The legend of Root Boy Slim

The crazy life and untimely death of a larger-than-life blues enigma

“You wouldn’t believe how many times I got laid because of Root Boy Slim,” Al Hewgley says with a slight chuckle. Hewgley, a musician who lives in Rockledge, Fla., was a longtime fan of Root Boy Slim, the enigmatic blues musician who was once described by Rolling Stone as “the hippest thing to happen to Washington [D.C.] since Nixon resigned.” He befriended Slim after acing a 1990 audition to play bass in Slim’s band, and he was also the late singer’s landlord at his final residence in Orlando. “Girls would find out, ‘Oh, you know Root?’ … and then one thing would lead to another. Yeah, it was wild.”

Residual sex as a result of being in the orbit of an unlikely rock star isn’t necessarily surprising, but it does seem odd when you consider Root Boy Slim, the perpetually overweight and terminally haggard late bluesman. Slim, who originally hailed from Asheville, N.C., but ended up moving to Orlando in 1993, wasn’t exactly a matinee idol. In fact, he was often mistaken for a retired pro wrestler (so much so that the singer eventually began telling people he had once been a wrestler). His music – boozy, brash blues capped with risible lyrics conveying total loserdom, delivered via Slim’s two-pack-a-day vocals – wasn’t the type to inspire raw lust, either. His song titles, which include “My Wig Fell Off,” “Heartbreak of Psoriasis,” “Dozin’ & Droolin’” and “Inflatable Doll,” didn’t exactly suggest a Bowie-like god.

In fact, people were often caught off guard by the number of female fans who turned up to see the self-proclaimed Duke of Puke in action. Hewgley distinctly remembers the first time he saw Slim play, when the singer and his Sex Change Band opened for the Ramones and the Runaways at Orlando’s Great Southern Music Hall on March 2, 1978.

“I got there and there were all these good-lookin’ girls in Root Boy shirts,” he says. “I thought, ‘What the heck is that about?’ Then Root came out, and I was blown away. He was wearing a devil costume and stalking around the stage. … It was great, and the band was amazing, too.”

His songs – funny, relatable slices of self-deprecation with hot, Southern-fried licks to boot – helped Slim prove Freaks and Geeks’ Harris Trinsky’s adage: Get a woman laughing and you’ll get a woman loving.

Of course, Root Boy Slim was not every woman’s cup of tea.

“Backstage after the show, Root was trying to pick up [Runaways guitarist] Joan Jett,” Hewgley remembers, “and man, she just wanted nothing to do with him.”

Root Boy Slim entered the world July 9, 1945, as Foster MacKenzie III, a name befitting his tony Asheville, N.C., surroundings. The MacKenzies soon moved their firstborn to the D.C. suburbs, and it quickly became clear that their son (Kenny, as they called him) was a sharp, intuitive child. He also had a dangerously wild streak, which is probably why he bounced around so many of the area’s prestigious prep schools. Somehow, Slim managed to wrangle a scholarship to Yale, but academia wasn’t in his heart. As a result, he spent more time hunched over a pool table in New Haven than he did in class.

It was at Yale that Slim first encountered one of the linchpin figures of his musical career: his fraternity brother in Delta Kappa Epsilon, the late Bob Greenlee. Greenlee eventually founded the legendary Sanford-based King Snake Records, known for its dedication to Florida blues music. Greenlee and MacKenzie became collaborators, and they formed an outrageous musical act called Young Prince La La, Percy Uptight and the Midnight Creepers. They gained infamy on campus for their tight-fitting outfits and alcohol-fueled debauchery. Historical note: One Delta Kappa Epsilon who didn’t get – or like – the Creepers was George W. Bush; legend posits that Bush and Slim once got into it over some pot. On a visit to the DKE house following his graduation, Slim, who’d earned a degree in American Studies and Black History, sparked up a fattie on the front porch. Bush, exercising his powers as fraternity president, had him removed from the premises.

Root Boy Slim fans know this is not the only time their chubby hero tussled with the highest office in the land. In 1969, while driving an ice cream truck around Washington, D.C., Slim ingested the correct amount of LSD required to inspire him to jump the main fence at the White House. He was apprehended while traversing Richard Nixon’s lawn and later told authorities he was searching for the center of the universe. Slim would eventually brag that he was the first person to make it over the White House fence since the War of 1812, when the British stormed and set fire to President James Madison’s residence, but that’s not entirely accurate. In 1912, Michael Winter made it up to the front door, insisting he had personal business with President Taft. But Root Boy Slim certainly appears to be the first successful post-JFK White House invader, and should be praised for managing such without eating hot lead.

