Deckle edge

Dan Hicks
by Chris Flisher © 1993 /
(first published August 1993 Worcester Phoeniz)

Dan Hicks
It may be that Dan Hicks was born at the wrong time. If he had arrived thirty or forty years earlier, perhaps he wouldn't be such an anomaly. The San Francisco-based singer, songwriter, sometimes-comedian and leader of The Acoustic Warriors is not concerned with trends nor is he really aware of what he writes or where it comes from. He steers clear of titles and if his music has to be called something he prefers "contemporary acoustic" or "folk swing." That's fine except that it's not always contemporary— filled with heavy traces of 1930s and 40s vocal and instrumental styles—and it is rarely folk— not many soft-strummed ballads here—but it's usually acoustic and it never stops swinging.

At one time in the mid-70s Dan Hicks and his band the Hot Licks were the quintessential cult band, trailing along fans of old-timey songs, clothes and hip lingo. Acoustic even then, his music was constructed of violins, upright bass, tight female back-up harmonies and delivered with an distinct appreciation for syncopated showmanship and choreographed without peer. Dressed in a wild variety of appropriately timed stage clothes (Western wear, Parisian Can-Can dresses, and wide-lapel, double-breasted suits with broad-brimmed fedoras) Hicks and his band of pranksters performed original songs, spouting scat-like lyrics with precision and grace, flying in the face of 70s' styles. Dan and his band recorded under that moniker for close to 6 years and filled a niche that endeared fans but ultimately scared the big-time record labels.

It's been 15 years since he released It Happened One Bite , his last major label release and although he has fallen from grace with the big record labels, he still cranks out songs that bounce from wry humor to jazz-fired ballads to western swing and back again. Today he tours coffeehouses and small venues, occasionally sending out demo tapes to record companies, only to receive the usual form letter—"Thanks for your inquiry, but. . ."

"The record labels didn't know how to market me. I guess that's the word you use these days. But what do they know?," Hicks declares adamanatly in a recent interview from his home in Mill Valley, California. "People might think and I might think there is a place for music like this, but the labels are not exactly in love with me," he quips sardonically. "You see I know I'm not really classifiable, but neither is Bonnie Raitt or Randy Newman or any singer/songwriter that doesn't fit a mold."

Even before market analysts began picking apart people's listening habits and before he got his Hot Licks, Dan Hicks was going against the grain. He began as a drummer with a San Francisco cult band called The Charlatans. In 1965 The Charlatans were anything but mainstream, writing and performing music from the periphery. Combining jug band and bluegrass with psychedelia, the band helped to lay the ground work for the music of The Grateful Dead and The Jefferson Airplane. Hicks recalls his beginnings, "I had two musical interests really. I always liked jazz and big bands, that was the stuff that really intrigued me; Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Tex Beneke (vocalist, sax player with Glenn Miller). I started playing drums when I was 14, but by the time I turned 19, I picked up a guitar and started to strum Kingston Trio songs and stuff like that. The whole rock thing with the Charlatans was something I did to just kind of do it. Any drummer can play rock, but I was involved in the counter-culture thing so I stayed with it for about 3 years."

While in the Charlatans, Hicks worked as a solo folk artist on the side. "The Hot Licks developed from my folk interests along with my interest in jazz. Jazz and folk tend to go in kind of the same circles, coffeehouses, beatnik clubs and stuff," he remembers. "I liked the Cool jazz style popular on the West Coast in the late '50s; that and Mose Allison," says Hicks referring to the Southern jazz vocalist known for his influential laid back delivery. "The Hot Licks came from that interest of mine." Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks went on to record 4 albums and although they achieved footnote status in the history of rock, the band never struck it rich (ironically the band's most critically acclaimed album is titled, Striking It Rich).

Dan's laid back delivery and writing style recall the bluesy swagger of a stoned jazz singer one minute or an aloof cartoon character the next. "I think I write on two levels. Some of my music comes so naturally that if I think of a phrase it may just come out as cynical or funny. But, I don't write that way on purpose," says Hicks trying to explain his music. "Some songs are meant to get a laugh, but that can also get in the way sometimes if I'm trying to be serious."

Joined by The Acoustic Warriors—Paul Robinson on guitar and Jimmy Hurley on violin—Hicks continues to walk a fine line between slapstick and seriousness, wooing aliens to take him away in a new song titled, "Hell I'd Go" or perfecting his vocals. "I've been concentrating on my vocals, doing jazz standards and trying to develop my jazz style more," he offers. Lately Bette Midler has been following him, culling material for her upcoming tour and he has a cut on the National Public Radio show, Live From Mountain Stage series. All is well and good but fans and friends still want to know when more new material will be available. Hicks sighs, "My girlfriend keeps asking me 'When are you going to do a new album' and every now and then I worry about it, but I'm pretty complacent and I do like procrastination."

Chris Flisher

Deckle edge