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Dan Hicks

+ {Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks} + {Dan Hicks & The Acoustic Warriors}

Eccentric off-the-wall acts from the country-rock community are few and far between, but the almost ad hoc DAN HICKS – file under “cowboy folk” or “bluegrass jazz” – was in a word: unique. A drummer with San Francisco-based psych-country combo The CHARLATANS (1965-68), he became a singer/songwriter/guitarist in his own right with DAN HICKS & HIS HOT LICKS, a solid band of merry guys and gals, for whom he penned the seriously beautiful `I Scare Myself’ (his finest 5 minutes and a hit in ’84 for THOMAS DOLBY), the horizontal `Canned Music’, and the wryly-dry tongue-in-cheek `How Can I Miss You When You Won’t Go Away?’.
Born Daniel Ivan Hicks, December 9, 1941, Little Rock, Arkansas, although raised in Santa Rosa, north of San Francisco, California, Dan’s inspiration came from playing in marching bands, radio broadcasts and the folk-revival scene, which gripped the public’s attention in the early-to-mid-60s. Although he was adept as a rhythm guitarist, he could also play the drums, a feat that enabled him to supersede Sam Linde in The CHARLATANS. While this band were one of the core ingredients to the evolving “acid-rock” scene, alongside The Warlocks (soon-to-be The GRATEFUL DEAD), JEFFERSON AIRPLANE, MOBY GRAPE, their un-hippie Wild West and/or Victorian garb set them apart from their psychedelic peers.
Whether it was down to being lacklustre or unlucky (it took The CHARLATANS until ’69 to release an LP), an impatient Dan was planning to peddle another posse: DAN HICKS & HIS HOT LICKS. Roping in ranch-hands Jaime Leopold (bass), Jon Weber (lead guitar), David LaFlamme (violin) – who would form IT’S A BEAUTIFUL DAY when replaced by Sid Page – and, last but not least, backing vocalists/percussionists Sherry Snow and Christina/“Tina” Viola Gancher, the drummer-less sextet signed to Epic Records.
Hooking up with producer Bob Johnston, ORIGINAL RECORDINGS (1969) {*8}, was probably not the most astute title to come up with, if HICKS had any intentions of selling to the masses, but that mattered not to a frontman now in his element. Bypassing the triumvirate of semi-gemstones aforementioned in the introduction paragraph (two of them chosen as accompanying A/B-sides), call-and-response Dan and his “Lickettes” were in swinging simpatico for the scatty/jazzy tales of Shorty (`Shorty Takes A Dive’ and `Shorty Falls In Love’), while one could jump on the freight-train to Hicksville, U.S.A. on the organic `Waitin’ For The “103”’.
When Epic Records could see no future in their intimate interplay and honest humour, the not-so-grand Blue Thumb Records took up the option on three further sets. Absent of Weber (Page added mandolin, vocals), the only difference was The Lickettes, who were now Maryann Price and Naomi Ruth Eisenberg (the latter an accomplished fiddler). Best as a live act on the circuit, sophomore set WHERE’S THE MONEY? (1971) {*7} didn’t seem a bad idea for the kitsch quintet. Live at the Troubadour in L.A., the old-timey oddity of their repertoire was inherent on the post-hippie `I Feel Like Singing’, `Is This My Happy Home?’, `News From The Street’ et al, complete with between-song banter.
