Lil’ Ed and the Blues Imperial
Johnny B. Moore
Some of the most seminal events in blues history have been the result of blind luck. Muddy Waters’s beginnings at Aristocrat Records were typical: a chance appearance at a local union hall where an Aristocrat talent scout was present (and where Muddy had to cajole the imperious Lonnie Johnson into letting him borrow Johnson’s guitar); a call from the Aristocrat studios requesting Muddy’s presence on a Sunnyland Slim session, which not only interrupted Muddy’s day job as a truck driver but forever changed the face of American music; the last-minute release of Muddy’s first Aristocrat recording–which Leonard Chess originally didn’t like–on the advice of Chess’s assistant, Evelyn Aron. Similarly, the last-minute failure of harmonica player Good Rockin’ Charles to show up for a Jimmy Rogers recording session led Rogers to bring in Big Walter Horton to play harp, with almost no rehearsal, on Walkin’ by Myself in 1956. The resulting harmonica performance was of a majesty unparalleled in its era; it has become one of the most legendary in all of blues.
Little (or “Lil'”) Ed Williams may not be of the same musical stature as Muddy and Walter, but his story has all the same elements of legend. He and his band–guitarist Dave Weld, bassist James “Pookie” Young, and drummer Louis Henderson–were originally called into the Alligator recording studios to do two or three tracks for an anthology of contemporary Chicago blues. Ed and his cohorts first timidly pecked into the studio and donned the cumbersome, unfamiliar headphones, then ripped into their first song and transformed a tense situation into a rollicking party: Blues fans know this largely thanks to the promotional efforts of Alligator’s Bruce Iglauer, who can spot a legend in the making and in fact has made a career of snatching bluesmen from obscurity–Hound Dog Taylor from Florence’s Lounge, Son Seals from a one-room apartment on Chicago’s South side–and providing them a niche in as professionally run an operation as can be found among the independent blues and jazz labels.
The album that resulted from that session, Roughhousin’, has been hailed as a street-level counterpoint to Robert Cray’s slick Strong Persuader LP, providing a look at the rough-edged Chicago neighborhood style in all its uninhibited glory, just as Cray’s album showcased the sophisticated, pop-tinged style of other young blues musicians. With this one release, Lil’ Ed has brought to the general public some of the most exhilarating and honest music being made today, influenced by his late uncle, slide guitarist J.B. Hutto, as well as by–surprisingly–some of the prepsychedelic rock ‘n’ roll garage bands. Just as vaudeville routines and show tunes fed the black blues tradition (as exemplified by the folk blues of artists such as Blind Willie McTell), so have contemporary pop sounds made an imprint on even the most unpretentious and spontaneous of the blues.
The opening cut of Roughhousin’, “Old Oak Tree,” is an almost savage update of the Robert Johnson “Dust My Broom” theme, and it gives a good indication of what’s to come. It combines the slickness of Alligator’s production–especially in the mix, roomy and robust–with the rawness of Ed’s guitar and vocals. It’s ironic that some of the gutsiest vocals in contemporary big-name blues have been provided by white bluesmen–Stevie Ray Vaughan, Johnny Winter–as their black mentors, such as Jimmy Johnson, Albert King, and Robert Cray, have moved into a smoother, more crooning style. Lil’ Ed’s voice brings things fiercely back home, delivering a crunch like a whiskey bottle being ground underfoot in a west-side alley.
The tale of a spontaneous studio session in which more than 30 songs were cut in one massive three-hour take may or may not have been embellished by the legend factory, but Roughhousin’ does carry with it the unmistakable stamp of musical spontaneity. A deep-throated, satisfied chuckle at the end of “Old Oak Tree” leads directly into the equally hard-driving “Midnight Rider” (not the Gregg Allman tune), again showcasing Ed’s vintage Chicago slide guitar work. Blues slide guitar is something of an anomaly: usually repetitious and dependent on some rather shopworn riffs, its knifelike intensity and almost primal resemblance to the human voice continue to excite. As Frank Zappa is alleged to have said, a bluesman might know only a handful of slide patterns, “but he sounds like he means it.”
