Freddie Cunningham and Root Doctor launch one last summer of soul

‘Soul Shine’ and sunshine

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Around 8:30 p.m. last Friday, the setting sun beamed straight into singer Freddie Cunningham’s eyes.

In a pinstriped shirt and gray fedora, the veteran frontman of Lansing’s Root Doctor blues band was etched in black and white on a hazy wash of blue sky and green grass. The rustic planks of Laingsburg’s new McClintock Park band shell seemed worlds away from Root Doctor’s beginnings in smoky downtown bars over 30 years ago.

But Cunningham was soul-deep in his element. The July sun was no match for Root Doctor’s soaring anthem, “Soul Shine.” 

This summer’s tour is a post-pandemic comeback and a last hurrah, all in one. At 77, Cunningham is ready to give his body a rest. Every minute he spends inside the music counts more than ever. 

“I’ve had my run,” Cunningham said. “It’s getting harder to maintain, and I wanted to close on a good note. I’ll still sit in every once in a while, maybe do a night at Mort’s. It’s just that I can’t sustain it every week. It’s a good thing to pull the plug while you still have a good taste in your mouth.”

“Yes, it’s true,” guitarist Bill Malone told the Laingsburg audience Friday night to a chorus of groans. “The Root Doctor band is retiring after this year. But we’re going out with a blast, just like we came in 32 years ago.”

Rock stars

When Root Doctor came to Docker’s Fish House in Muskegon July 5, nearly 2,000 people waited an hour and a half to pack the deck and surrouding beach. 

“We just did this four-hour gig because of the energy of the people,” Malone said. “They’re out there dancing, it’s packed, and when that happens, Fred steps it up a notch. His voice becomes stronger and, and when you think he’s gassed out, he brings it out from deep inside. We never take him for granted.”

Root Doctor’s appeal goes far beyond hard-core blues fans. People drive for hours to hear them play in tiny rural towns in northern and western Michigan. 

In the movie “The Blues Brothers,” an angry mob of regulars at Bob’s Country Bunker throws bottles at a Chicago blues band. 

“This is the opposite of that,” Malone said. “We’re treated like rock stars.”

A Root Doctor show is a community event, even in towns GPS can’t find.

“It’s not just like playing in a bar, where you’re just background music,” Malone said. “These people come out for a show. They buy CDs, T-shirts, bring us food, invite us to their homes, have a party, call their neighbors. They make us feel like we’re the Rolling Stones. I can’t remember what happened last week, but those things, you never forget.”

Cunningham, an expansive spirit, never bothered much about blues “authenticity.” Aching balladry, thumping dance grooves, slashing rock riffs and suspended moments of gospel grace are all part of the Root Doctor mix.

“You can take the songs and change the key, change the tempo,” he said. “There’s a lot of stuff we did that can make it your own.”

“Rainy Night in Georgia,” Brook Benton’s melancholy 1970 ballad, is not a blues standard, but Cunningham loves the song so much he insisted on including it in the earliest sets, when Root Doctor was still the Downtown Blues Band, in 1989.

It’s still his signature song. Cunningham’s “Rainy Night in Georgia” is a universal soaker, the human condition distilled into one repeated refrain. 

“He is one of the best story tellers I know,” Malone said. “He engulfs you into that song.”

Friday night in Lainsgburg, Cunningham kept himself, and the audience, in the moment, by dropping small ice cubes of pain into his mellow, 17-year-Scotch vibrato. He broke off a gently hummed reverie, as if a cop told him to move on, and brought the verse back with a shout: “FIND ME a place in a box car.” 

In the coda, he reached for the inexpressible: “Did you fee-ee-eel it was rainin’ all over the world?” The word “feel” forked like lightning over 500 heads and shimmied down every spine.

Cunnigham’s verbs are the most active verbs ever heard. Singing the simple statement “I did what I had to do,” from Keb’ Mo’s song “Dangerous Mood,” he fired the word “did” like a mortar shell.

Several years ago, at a pool party in Bath, Cunningham spontaneously acceded to a barrage of requests from the crowd for country songs.

