|Joe Lee is a life long resident of the DC area and owner of one of the best music stores on the
east cost. In this interview Joe talks about todays music, Root Boy Slim, and the DC Sound
|J. When I was young, I’d wake up to the sound of birds, Kids today, when they get up all they hear
are car motors, doors slamming - basically electronic noise.
So thus what we get to day is all this electronica stuff.
It is a reflection of the environment. It was a lot more quiet in my day, It ain't no mo’, its gone.
M. Television has created this voyeuristic environment. The give and take between audience and
musician does not exist any more.
J. Yea but there is so much bad acting you just tune out the humans whether they are on the tube
or not. You get tired of it You move on to the people selling you stuff over the phone, calling you
incessantly and all that. You’re tuning out more than anything else.
M. Yes that is true.
J. So you use to hang out wit the root, eh.
M. Oh yea. Yea
J. Yes, I sort went from doing that to tuning out from that, then they’d call me back. I was sort like
a yo-yo with him because he was always the man of many moods.
If he’d piss me off, off I would go. You know how it is with all Artists, if things go wrong it’s the
management’s fault, if things go right they did it all themselves. I got a belly full of that one.
M. Well he was defiantly a man of many moods.
J. Well he was nuts. He was a Paranoid schizophrenic to the enth degree. I mean he did jump
over the white house fence back in ‘69 I think he had a bible in his hand and he was dressed in
black. The secrete service attacked him. They said, “ What are you doing” he said, “I’m looking
for the center of the earth”. I think he was.
M. wasn't that when they put him on thorizine?
J. Yea they put him in St E’s
(At this time the weather takes a change for the schizophrenic maybe Joe had evoked the spirit of
J. Look out there it’s raining and the sun is shinning. I’ll be darned. Strange weather.
So how did you meet the Root?
M. I lived in Takoma Park.
J. Oh lord have mercy.
M. Yea we where neighbors
J. Was this when he was living above Maggie’s Farm?
M. You know I don’t actually know where he was living at that time.
It was ‘77 the first time I met him he was playing in the back room of the varsity grill. He was
wearing the tablecloths by the time the show was over.
J. That was a rough gig I use to have to do the door. In college park, with all that PCP and that
stuff. I had to hit some guy, a football player over the head with a beer bottle. He attacked our
sound man. The sound man weighed about 100 lbs, and this guy was a line backer. He kept
pushing the sound man around, so they came and got me. And the guy attacked me. So I hit him.
Cut the crap out of my hand. That was the Varsity Grill. Old Man Zigler owned that place, and his
son was the weirdest guy in the world. They were up to no good at all.
M. That doesn't surprise me.
J. Well the first thing they did when they bought the place is they burned it down. They did, Honest
M. I remember the root boy show. By the end, the floor was covered with beer, everything that had
been on the tables was on the floor and of course Root Boy was wearing nothing but the
J. Well the Ziglers didn’t give a crap, believe me. I think they came in there late at night and
hosed the place down. You know, left it at that. That was back when Stuart Smith was playing
rhythm guitar, he is with the Eagles now. Touring with the Eagles, how about that.
M. That’s something.
J. Yea it’s odd where some of these people ended up. Ron Holloway played with Dizzy Gillespie
in his last Quartet, and also he played with Gill Scott Herron. One of the drummers ended up
with Danny Gatton. Pretty good alumni there. Of course he went through every good musician in
M. It was his personality, he was able to let people really be who they were. And express
themselves with out trying to put constraints on that.
J. Most of the musicians - after the initial first group disbanded and went down to Florida or what
ever - were making good money, and if the local musicians, sidemen, saw that,
Then they all wanted in on the money. The root boy thing had define itself to a point where they
pretty knew what they had to do. There were certain things,
We had a bass player, Scott Ambush, a little black guy, who was showing up in three-piece suits.
