Dan Hicks

Hot Licks and more…

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While you would not necessarily call Dan Hicks and his Hot Licks a jazz band, Dan Hicks was booked at the Redwood Coast Jazz Festival in 2005 when I interviewed him. Mr. Hicks was certainly a jazzy guy, and he has always instilled his catchy acoustic tunes with elements of jazz.

“I’m hard to categorize,” said Hicks, when I called him at his home in lovely Marin County. “The categories don’t cover me. We play all kinds of things. If you have a radio station that says, ‘Oh, yeah, we play everything,’ then I get to be on that station.”

Hicks began his musical life as a sixth grader drumming in the school band in Santa Rosa where he was raised. “And I was in the high school marching band,” he recalled. He also played big band tunes in the school dance band. “My high school band teacher helped me get into jazz. We’d do jam sessions at noontime: He played piano and we had a bass player. He was a good mentor.”

When he graduated from Montgomery High in 1959, rock ‘n’ roll was going strong, but he says he preferred swing music. “I liked Benny Goodman better than I liked Ricky Nelson.”

A few years later as the ’60s turned psychedelic, he found himself attending San Francisco State, living in the city. “By that time I was playing guitar, playing around the city, doing my folk thing; I’d go to hootenannies and stuff. I had a few actual gigs playing all kinds of different folk tunes, “San Francisco Bay Blues,” a few of my own songs, but not a lot, maybe one or two. I was a folk-nik.”

A short foray into rock came when he met the members of The Charlatans, a bluesy outfit based in the Haight-Ashbury district in need of a drummer.

Was he a hippy? “If I had to put a label on it, I go more for hipster. I guess I might have been in the hippy movement there: I had long hair. I was in a rock band, one of the bands that played the halls. I took LSD. I smoked a little bit of marijuana. I lived right on Haight and Ashbury. I don’t know, maybe if it walks like a duck… But hipster is more like it.”

Playing drums with The Charlatans afforded him a few opportunities to present his own material and he still performed solo gigs. “I had my single act thing going with a guitar and eventually I expanded that. I added bass and violin, then added the girl singers, then another guitar. I thought of it as a folk act.”

The band borrowed elements of Gypsy jazz, a la Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli’s Hot Club of Paris, adding jazzy swing-style vocal parts to add color and body to original, often sardonic songs penned by Dan.

“I liked it better than The Charlatans,” said Hicks. “I could sing lead, I was writing my own songs. I could hear the singing; it wasn’t a loud thing. Ralph Gleason [the late music critic for the San Francisco Chronicle] wrote a good review at one point when I did kind of a debut in the city, so I decided to get out of The Charlatans and go with the Hot Licks thing.”

Cowboy-Dan-Fetch

[photo by Herb Greene]

The timing was good. Music fans of the day were open to new sounds. And it was a period when San Francisco rock was a hot commodity. “Big companies were coming in signing groups. It was the happening thing. Epic Records showed up with a couple of guys. They saw us perform and arrangements were made to be on that label.”

The eponymous Dan Hick and His Hot Licks was recorded in Los Angeles in 1969. More albums followed after a switch to the Blue Thumb label. The band was going strong, but Hicks was not happy.

“I was tired of being a band leader. Personalities started getting kind of bitchy. I felt like I’d created a monster, so I just said this thing is over with. ‘That gig we have in Sacramento next week, that’ll be our last gig,’ I said, said I. That’s what happened.”

Hicks hit the club circuit again almost immediately playing with a smaller group that eventually took the name Dan Hicks and the Acoustic Warriors. “People always wanted to know ‘Where were the girls?’ and all this stuff. It didn’t stop [even though] I think I played a lot longer with the Acoustic Warriors than I did with the Hot Licks.”

Then, around the turn of the century, he agreed to revive the Hot Licks. “I had a friend who knew this guy who had a record company. I guess he was a fan of the Hot Licks when he was a kid; now he owns a record company, the Surfdog label. He kind of talked me into using the girls again, using the name, Hot Licks, again. I balked at it at first. I’d kind of been there, done that. I thought the Hot Licks means a certain personnel, but not really — it could be anyone. So I put it together slowly, tried a couple of girls for some local gigs. I always liked the full sound with the girls and that instrumentation. I guess I warmed to the idea — and I kept going.”

In 2001, the revitalized Hot Licks released Beatin’ the Heat, a mix of old material and new with cameos by Bette Midler, Rickie Lee Jones, Tom Waits and Brian Setzer. That was followed by a live disc and a DVD recorded on his 60th birthday with just about everybody he’d ever played with taking turns on stage. Selected Short came next, a collection of new Hicks songs written with the same ironic attitude as his work from the ’70s, this time with guests including Willie Nelson and Jimmy Buffett.

It’s hard to say whether or not he is glad to be playing with a reborn Hot Licks band. His dry humor is hard to read over the phone. “People associated me with the Hot Licks name all the time, so I didn’t really have too much trouble going back to the name,” he said. “It’s my name anyway. I’m doing some of the old songs of course. And I’m doing new stuff too, that’s for sure. They’re good songs, so why not?”

Why not indeed. His band delighted the audience at the jazz fest in 2005, when I talked to him. He kept on playing those great songs until a bad liver took him from us. Here’s one from a couple of years ago.

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