Re-vamping `I Scare Myself’ and `Canned Music’ for their second Top 200 appearance, STRIKING IT RICH (1972) {*7}, wasn’t exactly raking in the cash of JERRY GARCIA and Co, but at least they were slowly becoming part of the day’s rock’n’roll/roots fabric. Whilst John L. Girton was added on lead guitar, DAN HICKS AND HIS HOT LICKS could take consolation for planting the seeds of twangy bluegrass-jazz into the minds of the nation; the musicianship on `Flight Of The Fly’ recalled DAVID GRISMAN or STEFAN GROSSMAN, but their most commercial stabs, `Moody Richard (The Innocent Bystander)’ and `I’m An Old Cowhand (From The Rio Grande)’, fell mostly on deaf ears.
It probably paved the way for LAST TRAIN TO HICKSVILLE… THE HOME OF HAPPY FEET (1973) {*6}, a record which cemented their nostalgic, Nashville nuances, and which gave them their only Top 75 LP. Neither FLYING BURRITO BROTHERS nor KRIS KRISTOFFERSON in stature, the West Coast was hardly the area code to keep on plugging his `Payday Blues’, `Cowboy’s Dream No.19’ and `My Old Timey Baby’, even if a conventional drummer (Bob Scott) was incorporated into the outfit.
From 1974 to 1977, HICKS took a hiatus from the studio, only to return as a solo artist in March 1978 with the soundtrack to Ralph Bakshi’s shelved film animation of IT HAPPENED ONE BITE {*7}. Featuring some Hot Licks and a raft of session folks, it sold moderately, highlighted as it was by cowboy folk songs, `Mama, I’m An Outlaw’, `Cruizin’ and `Crazy – ‘Cause He Is’.
A long studio sabbatical ensued up to the early 90s (his cult status in tact), when the frontman spearheaded DAN HICKS & THE ACOUSTIC WARRIORS. Personnel fluctuated many times over the course of the next few years; finally settled by 1994 (or thereabouts) with Paul Robinson (guitar), Stevie Blacke (Mandolin/violin), Alex Baum (bass), Jim Boggio (accordion/piano) and the reunited Bob Scott (drums) for the “live at McCabe’s” set, SHOOTIN’ STRAIGHT (1996) {*5}. Dan subsequently married Clare “CT” Wasserman in February 1997.
To mark the new millennium, but with both feet affixed to decades passed, DAN HICKS AND HIS HOT LICKS were back in town. Defying, or embracing, every genre under the moonlight, one could hardly ignore his comeback album, BEATIN’ THE HEAT (2000) {*7}. Augmented by some cool buddies and long-time fans, the Surfdog millionaire – Surfdog was the record label he was parked at – the scatty man swung back the clock with BETTE MIDLER (on a duet of `Strike It While It’s Hot’), RICKIE LEE JONES (for `I Scare Myself’ and `Driftin’), TOM WAITS (`I’ll Tell You Why That Is’), BRIAN SETZER (`I Don’t Want Love’) and the latter STRAY CAT plus ELVIS COSTELLO on `Meet Me On The Corner’.
ALIVE & LICKIN’ (2001) {*7}, FEATURING AN ALL-STAR CAST OF FRIENDS (2003) {*6} and SELECTED SHORTS (2004) {*6}, all maintained the momentum the 60-something singer-songwriter had targeted in his fantasy-league comeback. Reunited with Sid Page on the latter set, the team of accordionist VAN DYKE PARKS, keyboardist Mike Finnegan et al, were also joined by JIMMY BUFFET (on `Barstool Boogie’) and WILLIE NELSON (on `One More Cowboy’), plus the weirdly enterprising BUTTHOLE SURFERS main man Gibby Haynes on bonus finale version of `That Ain’t Right’.
After another shot intake of breath, HICKS and his Hot Licks shared studio space alongside “old-timers”, DAVID GRISMAN, CHARLIE MUSSELWHITE, RICHARD GREENE and ROY ROGERS, for 2009’s TANGLED TALES {*5}. A unique festive set, CRAZY FOR CHRISTMAS (2010) {*6} saw the man intersperse his own charming compositions alongside traditional holiday fare, while LIVE AT DAVIES (2013) {*6} guaranteed a little longevity as he duly battled bravely against throat and liver cancer. Sadly, succumbing to dreaded disease, he died at his home in Mill Valley, California, on February 6, 2016.
R.I.P. to the man no longer… Waitin’ For The “103”.
© MC Strong/MCS Feb2016

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