I had to pull him aside and say,” you know, look, no preppies. He ended up with that group on
MCA, a Jazz group, not wavy gravy,
(Scott Ambush is the bass player for Spyro Gyra, and has played with Stanley Turentine Dizzy
Gillespie, Omar Hakim and Special EFX He has backed R&B vocalists Angela Bofil and Jeane
Carne as well as R&B Jazz Instrumentalists Pieces Of A Dream and George Howard)
But something likes that. The group is huge. They make about 25 grand a gig. So I guess it’s a
good thing he left you know. He was a hell of a bass player but a 3-piece suite, I mean come on.
M. yea, back then that was not cool. The last time I saw Root Boy was in the seven eleven on
Fenton Street in Silver Spring. Right after one of his last Hospital stays.
J. He had the orange hair? After the notorious affair in Florida where he jumped up on a
bulldozer and drove it in a municipal building?
M. I didn’t hear about that.
J. He did that and he went for another stay in a mental institution. He uses to tell us about these
menus for all the mental institutions up and down the east coast. He could tell you what was
served in each one. How’s that. I don’t know what that kind of knowledge will do for you, but I
guess it served him well.
M. Well If he’s in there, at lest he knows what kind of food he’s gonna have.
J. You know a lot of guys who were in the group have died.Bob Greenley Died I guess a year
ago, Winston died the year before, Kathy Russell died, she was one of the original Rootetts, one
of base players died, I guess when you go through every good musician in DC and Florida you
are going to have that kind of an attrition rate. I guess its not surprising. I’m still around (he
knocks on the table)
M. I know, but it is such a rough life style.
J. It doesn’t have to be. Well if you are a coke hound and Root boy was the worst. One of the last
times we kind of went our different ways, he’d come bounding into the record store said” I want
my royalty payments for “Christmas at Kmart” the single I’d put out.
I said, “Well sure, fair enough. But you know you were suppose to pay me 10% of what ever
Warner Brother contract yielded (40 thousand dollars) not to put out a second album. Whets 10%
He said” Well that is something completely different. We’ll talk about that latter you ‘v gotta pay
me for this thing first”. I said “ I don’t see a reason for that”. He was furious. He went all over town
saying Joe Lee is a cheater and all this sort of stuff. So it was defiantly up and down with the guy.
M. Well the kind of relationship you had with him. You were kind of his keeper in a lot of ways.
J. He would come down to the Tacoma park store and sit in the big green chair every day and
hold court. Which was fine with me except he’d say about every five minutes “ lets go get some
coke” or If some one would come in the door he’d say “are you holding” It was fun for some, for
others it didn’t exactly go over well.
M. I remember his apartment that was close to your store
J. Right up the block, that up the stairs thing? He uses to share an apartment with Butch Willis.
You know about Butch?
J. Ok. Butch Just called me last week. He is in a group home out in Clarksburg. And I’m getting
him a cassette player so he can record himself to do more songs.
M. Oh no.
J. You know the guy has 5 CD’s out not stuff that he put out himself, Teen Beat, they had a big
reunion last week or the week before They are based out of Mass. now. And they put out at least
3 or 4 CD’s on him now and I bet Slim is rolling in his grave because always Buch told him in his
own addled way “I ‘m gonna be a bigger star ‘en you some day” Slim said, “Yaw sure right Ha
ha ha “
Slim had one CD.
Rout 6. Well I guess the first album is out on CD now too.
Dickey Bangham has said for the last 15 years that he’s gonna put out a best of, it just is not
happening, and that’s too bad.
M. It really is a Shame. But I think its part of the whole thing with DC music it’s just not given the
credibility or respect, sort of like people stop hear on their way to success.
J. We're fairly close to New York. So we are to New York what San Diego is to LA.
M. Yea but Philadelphia is close to New York too.
J. We are too diverse hear. (In Philly)They are know for jazz organ players like Jimmy Smith ,and
Jimmy McGriff, and Doo Wop soul singers - you know the Philly soul sound.
M. Yea, unless you want too include those Italian manufactured rock and roll singers from the
50's in there.
J. That was just Dick Clark cashing in, that’s all that was.
That reminds me of one of the funniest things Slim Ever Did. We were sitting there doing the first
take on “House Band in Hell” Slim said “ we got Jimi Hendrix” and Ernie would do a Hendrix lick.