“He sang the crap out of them,” Malone said. “We kidded him about it — Root Doctor featuring Country Fred.”

When Malone’s mother-in-law, a Tennessee native, asked the band to play “Tennessee Waltz,” Malone fended her off: “Well, maybe, if the piano player knows it.”

Keyboardist Chris Corey knew it. Cunningham was game. As they played, Malone glanced at his mother-in-law and saw tears on her face. 

“It was so smooth,” he said. “It was beautiful. The man can sing anything and make it his interpretation. I’ve known him 25 years, and every show we do, he just surprises me.”

In true Lansing style, Cunningham compared his vocal art to manual work in a tool shop. “It’s the same machine, but you change the die and make different things,” he said. “When I was younger, singing Temptations songs and things like that, I always had the blues in the back of my mind.”

Roots and fireworks

Freddie Cunningham met bassist James Williams in the 1980s, when both musicians were navigating Lansing’s busy blues scene. After dozens of changes in personnel, the two men are still at the core of Root Doctor.

Both men were steeped in music from a young age, especially gospel music. Willliams’ father was a member of Deep South, a gospel group that worked with The Mighty Clouds of Joy and broadcast on the radio every Sunday morning.  Cunningham sang in his cousin’s gospel group as a youngster, touring the Midwest and parts of the South, getting their take from the collection plate.

The roots of 1970s R&B, soul music and Motown are not hard to find in the gospel harmonies and rhythms of groups like the Mighty Clouds of Joy, the Dixie Hummingbirds and the Soul Stirrers, all favorites of Cunningham’s.

“A lot of teachers and ministers used to give Ray Charles a lot of crap, because it’s basically gospel music with different words,” Cunningham said.

Cunningham came to Michigan at the age of 3, when his dad got a job at one of the city’s many drop forges. He sang all through school, in choirs and gospel groups. After a stint in the Army, he worked at Brody Hall, washing pots and pans for $1.65 an hour.

He became a porter and then a cook, then went into the bake shop, and then got a job at WKAR-TV, where he worked 35 years before retiring. 

He put his singing aside for many years before the Root Doctor era.

“I had a wife and two kids and wanted to be there for them, not going on the road and doing this and doing that,” he said.

By the late 1980s, Cunningham was divorced, the children were older and a new source of inspiration came along. While working as a studio supervisor at WKAR, he met an intern, Marge Mooney, who is now his wife, band manager and muse.

In 1989, Cunningham heard that Lansing keyboard stalwart Mike Skory was putting a band together. Mooney encouraged Cunningham to get back to singing. 

Meanwhile, Williams had moved to Lansing after two apartment break-ins and a holdup at gunpoint near his old digs in Flint, where he worked at General Motors.

“Lansing was in that blues mode anyway, so it worked out good,” he said.

Cunningham and Williams complement each other perfectly. Williams quietly holds the music together, spicing the stew with a terse solo or a backing vocal, giving Cunningham the springboard to do his thing. Friday night, on a dirty roll through Delbert McClinton’s “Standing on Shaky Ground,” Williams’ belly-bouncing bass compressed and ricocheted every note like rubber.

For all his elasticity, Williams drops every note at dead center. He recalled learning from his older brother, Lamar Williams, known to rock fans as the bassist for the Allman Brothers Band.

“Lamar used to say, ‘Can you hum what you play?’” Williams recalled. “That helped me get in tune with my ear. I learned there was more to it than I realized.”

The first Root Doctor lineup was Cunningham, Williams, guitarist Scott Allman, keyboardist Mike Skory and drummer Dick Rosement. To everyone’s surprise, the first gig, “all the way live” at the long-defunct Tango’s club in the Knapp’s Office Centre in downtown Lansing, led to others.

“There was such a positive response,” Cunningham said. “I figured six months, maybe a year.”

“It was supposed to be short-term,” Williams, who is 70, said with a laugh.  “Here I am, 32 and a half years later.”

Williams pushed the band toward funky, danceable grooves.

“Blues is cool, but it doesn’t always have to be that sad, unhappy stuff,” Williams said. “Let’s get people involved who want to dance to some Top 40, some old hits.”