It would be a mistake, however, to pigeonhole Lil’ Ed. Although his fuzzy, raucous slide brings the west side even to relatively sophisticated slow blues, such as “You Done Me Wrong for the Last Time”–greatly enhanced by second guitarist Dave Weld’s moody, nightclubby chording–Ed is capable of a wider range of emotional and musical shadings than might originally appear. “Everything I Do Brings Me Closer to the Blues” is a kind of personal answer to B.B. King’s “Why I Sing the Blues,” although Ed’s number is characteristically immediate and concrete: King sang his carefully crafted anthem for an entire people, while Lil’ Ed’s tale of hard luck, which leads him irrevocably back to his musical roots, is just one man’s struggle to survive in the face of a difficult, often unfair life. Musically it’s somewhat cliched, and the story has been told before; it’s not the strongest cut on the LP, but it’s close to a theme song for scuffling bluesmen everywhere, and it indicates a refreshing willingness to go beyond the usual themes of most modern blues–failure in love, boasting of one’s prowess–into other themes, as was common in the past.
The dominant mood on this LP, however, is uninhibited exuberance. “She’s Fine, She’s Mine” lurches along in a humping, sweaty cadence that gives new meaning to the term “dirty blues”; listeners whose previous exposure to blues-related music has been white R&B or “cactus crunch” bands (ZZ Top, et al) will find everything they love right here, plus a musical celebration of tradition that the copiers can only affect. Influences go both ways, however, and on this tune there seems an unmistakable echo of the Doors’ “Love Me Two Times” in both Weld’s rhythm work and Ed’s growling vocals. Perhaps Ed’s relative youth–he’s only 32–contributes to the feeling; maybe the warm spring has made me uncharacteristically nostalgic for the Summer of Love; but listening to some of these cuts I hear distinct echoes of prepsychedelia. Or perhaps it simply demonstrates again how ingrained the blues vocabulary is in our musical lexicon, so deeply that even self-styled aficionados like me sometimes take it for granted. The exultant release, the erotic liberation, personified by the garage bands after all was borrowed directly from blues artists like Lil’ Ed; he returns it to its roots here.
The most rock-oriented cut on the album is “Pride and Joy,” the first cut of -the second side. The boogying rhythm section feels heavier here, and both Ed and Dave Weld express musical ideas that seem to be fueled by images more exotic than whiskey and women, the traditional blues intoxicants. More than anything else on the LP, this is young men I ‘s music, another reason it brings to mind the adolescent world of rock rather than the traditionally working-class adult domain of the blues.
Ed returns to the unembellished blues with a vengeance on “You Don’t Exist Any More,” a great title and typically unpretentious. The music follows suit, with a shuffling boogie beat and a slide solo that sounds as if Ed is determined to transcend the blues tradition, shooting off in new directions as he retains the blues feel. The lyrics are tough–“I’ll put you six feet in the ground”–and the entire effort fuses the two classic poles of blues macho–tough-talking revelry and a lurking threat of violence–into one rollicking mix. Listening to this music it’s hard to remember that Lil’ Ed is, indeed, little; he’s a small-statured man with a shy smile and an almost self-effacing gentleness offstage. You’d never know it, though, from the roaring intensity of his vocals and the sinewy power of his guitar leads.
The cut that will probably be both Ed’s most requested and most controversial is the fourth on the second side, “Car Wash Blues.” Listening to it, one can taste the deep-fried catfish and smell the wine, beer, and whiskey in the air at the Delta Fish Market at Jackson and Kedzie, where bluesmen play on summer weekends. The Market’s also adjacent to the Red Carpet Car Wash, Ed’s erstwhile place of employment. Ed’s slide work is, in at least one way, mature beyond his years: unlike most young musicians, enamored of speed and technique, Ed has an uncanny, apparently instinctive feel for playing the right notes and only the right notes, letting his phrasing and his tone, which cut into you like the jagged edge of broken glass, convey intense emotional commitment.
“Car Wash Blues” tells eloquently of being stuck in a dead-end job with its exhausting, uncertain schedule and killing monotony. It starts off eloquently–“Up and down through the night/I can’t get no rest”–and spins a story that all who have worked varied shifts can relate to: “Sometimes I wake up early,/Other times, Lord, I wake up late./My friends and associates/Don’t have but a few minutes to wait.” It’s later on in the song that Ed throws off the verse that’s already caused some comment–“Well you know my boss, I tell everybody/He’s a mean old Jew.” According to producer Iglauer, some of the people hiring Ed have specifically requested he not sing this is verse. (My advice to Iglauer would be to persuade his artist to modify the lyric to “mean old dude” and sing it anyway.) It’s a wonderful song, laced with anger as well as classic blues irony, and it showcases Ed’s ability both as musician and as chronicler of a particular time and place.
