Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks
By Phil Reser
Photo courtesy of Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks
Dan Hicks, bandleader of the Hot Licks, prefers to think of his group’s sound as acoustic swing. “It’s sort of a folk-swing, jazz thing,” he says. “Jazz is innately based on improv and I like that. My music is mostly acoustic and it’s jazzy in a swing way.”
Hicks started his musical apprenticeship as a young man growing up in Sonoma County. First influenced by his parents’ love of country music, he also developed a taste for jazz, blues and big band music.
He played drums in a couple of high school bands, and eventually took up the guitar, playing and singing in local Bay Area coffeehouses.
He’s been a Bay Area institution since the mid-1960s, when he became the drummer for the San Francisco-based band The Charlatans, who spawned what would become known as the psychedelic rock era.
They were recruited to spend the summer of 1965 playing at the brand-new Red Dog Saloon in Virginia City, Nev. They returned to San Francisco that fall and began playing in dance halls. “The Charlatans were actually the first underground, alternative, long-haired kind of band, and I think we had an influence on kick starting the band scene in San Francisco and that folk rock sound that went around the world,” he says.
After leaving The Charlatans, Hicks formed Hot Licks in 1968, and has stuck to his original basic formula for more than four decades.
“The Hot Licks evolved from my singing solo stuff,” he says. “I could sing my own songs, I could sing whatever. I had my own repertoire going. I just added a violin player one night, finally got the girls going. I had an idea for more singing, concentrating on more of a folk-jazz kind of sound. I’d always been a jazz fan, so, that was kind of where I was headed. Rock was secondary to me. I wanted to do swing stuff. It was a matter of choice and taste.”
Uncertain about his holding down the responsibility of band leading, he broke up and reassembled the Hot Licks several times while becoming a commercial and critical favorite with early ‘70s album classics like “Striking It Rich,” “Where’s the Money?” and “Last Train to Hicksville.”
While Hicks hasn’t always been visible as a national performer throughout his career, at 71, he continues to deliver.
“I’ve evolved,” he says. “I’m even better than I used to be. At least, I rarely get worse.”
This sense of humor has also been a cornerstone of his music. One of his earliest songs is titled, “How Can I Miss You When You Won’t Go Away.”
Other artists have taken note of Hicks’ writing ability. Maria Muldaur recorded “Walkin’ One and Only,” Asleep at the Wheel recorded “Up, Up, Up” and Thomas Dolby covered “I Scare Myself.”
Hicks signed with Surfdog Records in 1998, and his star-studded Hot Licks reunion on his 2000 album, “Beatin’ The Heat,” featured guest appearances by Elvis Costello, Bette Midler, Tom Waits and Brian Setzer and gained Hicks a whole new set of fans.
Last year, to celebrate his 70th birthday, he held a sold-out concert at Davies Hall in San Francisco, releasing it as his latest recording. He was joined by original and current members of the Hot Licks, with legendary guests including Rickie Lee Jones, Tuck & Patti, David Grisman, Maria Muldaur, actor and musician Harry Shearer, John Hammond, Van Dyke Parks, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Asleep at the Wheel leader Ray Benson, Bruce Forman, Jug Band veteran Jim Kweskin and Roy Rogers of the Delta Rhythm Kings.
“It was one of my crowning achievements, having all the musicians who came there be part of my birthday,” he says. “It was a big undertaking. My high school bandmates were the back up band.” •
Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks
December 28, Feather Falls Casino, Oroville
(530) 533-3885, ext. 510