Treatment following the White House incident revealed that Slim had more than a mere “wild side” – doctors diagnosed him with schizophrenia, a disorder that required treatment for the rest of his life. Once a month he would get a shot of the anti-psychotic Prolixin to keep his demons at bay. Since he never really lived a 9-to-5 life, Slim would often miss a dose, and that (coupled with party-related chemical ingestion that could turn him from an astute scholar into a blithering idiot) begat several tales that are now part of his mythos: a stolen street sweeper in Atlanta, a stint at attempting to direct traffic (seated, from the middle of the road) in Jamaica. Friends and family may have wrung their hands over these episodes, but the trouble he got into was never malicious. Despite his problems, they knew their Root Boy Slim was, at heart, a good boy.

“He was a very social person,” remembers California resident Duane Straub, head of the Root Boy Slim fan club. “He would take out this phone book, open it up and say, ‘Duane, I’m dialin’ around the world.’ And he would just call people. He really was the same person on and off the stage.”

The character of Root Boy Slim may have been ridiculous – an over-drugged barfly whose clothes barely fit and whose hair was greasier than McDonald’s – but his backing band was no joke. In assembling the Sex Change Band, Slim pulled together a musical murderer’s row, including saxophone great Ron Holloway, Miles Davis keyboard player Winston Kelly, Joe Cocker/Dave Mason percussionist Felix Falcon and melodically gifted blues guitarist Ernie “Sex Ray” Lancaster (who wrote most of Slim’s music with Bob Greenlee). Tongues wagged when this crew effortlessly tossed off sweaty flophouse anthems like “Boogie ’Til You Puke” and “Mood Ring,” so perhaps it was no real shock when Warner Bros. signed the band and released a 1978 self-titled debut. Root Boy Slim and the Sex Change Band With the Rootettes was released the same day as the first Van Halen album; both Warner Bros. and American music fans threw their support behind the latter.

Still, Root Boy Slim found his audience, and he developed a cult following. He recorded and released five more albums between 1979 and 1991, and that audience ate up everything – from the Sabbathy menace of “Liquor Store Holdup in Space” (Dog Secrets, 1983) to the semi-serious porno-jazz of “It’s Only Murder” (Don’t Let This Happen to You, 1986). Though Slim lived in D.C., he stole down to Florida every chance he got to enjoy the warmth and more relaxed atmosphere he found in the Orlando area. He would bounce between Greenlee’s King Snake Records headquarters in Sanford and Sex Change Band guitarist Ernie Lancaster’s home in Mount Dora, often spending his nights carousing in Daytona Beach. In February 1993, Slim finally moved to Florida permanently, taking up residence with Hewgley (who, by then, had auditioned for and been accepted into Slim’s band) in his Orlando home on Oberlin Avenue in College Park.

“I was a golf course superintendent at the time,” Hewgley says. “I think I was the most normal person he knew.” He says that part of Slim’s motivation in moving was to get away from bad influences – there was too much “cocaine bullshit” in D.C., and he didn’t want that bullshit to interfere with his next project. Steely Dan producer Gary Katz, who had worked on the Sex Change Band’s debut, had been in touch about doing another album. Slim was also formulating plans for an acoustic effort with Hewgley, and he wanted to release an album of poetry. He was determined to be clean.

“He was really excited to get healthy for it. He’d ride my bicycle to the store,” Hewgley recalls with a laugh. “Of course, he was riding it to go buy beer, but still, it was better than driving.”

But even while trying to get his life in order, Slim could be wildly unpredictable – enough so that his mother, Eugenia, wrote checks for her son in Hewgley’s name and made sure they were sent directly to him. Even while cleaning up his act, Slim maintained his reign at a club called the Junk Yard, a hopping blues joint at the corner of Semoran Boulevard and Howell Branch Road in Casselberry, where the Duke of Puke could wrangle free drinks and food – and where he even spurned a few girls badly enough that they wrote about him on the bathroom walls. It was at the Junk Yard on June 3, 1993, that Root played a show with some of the original members of the Sex Change Band, some of whom hadn’t played with him in years. Though nobody knew it at the time, it would be the band’s final show. When it was over, a fan from Miami approached the singer.

“[This fan] took Root Boy back to Miami for a coke binge,” Hewgley says. “Root took everyone’s money with him. The band didn’t get paid that night.”

A few days later Slim returned to Orlando and Hewgley picked him up at the bus station. Hewgley says Slim “looked baaaaad,” as if he hadn’t slept at all. Hewgley had seen Slim like this plenty of times before, though, so he wasn’t overly concerned.

Today, though, Hewgley says he isn’t sure if maybe he saw Slim’s death later that night coming.

“I’ll say this,” he says when asked about it. “Three months prior to [Slim’s death], Alex Taylor [blues musician and brother of singer James Taylor] was living on the couch at King Snake, and he died there. So when Root Boy came to my house, in the back of my mind I thought, ‘Anything is possible.’”

In the early morning hours of Tuesday, June 8, 1993, Slim suffered a fatal heart attack while sleeping on Hewgley’s couch. The trip to Miami had been one binge too many for a body just one month short of its 48th birthday. At the time, Hewgley told the Orlando Sentinel that perhaps it was fitting that Slim passed here, for the singer had said he “never wanted to leave Florida again.”

