The popular, award-winning Lansing-based band in this week’s Local Spins Artist Spotlight performs regularly in West Michigan and brings its soulful charm to Grand Rapids on May 3.
Ask Freddie Cunningham when he acquired that soulfully distinctive, made-for-the-blues voice, and he doesn’t hesitate in reply.
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“When I was born pretty much,” he quips. “Or when I learned to talk. … It’s been in my blood since I pretty much could talk.”
For 25 years, Cunningham has been doing his talking as frontman for the popular Lansing-based Root Doctor, a much-beloved five-piece band that shared Jammie Award honors in Grand Rapids earlier this year for best blues/soul album of 2013 for its latest release, “New Attitude.”
Arguably one of Michigan’s best known blues outfits, Root Doctor – Cunningham, bassist James Williams, keyboard player Mike Skory, guitarist Bill Malone and drummer Bobby Gardner – simmers with a vintage blues milieu whether the band is performing 60-year-old blues classics or its own modern, soul-drenched standards.
FORTUNATE TO BE SURROUNDED BY ‘GOOD MUSICIANS AND GREAT PEOPLE’
And they do it with a jubilance born of musical camaraderie, one that inspires a good-time vibe for audiences who pack dance floors at their shows.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to have good musicians around me, but also some great people. No matter how far you go or how far you’ve come, you just can’t do this by yourself,” Cunningham insists.
Adds Malone: “We do try to have a good time.”
Indeed, Cunningham, Malone and Skory proved that during their appearance this week on Local Spins Live, sharing laughs and performing an original song, “Louisiana Bound,” (written by Skory and lyricist Lisa Bonotto) in the studios of News Talk 1340 AM (WJRW). Check out a podcast of the show here, with a video below.
NAMED AFTER A BUDDY ACE SONG, WITH BLUES ROOTS THAT RUN DEEP
Cunningham, Williams and Skory were part of the band’s original lineup, though Skory left after a time, then returned to the fold a few years ago. Past band members also include keyboard whiz Jim Alfredson, who now plays with Organissimo and Janiva Magness, and guitarist Greg Nagy, who left to pursue a solo career.
Root Doctor originally was formed in 1989 as The Downtown Blues Band, but changed its moniker to avoid confusion with another group, The Uptown Band. They gleaned their new name from blues singer Buddy Ace’s song, “Root Doctor.”
Since then, they’ve released four studio albums and a live collection, have toured as far as St. Louis and the Poconos, and continue to perform regularly across the state. And their blues roots run deep.
“There was always some kind of blues music, blues-based music in my parents’ house,” says Cunningham, whose mom led the church choir. He also had siblings and other family members who played instruments and sang. “I was in a quartet like when I was 16 years old and we traveled around different places.”
Cunningham also admired and soaked up the stylings of vocalists such as gospel artists Clara Ward and Sister Rosetta Tharpe and blues icons B.B. King and Albert King, who “had that smooth velvet voice that was just his. It was a great voice.”
Meanwhile, Malone, a Detroit native, drew his biggest inspiration from rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix, who he saw perform in the late 1960s. A young sax player at the time, he immediately dropped that instrument in favor of the guitar.
HOOKED BY ‘ONE SHOT OF HENDRIX’
“Blues is my business and business is good, but actually growing up in Detroit, I was a rock guy. My mentor was Jimi Hendrix,” he recalls. “That kind of changed my life. My dad and my mom went out to New York and brought me back a guitar. One shot of Hendrix and I was hooked.”
Over the years, Malone learned and picked up others styles and genres, from R&B to country. “But blues is my passion,” he concedes. “That was my basis and foundation.”
Together, the band meshes its various influences for performances that spotlight their original material, vintage blues tunes and familiar classics such as Tony Joe White’s “Rainy Night in Georgia” and Warren Haynes’ “Soulshine,” which Skory says Cunningham “takes ownership of.”
“Every night is different, of course,” Skory says, noting the band often plays originals “top to bottom” in its first set. “In the second set, we pretty much start the party.”
They’ll get that party rolling on Saturday (May 3) at one of their favorite Grand Rapids haunts, the Tip Top Deluxe Bar & Grill, 760 Butterworth Ave. SW, on the city’s West Side. Officially, doors open at 8 p.m.; admission is $8.
For more information about the band, upcoming performances and to sample and purchase its music, visit the official rootdoctorband.com website.
Email John Sinkevics at email@example.com.
Copyright 2014, Spins on Music