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
quintessential cult band, trailing along fans of old-timey songs,
and hip lingo. Acoustic even then, his music was constructed of
upright bass, tight female back-up harmonies and delivered with an
appreciation for syncopated showmanship and choreographed without peer.
Dressed in a wild variety of appropriately timed stage clothes (Western
Parisian Can-Can dresses, and wide-lapel, double-breasted suits with
fedoras) Hicks and his band of pranksters performed original songs,
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
It's been 15 years since he released It Happened One Bite , his last
label release and although he has fallen from grace with the big record
he still cranks out songs that bounce from wry humor to jazz-fired
to western swing and back again. Today he tours coffeehouses and small
occasionally sending out demo tapes to record companies, only to
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
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
labels are not exactly in love with me," he quips sardonically. "You
I know I'm not really classifiable, but neither is Bonnie Raitt or
Newman or any singer/songwriter that doesn't fit a mold."
Even before market analysts began picking apart people's listening
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
the band helped to lay the ground work for the music of The Grateful
and The Jefferson Airplane. Hicks recalls his beginnings, "I had two
interests really. I always liked jazz and big bands, that was the stuff
that really intrigued me; Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Tex Beneke
sax player with Glenn Miller). I started playing drums when I was 14,
by the time I turned 19, I picked up a guitar and started to strum
Trio songs and stuff like that. The whole rock thing with the
was something I did to just kind of do it. Any drummer can play rock,
I was involved in the counter-culture thing so I stayed with it for
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
jazz. Jazz and folk tend to go in kind of the same circles,
beatnik clubs and stuff," he remembers. "I liked the Cool jazz style
on the West Coast in the late '50s; that and Mose Allison," says Hicks
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
in the history of rock, the band never struck it rich (ironically the
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
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
on violin—Hicks continues to walk a fine line between slapstick and
wooing aliens to take him away in a new song titled, "Hell I'd Go" or
his vocals. "I've been concentrating on my vocals, doing jazz standards
and trying to develop my jazz style more," he offers. Lately Bette
has been following him, culling material for her upcoming tour and he
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
it, but I'm pretty complacent and I do like procrastination."