Dirty Rags to Filthy Riches 

Car-wash buffer makes a clean break for the Chicago blues.

If the owner of Chicago's old Red Carpet Car Wash hadn't given Lil' Ed Williams some time off from work, Lil' Ed & the Blues Imperials wouldn't be making "contagious wildness" in blues clubs throughout the U.S. and Europe. At least that's how Williams, the quartet's founder, feels about his 1986 half-year sabbatical from buffing and waxing, taken just to chase his bluesman dreams. "He told me to give it six months. If I didn't like it, I could come back, and I still gotta job. That's what made me leave. I had the security," says Williams, whose group stops in Cleveland for tonight's jam session at Fat Fish Blue. "Even after six months, I still went back, worked every once in a while and did a couple cars." Twenty years later, Williams and his quartet are still playing most weekends. And last year, they recorded their latest CD, the 13-track Rattleshake, full of smoking slide-guitar runs and rawboned Chicago shuffles. The album made such an impression on the judges at the annual Blues Music Awards in Memphis that they named the Imperials the country's best blues band for 2007. The foursome will defend the title in May. "I feel like I'm playing better and learning a lot more," says Williams. "As you grow, you tend to feel the music more, and it just gets better and better."Williams gives props to his late uncle for inspiring him. Until his death in 1983, J.B. Hutto ruled Chicago's blues scene. On the side, he tutored Williams and his younger brother Pookie on the finer points of blues; then in 1975, the siblings founded the Imperials. With his uncle's blessing, Williams spent the next decade juggling the car-wash job with a string of gigs around Chicago. "It's hard to duplicate a musician's feel, but I still play a lot of J.B.'s stuff. He told me years ago — right before he passed — that it's a good thing that I'm keeping his tradition alive," says Williams. "The greatest thing he ever said to me was to keep his legacy going, but to always be myself." The Imperials go onstage at 9 tonight at Fat Fish Blue, 21 Prospect Avenue East. Tickets are $10. Call 216-875-6000 or visit www.fatfishblue.com.
Fri., Feb. 8, 9 p.m., 2008

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