“Root Boy’s death was a complete surprise,” says Duane Straub. To this day, you can still hear the disbelief in his voice. Despite Hewgley’s premonition that Slim’s hard

living might catch up with him, Straub says the musician had survived plenty of benders in the past. “Sure, he wasn’t the healthiest guy – he really did smoke two packs of cigarettes a day and probably drank a 12-pack of Busch Light a day as well, but, y’know, he surely weighed 275 pounds. I’d seen him drink 15 mugs of beer and take some Valium [and] all he got was a headache.”

Root Boy Slim was buried at the Calvary Episcopal Church Cemetery just a few miles south of Asheville, N.C., next to his father, Foster MacKenzie Jr., who died in 1970 at a similar age as a result of similar conditions. Although Slim had proven to be a difficult son at times, it was clear his family loved him dearly. Hewgley remembers visiting with Slim’s mother at her home after the funeral and looking at an endless array of Root Boy Slim photos depicting the singer at various stages of his life. There were even one or two Sex Change Band promo shots on his mother’s wall.

Root Boy Slim never became a major rock star. His career ran parallel to the New Wave movement, but his oddball blues sound never had much chance of hooking the mainstream. He wasn’t bizarre enough to compete with the other extreme acts of his day, like John Lydon or Lux Interior. But to his fans, his artistic mark feels just as strong as that of the Sex Pistols or the Cramps. Nobody else could do what Root Boy Slim did. Nobody could turn a phrase or a wet hacking cough like Slim, and his gravelly slur is unforgettable. It’s his attitude, though, that made the biggest impression. As a singer he sounded like he had both feet in the grave, but he refused to let up, apologize or really care that he might drop dead on you.

“He knew a lot of people found him repulsive,” noted Sex Change saxophonist Ron Holloway after Slim died. “And he took great pleasure in that.”

On Nov. 7, 1991, Root Boy Slim and some friends were in the studio working on some new material when the news broke that basketball legend Magic Johnson was HIV-positive. For the remainder of the session, Slim’s band begged him to write a song about Magic Johnson’s HIV crisis. The singer refused, but his pals were relentless. Finally, he broke down.

“Gimme that harmonica!” he hollered. He started honking and spitting out lyrics. The results destroyed the room.

“It was incredible,” remembers Hewgley. “That song was funny as hell, but also touching. Probably more funny than touching. We wanted to do it again the next day, but Root couldn’t remember it. Or he said he couldn’t remember it. But that’s what the guy was like. I hope all the stuff he recorded that remains unreleased comes out, because it’s all amazing. Just like the Magic Johnson song.”

A Root Boy Slim discography

“Xmas at K-Mart” 7-inch (1978)
A throbbing, spacey description of the holiday scene in retail hell. Probably the best Christmas song ever written; definitely the most American Christmas song ever written.

Root Boy Slim and the Sex Change Band With the Rootettes (1978)
The squalid, dirty and bleary-eyed debut full-length. Slim doesn’t get through the first tune without coughing his brains up, and you love him for it. Yes, there is an entire song about his mood ring.

“Meltdown” 7-inch (1979)
Root’s Three Mile Island anthem. Quoth Slim: “You gotta have some chump on the safety pump!”

Zoom (1979)
Just enough polish to really shine. Contains the live favorite “Do the Gator,” the unabashedly pro-pot “Ignite It” and the unabashedly pro-chub “Dare to Be Fat.” As far as party records go, you can’t do much better.

Dog Secrets (1983)
Root experiments with ska and New Wave elements, giving us lots of frenetic fun. He also turns in one of his most heartfelt vocal performances on rubbery love ode “Inflatable Doll.”

Don’t Let This Happen to You (1986)
Softer, almost haunting, but still undeniably Root (see “When You Date the Undead,” “I Fell Down”).

Left for Dead (1987)
The “spontaneous live blues” album recorded in one take in 1979. CD reissue includes the very 1979-specific track “The Shah Is Gone.”

Root 6 (1991)
Root’s weakest is still a hot jam, especially when he declares he wants “Sex With a Capital X.”

The best of Root Boy Slim on YouTube

“Live for Tonight” (1979)
Slim takes a stab at disco and incapacitates it.

“Bus Station Blues” (1979)
Anyone who’s taken Greyhound can relate.

“Pizza Hut Woman” (1982)
Root’s searing tribute to a 40-something fast-food employee.

“Rhythm Pill” (1982)
Jittery honker that probably would have been a chart-topper had Gary Numan adapted it.

“Assholes From Nashville” (1990)
A sendup of defensive anti-Yankee country songs. “Well, they say that we’re here in Nashville, bunch of assholes, and they should turn the Opry into a pay toilet …”


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