The legend of Root Boy Slim
The crazy life and untimely death of a larger-than-life blues enigma
Published: May 7, 2014
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.
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