The mix didn’t always go down smoothly. Allman wasn’t comfortable with doing Michael Jackson covers and dance tracks like The Commodores’ “Brick House” and walked off the stage at one point. Keyboard players came and went.

“We had Skory and John Fitzgerald, then Skory again, and now Chris,” Cunningham ticked them off, ending with current keyboardist Chris Corey. “Oh, Doug Decker – that’s five different keyboard players. And Jim Alfredson was with us for 10 years.”

After Allman left the group, several guitarists came and went, including journeyman axeman Steve Frary.

“It kept us fresh, that’s for sure,” Cunningham said.

Alfredson, the B-3 virtuoso of the organ trio Organissimo, along with guitarist Greg Nagy, helped the group reach its long-sought goal of recording in the studio, ushering in a golden age of awards, tours and broader recognition in the 2000s.

A gig in Winnipeg, Manitoba, stands out in Cunningham’s memory.

“There aren’t many black blues bands in Manitoba,” he said. “The people were so receptive to the music. It was fresh to them because most of them never heard that kind of music before.”

One memorable night, the band was playing its last song when Cunningham saw fireworks going off. “I walked off stage, I looked to my right and the northern lights were going, and it was the real Aurora Borealis, not this flicker we get now and then,” he said. “It was amazing.”

Beautiful journey

In 2009, Root Doctor got an infusion of Detroit energy in the tall, commanding frame of guitarist Bill Malone.

Friday night in Laingsburg, Malone was the chief instigator of a blistering cover of “The Letter.” Halfway through the tune, he put his sandaled foot on the wah-wah pedal and fluttered into the blue like a psychedelic moth.

Malone got a lifetime thrill with Root Doctor, opening for reggae legend Jimmy Cliff at Common Ground and meeting Cliff. 

“I’ve been in places and done shows I’ve never have been able to do if it hadn’t been for Root Doctor,” Malone said. “It’s been a beautiful journey for me.”

Malone, 64, grew up in Detroit in the heyday of Motown. When he was 13, his father came back from a vacation in New York with a gift: a Telecaster guitar and a 6-inch amp. Around that same time, Malone experienced Jimi Hendrix, in person, at Olympia. He threw away the saxophone he was playing and concentrated obsessively on guitar, morning to night, joining several rock groups at school.

He got a job at a metal shop at Chrysler in 1975 and sent a drill through his hand soon after. He didn’t play for 15 years. Then, one day, while sitting on his sister’s front porch, he learned that blues-rock guitar icon Stevie Ray Vaughan was killed in a helicopter crash.

“They were playing his music all over the radio,” Malone said. “It just pierced my soul, and I started playing the blues.” He took a job as a network engineer with the state of Michigan, moved to Lansing in 1997 and plunged into a thriving blues scene.

The Lansing area clubs in those days were legion: Grandmother’s, The Silver Dollar, Rick’s American  Café, Capital Hill Station. Malone caught up with Root Doctor at Tango’s.

He recalls gigging until 2 a.m. and making it back to the office at 7:30 the next morning.

“Never was late, never missed a day,” he said. “Now I’m an old man and I can’t do it anymore. We’ve been doing it a long time, and Freddie’s been doing it a LOOONGGG time.”

There are things Cunningham won’t miss about touring with Root Doctor. At Friday’s gig in Laingsburg, he fought not only with the sun, but with a recalcitrant microphone that distorted his voice at high volumes and lacked power at low volumes. He sang over, under and through the problems so deftly that people stopped noticing.

“To tell you the truth, it’s a lot of anxiety before you get there, especially places where you haven’t been,” Cunningham said. “Are they going to like us? How’s this going to go, how’s that going to work? Are we going to get there on time? How’s the weather?”

At the July 5 Muskegon gig, Cunningham temporily lost track of two of his bandmates, Williams and Malone. They were unprepared for the cold wind off the lake and rushed off to buy long-sleeve shirts.

“You have a lot of anxiety,” Cunningham repeated, “but you get there, it’s OK, and you say, ‘What was I worried about?’”

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