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