Like the best traditional blues bands, Lil’ Ed and the Blues Imperials achieve a remarkable variety of shadings within their somewhat limited range of musical expression. There is a rock influence here, exemplified by Weld’s high-energy breaks and the apparently unconscious musical deference to the shamanistic spirit of Morrison and his contemporaries (on “Walkin’ the Dog,” Weld sounds like a combination of Albert King and early Jorma Kaukonen). But it sometimes seems in mortal combat with the blues that sired it. The confrontation between blues tradition and the lure of rock stylings is almost physical: the blues seems to grapple ferociously with its errant prodigy, and finally brings it into screaming, howling submission. This tension between the embellishments and high energy of rock and the west-side unpretentiousness of Ed’s blues roots provides the album with much of its emotional charge. It’s a blend that all too often satisfies fans of neither style, but this time everybody wins. As Muddy sang, echoing Brownie McGhee, “the blues got soul.”
If Lil’ Ed and the Blues Imperials convey the feeling of an exuberant clash between traditional and contemporary styles, Ed’s fellow west-sider Johnny B. Moore, despite his youth, sometimes comes off like a living encyclopedia of over 40 years of blues tradition. Moore cut his musical teeth in west-side clubs like the Domino Lounge, at Western and Roosevelt, taking time off for a road stint with Koko Taylor, and of all the young blues musicians he’s easily the best versed in the nuances of his musical heritage. His landlady, Letha Jones, is both the widow of legendary pianist Johnnie Jones and famous in her -own right as a gracious hostess and supporter of both the blues and the musicians who play it; Moore has obviously spent hours poring over Letha Jones’s stacks of 78s, featuring everything from sides of her late husband with Tampa Red to jazz classics by Jay McShann.
As remarkable as Moore’s love and understanding of tradition is his enthusiasm for contemporary styles. His first album under his own name, Hard Times, takes the listener through an almost jarring array of genres, starting with the title tune, with its loping funk, and reaching back to some postwar influences as well as forward to sophisticated, danceable disco. Actually, “Hard Times” might not have been the best choice for an opening cut. Although Moore’s guitar immediately proclaims a melodic imagination well beyond his 31 years and his unique way with a phrase, the tune’s overall effect is somewhat depressing; it drags. Much better would have been to open with the cut that follows, “Fast Talkin’ Fannie.” Funky and light, “Fanny” is a breezy, contemporary blues, enhanced by Moore’s graceful, musically imaginative solos. The only drawback is a certain emptiness of production: the fleet, slick approach of Moore’s leads demands a higher energy backing than he receives on parts of this album, just as the imaginative lyrics of “Hard Times”–“She took my dog and she took my cat,/Didn’t leave nothing in the house,/Nothing but the rats”–seem to ask for an angrier, more declamatory setting than Moore is given here.
On the other hand, that sparseness is entirely appropriate for Moore’s two country-blues romps, Sleepy John Estes’s “Liquor Store Blues” and Tampa Red’s “Don’t Blame Shorty.” The Estes tune owes much stylistically to Jimmy Rogers’s 1948 updating of the theme, retitled “Little Store Blues” for the Ora-Nelle label in Chicago. Moore’s solos show the influence not only of Rogers but of Tampa Red, Elmore James, and even Chet Atkins, as he picks a combination of blues and country patterns beneath his good-natured rendition of Estes’s homespun tale of a local proprietress and her colorful array of customers. Likewise “Don’t Blame Shorty” is both true to the 1950 original and imbued with Moore’s distinctive musical personality. Tampa’s songs were a combination of novelty tunes, vaudeville-influenced double-entendre entertainment, and a wily sense of rulebreaking fun that gave them much of their blues feeling. Moore incorporates all of these elements here, even though pianist Carl Snyder sounds precious little like Johnnie Jones and the overall backup seems uncomfortably modern. Moore doesn’t really play like Tampa, either–nor should he try–but his swinging leads are solidly in the hokum tradition that gave rise to the music of Tampa and his contemporaries on the Bluebird label. Moore brings Tampa Red’s tune to life with enthusiasm and infectious glee.