“ We got John Bonham” - and they went in to the song, and as the music ends he says “and
were waiting for Dick Clark”. I thought that was just fabulous, because that’s were he’s going, I’
ll tell you, for Fabian alone.
M, as somebody who grew up in this area, I really feel that we have a definitive Sound. So many
people have come through hear and left their mark.
J. The DC sound. That’s hard to figure. Because there’s a strong Hill Billy edge to it. There is
defiantly Hill Billy music involved there. And as far as county, bluegrass music goes, DC was as
big as Nashville back in the 40’s and 50’s. This is where Connie B. Gay started the business of
M. A big thing with the music in DC is the Guitar sound.
J. The thing with the Guitar sound. That has a lot of country and Hill Billy music in it.
M. The Hill Billy and the blues influence are equally as strong.
J. Well that’s Rock a Billy. That’s Roy Clark, Roy Buchanan, Danny Gatton and a certain amount
of Link Ray Also. Link came out of the Carolinas. He was in a country group. It wasn’t till he
came up hear that he really did that hard charging sound of his.
What do you maintain is the Washington DC sound?
M. I agree with all the things you are saying. It was a combination of Hill Billy, the blues – I don’t
know if it was because musicians had to be able to play every thing in order to get jobs or
because of social circumstances.
J. Some of it is because of the diversity you heard on the radio. We always had better radio than
anywhere on earth. We had jazz, blues, country, soul, bluegrass, rock and roll –we had every
thing. We had it better than New York. New York was 10 times bigger than us population wise,
and we had better radio. We had all the embassies, which brought diversity and all the
influences with it, and the federal government, which drew people, hear from all over the country.
We would not have had the Country music Bluegrass scene had it not been for all the people
coming out of Appalachia etc after the war or even during the war for the government jobs. The
Government jobs also provided them with money, which let them go out and see live music and
spend the money. That made the whole scene flourish. So Government money had a lot to do
with the whole thing.
M. Yea, yea I think you are right.
J. They always had music in Appalachia but a performance place would be a schoolhouse. And
that was once in a blue moon. Usually it just a bunch of people playing on a back porch, or a
parlor something like that, but hear, in the 1940’s and 1950’s along the Prince Georges county
DC line it was all blue collar white. There were at least 2 clubs per block, so the music flourished.
We had it on TV too. In the 50’s we had the music shows. Jimmy Dean of course, Buzz Busby
had a little TV show. Reno and Harrell.
M. Buzz Busby. He’s another character, tragic self-defeating.
J. The same way as Slim. Well Buzz was from Louisiana. He had a whole lot of soul. If you listen
to that voice. It’s so great. And he would pound the Mandolin. Literally beat the crap out of the
thing. Had he been born 20 years latter, playing electric guitar He would have been unbeatable.
. He would have been like Hendrix. He probably had a better more soulful voice than Hendrix, but
he had all the chops too.
I’m surprised you know about Buzz Busby.
M. Oh yea, well I grew up hear. My older brothers were in to Rock a Billy in the 50’s, they listened
to a lot of country, and black music, like jimmy Reed, Ray Charles, on the radio. My one brother
had his Sears Silver tone guitar; He'd watch Link Ray on the Milt Grant show and play along.
J. My Parents hired Vernon Taylor, a local Rock a Billy guy who was on the sun label, the dot
label, in 1954, and they played a party at our house. We had a party for the foreign exchange
students in the area. Vernie came out and jitterbugged like crazy. I had this little Davie crocket hat
on, I was 7 years old, I kept bugging him “would you play Davy Crocket”? They were never gonna
play that. This was a rock and roll group that had an electric guitar, an acoustic guitar and a tenor
banjo. And that was rock and roll at that point. Having heard that at 7 years old and watching the
kids dance and go crazy. Your addicted.
M. yea I know it was like that for me too.
J. Well you saw your brother playing that stuff, and what ever.
M Exactly. That was it as far as I was concerned.
|Close up of the Root Boy
Alter in Joe's Store
|Joe Lee of Joe's Record