As a youngster, Ed Williams would spend hours in rapt attention while his uncle, slide guitarist J.B. Hutto, showed him licks the elder bluesman had learned from the legendary Elmore James. Whatever Williams could pick up, he'd then teach to half-brother James "Pookie" Young, and together they formed the blues combo, Lil' Ed & the Blues Imperials.
By his teens, though, Lil' Ed was unsatisfied with the subtle slide blues mastery being passed along by his uncle. Instead, he longed for the hard-charging theatrics of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix.
"If I had learnt myself, I think I'd have been a shredder," says the Chicago-based Williams. "I was like, 'Uncle J.B., teach me this, I'm going to take it to the max.' And he said, 'You know, those guys, they're doing what they do. And you got to do what you do. You play blues.' I knew I did, but I didn't want to."
Williams backed his uncle until just before his death in the early '80s. He still wears a fez like Hutto's onstage to honor him. Today, the pint-sized 59-year-old is a fire-and-ice player inspired by Jimi, Albert Collins and Albert King. He maintains smoldering, cool-handed grooves, but likes revving the engine, upshifting quickly into bursts of stinging electric guitar. It isn't quite shredding, but it's not mild-mannered, either.
The Blues Imperials started out doing two compilation tracks for Alligator, but label president Bruce Iglauer was so impressed that he upgraded them to a full album on the spot. Over the next three hours, they recorded 30 tracks live, without a single overdub or second take.
Roughhousin' proved a critical success, and two more Alligator releases — 1989's Chicken, Gravy & Biscuits and 1992's What You See Is What You Get — found them on top of their game just as the Vaughan-inspired blues bubble got ready to burst. It was around then that Williams acquired a drug addiction that broke up the band, until his newfound wife Pam helped turn it around for him.
"When she found out I was getting kind of screwed up, I thought she was going to leave me. I thought she was going to be like all the rest: 'OK, I'm done with your ass,'" he says. "What she told me was, 'I'm with you no matter what you do. And if you want to get yourself together we can do this together.' She didn't say, 'You have to stop this, you have to stop that.' She said, 'Do the best you can and it will eventually come to you.'"
Williams reunited with the Blues Imperials in 1998 after a couple solo albums. Their latest release, 2012's Jump Start, finds Pam writing the lyrics and the band sounding as tight as ever. There's another album simmering on the stove as well.
Meanwhile, Williams is looking back through the other side of the looking glass as he mentors his own headstrong progeny, just as Hutto did with him.
"I told him, 'You know what all that old-timers play. You know their licks, their bumps and their grooves. But now you got to make them your own."