Don't blame Dan Hicks for being a bit cantankerous these days. Just as his career is once again gathering momentum, the Bay Area-bred "folk swing" king has turned 50.
"People come around asking me how I'm gonna wrap things up," complains Hicks during a telephone conversation from his hillside home in Mill Valley, California. "I have to tell them, `Man, I haven't even done it yet.'"
Still, it's been nearly two decades since the silky-voiced, eclectic singer-guitarist led his celebrated Hot Licks around the country in a virtual nonstop party tour. Crowded taverns and national TV audiences delighted in Hicks' irreverent style: some scat here, a yodel there, that tender tenor flowing through all the while. Crowds sang happily along with "Where's the Money," "It's Never Too Late to Be Up to Date" and the psychedelic fave "I Scare Myself."
The Hot Licks cooled down for good in 1974 (although the last of their five albums, It Happened One Bite, wasn't released until 1978). It took a dozen years after that for Hicks to regain the urge to re-form a band. And although Hicks and his current conglomeration of Acoustic Warriors have recently taken up musical arms in earnest, there was that long spell between Licks and Warriors where Hicks followed other muses. After the intense, party-hardy pattern of the Hot Licks days, Dan Hicks needed more than a brief intermission.
"I was tired of being a bandleader," Hicks relates in his usual laid-back manner. "I needed a rest. I figured, `I got the songs I wrote, and there's other things I can do.' I'd been in some sort of a band for a long time."
In fact, Hicks has been bopping across stages since the ninth grade in Santa Rosa, California. He and a group of fellow junior high school music junkies formed the Dixieland Dudes. He carried on the Dudes' hornsy, high-swing sound the following year as a founding member of the brassy, nine-piece Stardusters, a big-band clan that idolized Glenn Miller.
It was in such a musical manner that Hicks drummed along ("I didn't pick up a guitar until I was 19") until going off to college. When Hicks entered progressive San Francisco State College, "Bay of Pigs" was as much a household phrase in middle America as "bomb shelter." Yet the intersection of Haight and Ashbury in San Francisco was already stirring with alternative life.
The streets were lined by aging, postearthquake housing filled mostly by college kids appreciating the cheap rents. The area was known even then for its quirky inhabitants and devotion to the folk-music rage. Hicks made frequent forays into the Haight for the music. He got to know the players and personalities. One loose band of musicians-artists caught his attention-and kept it. Hicks remembers the birth of early Haight legends, the Charlatans.
"I met these guys in 1965 when I was still in college," he recalls. "They were some of the first guys I ever saw with long hair. I picked up on their style of dress, their pads with all the purple-velvet curtains-it was a thrift-store San Francisco kind of life." Hicks hung out with them, practicing with them occasionally, then permanently.
"They were a band, sort of. Their drummer wasn't cuttin' it, so I started playing," he remembers.
The rich influences of Hicks' swing background, the San Francisco sounds and a touch of British Invasion came together during the summer of 1966, when the Charlatans played the Red Dog Saloon in Virginia City, Nevada. The resulting "psychedelic, Edwardian cowboy" sound the Charlatans created became standard fare back home.
"We did all the hippie underground-type dances and the like," Hicks remembers. "The leader did vocals and banged on the tambourine. I was out on the street a lot." Three years of Age of Aquarius, everybody-must-get-stoned Charlatans' life proved plenty for Hicks, however. His single-minded musical interests precluded allegiance to any of the righteous causes of Haight-Ashbury's tie-dyed citizenry.
"I wasn't-and still ain't-a political person," Hicks admits. "I mean, I'm aware. I'm, like, recycling my little tin cans, you know. Of course, I was at all the subculture events, and I even marched in one big, long thing. But I really just wanted to play music." In 1969 Hicks escaped the teeming, incense-burning masses of the Haight district and took to the water for refuge.
"I moved to Sausalito and lived on a houseboat," he chuckles. "It was a relief. In the Haight, I was more an observer than a participant, anyway. There was a lot of panhandling and running from tear gas. Things like Altamont happened-I almost went to that," he says. "But I'm glad I didn't."
Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks came into being later that same Dionysian year. Very early on, the band even featured a pair of female back-up singers called the Lickettes. They released Original Recording on Epic almost immediately, but the work found little success. However, three albums on little label Blue Thumb-Where's the Money (1971), Strikin' It Rich (1972) and Last Train to Hicksville (1973)sold well and helped fill up watering holes across the country.
The Hot Licks' fusion of swing and jazz, combined with bebopish harmonies-but no drums-and Charlatanesque folkadelic influences, made for a one-of-a-kind sound. Add songwriter Hicks' bright and brainy, ironic and nostalgic lyrics and vocal acrobatics, and the band was a steamy-hot early-Seventies original. The group toured North America and Europe, stopped in to chat with Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett and even Flip Wilson, and entertained audiences with classic Hicks and Licks tunes like "How Can I Miss You (When You Won't Go Away)." The band's songs were covered by the likes of Joan Baez, Maria Muldaur and Asleep at the Wheel.
By 1974, however, the antsy Hicks again had had enough. He sent the Hot Licks their way and he went his. Hicks wound down by writing songs, drawing a comic strip for BAM magazine and scoring and performing music for movies and commercials ranging from Ball Park Franks to Levi's Jeans. In fact, Hicks is the guy who wrote and performed the quasi-famous "501 Blues."
"To tell the truth," sighs Hicks, "I don't even remember how it was in the Seventies, with all the national-TV stuff and the gigs and such. I know it was a time, but it almost seems like it didn't happen."
The urge to lead a band struck again when Hicks began to feel his musicological clock tick-tick-ticking away. He brought together some of the Bay Area's best pickers and pluckers, forming the Acoustic Warriors in 1986. Now that the fire-in-the-belly drive has returned, Hicks allows time now and then to consider what might have been. He especially rues the slow pace of present progress.
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"Maybe I should've had more success," admits Hicks, "and maybe that's my fault. But I guess it doesn't really matter much. It's old news."
Yet it matters enough that Hicks is holding off smaller labels, opting to wait a while for the big fish to strike.
"Sometimes I feel, `Why not me?' when I see the success some others are having," he concedes, trying not to grumble. "I mean, I'm as good a singer as some of those people." He admits he's not sure what would fill that emptiness, short of large-label success in the Nineties. "Maybe I'd like more people to cover my tunes," he waxes. "Maybe I'd like more recognition. I'd certainly like to make a better living at this point."
Hicks is arming his Warriors for a ten-gig Western swing that will culminate March 1 at Anderson's Fifth Estate in Scottsdale. He's paving the way for the future by glad-handing the right folks, giving a heap of interviews and getting his new demo out to labels and media-all those fundamental things your average young combo must do. Patience, however, is not one of Dan Hicks' stronger suits.
"You know, I talk to the papers and such where we're going, but I always end up hearing people say, `I heard about this concert just by chance, man.' Honestly, I'm tired of it. We're back, man!"
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