of look at things. Well, he walked over to me one night and said, 'You like what you see, don't you?' He said, 'Well, you keep watching and I'm going to show you one day.'"
On the eve of an overseas tour, Hutto brought over his amp and showed the young Williams his first two chords, telling him, "When I come back, I want you to have those two chords down." Williams did, and next his uncle showed him the rhythm Elmore James used.
Meanwhile Williams' younger half-brother James "Pookie" Young was watching Ed watch Hutto, picking up what he could and going on to become his brother's lifelong bassist. They started playing clubs in their teens, and have continued to do so for close to four decades.
Last month, Lil' Ed & the Blues Imperials released their eighth album, Jump Start. It's full of Williams' signature guitar wail, viney tumble-leads with more twists than kudzu, and a carefree vocal strut. While his guitar playing will always be the main attraction, Williams is also a strong singer and writes a catchy tune, whether offering himself up as a ladykilling triple threat on "Musical Mechanical Electrical Man" or mining the loose swing of "Jump Right In."
The most arresting track is the album closer, an insidiously groove-driven barrelhouse blues tune called "Moratorium on Hate," which argues for "a veto on violence, a referendum against crime."
"My wife actually wrote that," Williams explains. "She always writes these songs I don't know the meaning of the words. I have to say, 'What the hell you giving me? I don't know what this is!' [But] when she explained it to me, I said, 'Hey this is cool. This is the kind of stuff we need to sing these days. Because this is real life.'"
Williams knows a little about real life, having almost lost his musical dream to a drug addiction that sidelined the band for a few years back in the '90s. His wife, Pam, helped him make it through, he says, along with the blessing of the Lord. Having reclaimed his life, he's now intent on honoring the gift his uncle gave him.
"I want to keep his legacy going. I want to keep him alive because he's alive in my heart. Sometimes I'm playing and I can feel him," says Williams. "That's what makes a bluesman. You got to give your insides to the people."