As abruptly as Johnny B. Moore takes you into the past, he yanks you back into the present. “Groove Thing,” as its title indicates, is up-tempo funk, which will doubtless annoy some purists but provides a perfect opportunity for Moore’s guitar work. His playing here is among the finest on the album–whatever one might think of the style of the music–and as sophisticated and contemporary in its harmonic and melodic structure as his treatment of Estes’s and Tampa Red’s classics is true to the blues tradition.
“In the Closet” brings Moore back to the blues, this time more in the B.B. King/Albert King vein with its string-bending and meticulous phrasing. The lyrics are good–“Just like you do an old coat/You put my love in the closet, too” and although the band’s backing is somewhat less imaginative than either Moore’s words or his playing, the overall result is soulful and musically satisfying.
For some reason, the second side of Hard Times seems better produced than the first. “Whiskey Drinkin’ Woman,” based loosely on Sonny Boy Williamson’s theme but really Johnny B. Moore’s own number, is a lurching, minor-key shuffle that manages to build up somewhat more musical tension than some of the other cuts, which simply lay a foundation for Moore’s flights of dexterity. Moore’s singing and narration here also have more emotional depth, as if he were beginning to loosen up a little during this, his first session as a bandleader.
Moore leaps confidently into his most challenging number, the gently driving soul ballad “Just Like That.” Again, he handles yet another musical style with unfailing accuracy–is there anything this guy can’t play?–but it’s questionable whether his voice is best suited to this kind of material. Moore sounds less than convincing when he murmurs, almost matter-of-factly, “Somebody wake me from this nightmare” (especially in the wake of Otis Clay’s epochal “I’m Gonna Hate Myself in the Morning,” released on the same label just last year and dealing with the same theme). Moore seems to lack the rich timbre needed to do justice to this kind of song. Still, it’s an education to hear him combine soul chords with his blues-funk leads, in fact, one interesting common denominator throughout the album is Moore’s tendency to play in the busy style of traditional West-side blues–leads interspersed with chords, as if the lead guitarist were doubling as his own rhythm section. Some habits are hard to break.
More successful is “Confusion,” featuring excellent slide work by Moore, who sounds more at home both musically and vocally in this setting. A solid blues performance in the west-side tradition, this song combines no-nonsense music with lyrics focusing on the day-to-day struggles that give rise to the blues. Again, the production could have been punchier; it makes one realize how expert the Alligator folks have become in capturing on wax the earthy spontaneity of artists like Lil’ Ed. Obviously, recording the “authentic,” unembellished sound is more difficult than one might think.
In the two final cuts of the album Moore again dips into a more modern bag. “Sacrifice,” for instance, is the kind of number that will probably most endear Moore to most listeners, especially those who catch him live. On record, though, he’ll have to find a ballsier backup and fuller production. There’s no doubt Moore comports himself well here–his leads and his intermittent chording propel the song with energy and verve, borrowing from Little Wille John’s “Fever” and demonstrating, again, the melodic richness of Moore’s imagination. Still, the number ends up sounding vaguely incomplete, as if somebody forgot to add a backing track, or work out a satisfying ending. Likewise “Troubled World,” a bit of social commentary set to an urban, funky beat, will make no one forget Gil Scott-Heron. At the same time, it’s encouraging that another young songwriter is taking on topics outside the usual province of contemporary blues. It may not have been the best choice for a closing cut–I’d have preferred going out with either a bang or a loving whisper, and this song falls maddeningly in between–but it serves well as a signpost for the future of Johnny B. Moore’s development.
Moore’s imagination and talents are so varied that it will be increasingly difficult to contain him within one musical framework as he evolves. He almost demands several different bands–his current west-side aggregation (or maybe Lil’ Ed’s men when Ed isn’t using them), a funk band with a strong soul vocalist to take some of the burden off Moore, and a collection of traditional blues aficionados with a rhythmic and harmonic feel for blues of the late 40s and early 50s. Here is a protean talent of almost unlimited potential who’s given us a tantalizing glimpse of the yet-to-come in this uneven but enjoyable first record. Producing Johnny B. must be daunting, but in a way that must be a relief to most A&R men: he has too much talent and imagination rather than too little. All Moore needs now is the experience and support to help him find the perfect expression for them.