By Toni A. Brown
Dan Hicks first received recognition as a member of the pioneer San Francisco folk-rock band, The Charlatans. The Charlatans featured George Hunter, Mike Wilhelm, Richie Olsen, and Mike Ferguson in addition to Hicks. He then went on to form the Hot Licks which featured Sid Page, Maryann Price, Naomi Ruth Eisenberg, and Jaimie Leopold. At its inception, the Hot Licks also featured David LaFlamme, who went on to form It’s a Beautiful Day.
Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks recorded their first album for Epic, Original Recordings (69). They then went on to the Blue Thumb label and recorded three albums, including Where’s The Money (71), Striking it Rich (72), and Last Train to Hicksville (73). The Hot Licks then disbanded. Blue Thumb went bankrupt and sold its roster to Warner Brothers, for which Dan Hicks recorded It Happened One Bite in 1978 (which was originally written as a soundtrack in 1975 for a film that was never released.) This was his last record to date.
Other artists have taken note of Hicks’ writing ability. Maria Muladaur recorded “Walkin’ One and Only,” Asleep at the Wheel recorded, “Up, Up, Up,” and Thomas Dolby did a great cover of “I Scare Myself.”
Dan Hicks is often compared to Django Reinhart for the jazz style that is one of the obvious inspirations in Hick’s diversely influenced music. He currently tours with the Acoustic Warriors which features James “Fingers” Shupe on the Mandolin/fiddle, Ken “Turtle” Vandemar on guitar, and Alex Baum on bass.
I had the good fortune to gain Hicks’ approval for this interview, and have it come off without a hitch. His cooperation and assistance was an inspiration, so here you have it… an interview with the witty, facile Dan Hicks!
Dan Hicks began his musical career playing in Santa Rosa with a lady who played the piano and her husband who played the trumpet. They performed in an Italian restaurant, Hicks was only nineteen.
Before joining the Charlatans, Hicks was mainly drumming. He didn’t meet up with the Charlatans until he was 23.
Hicks: I was just finishing San Francisco State where I was majoring in broadcasting and I had taken up folk guitar when I was about twenty. So I’d been doing a little single act about 1963. I was around Santa Fe, a coffee house around there, and the Bay area a bit. I was a little in the public eye. And I played drums in a few combos in the Santa Rosa area. It was casual.
Relix: Where are you from originally?
Hicks: I moved to Santa Rosa when I was ten, so I’d say I’m from there. My dad was in the air force, and we moved around until then, but I was born in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Relix: How did you come to meet up with the Charlatans?
Hicks: When I was going to SF State, sometimes I would go back up to Santa Rosa on the weekends for a gig or something. I got a ride with one of the Charlatans’ girlfriends to the city. She said her boyfriend was a rock and roll musician, so I went over to hear them a couple of times. Their drummer wasn’t working out and I mentioned that I was a drummer. I used to see George Hunter at SF State, and I’d wonder when that guy was going to get a haircut.
Relix: Were the Charlatans performing as a band when you met them?
Hicks: No, they were rehearsing. This was before they had made any public appearances, before the jams (at 1090 Page—Big Brother’s house). It was early ’65.
Relix: Not long after that the Charlatans made history by going to Virginia City, Nevada, becoming the first band to get a paid gig out of the Bay Area. Do you feel you missed out on anything in San Francisco the summer you missed?
Hicks: I think the place to be was where we were. People were coming up from the city. It was definitely the hip place to be that summer. We were employed at the Red Dog Saloon and got some okay money. We got food and rooms and a different atmosphere. We were playing six nights a week.
Relix: You weren’t together very long before this gig came up.
Hicks: No, not really. Well, these guys may have been rehearsing for a while before I joined. Hunter was always ahead, sort of like, get your stationary, then figure out what your business would be.
Relix: George Hunter originated the Victorian style of dress the band adopted.
Hicks: He was more of a manager and guide than he was one of the musicians. He played a tambourine and some autoharp, but he was definitely the key man, the organizer, the central figure, the promoter of what to wear.
Relix: Was he looking for an image?
Hicks: Maybe he thought so. Maybe he was over there graphically designing it all. I was just putting on a tie and a coat and selling out. But a little creativity went into it. We would go around to thrift stores individually or pile in together.
Anyway, I don’t think we missed anything that summer. It was good because this was my first real full time bohemian lifestyle association with these people. I’d been around the coffee houses and school, but now I was full fledged doing it all the time. I was meeting all these people I didn’t know. George and those guys were main characters in this whole underground scene and they knew the people getting ready to do the Family Dog. Those people would come up to Virginia City that summer and spend time there.
Relix: The Charlatans did the first Family Dog concert.
Hicks: Yeah, because those guys knew the Charlatans. They knew George and Wilhelm.
Relix: The Charlatans were one of the key San Francisco bands, yet you never signed to a record label.
Hicks: We actually were signed to a major label. In 1966, we signed with Eric Jacobson who was producing the Lovin’ Spoonful, and along with that, we signed with MGM records. We were relegated down to their Kapp label and we made an album. But just a single was released. It didn’t mean anything. It just happened to be put on a 45. They never did anything with it. I don’t know if we even made enough sides to be on an album. The songs on the 45 were “The Shadow Knows,” an old Coasters tune, and “3220 Blues.”
Relix: I had heard that the 45 was released on Kama Sutra Records.
Hicks: It wasn’t. Kama Sutra was the Lovin’ Spoonful’s label. But they were all MGM subsidiaries. Kapp was considered equal or a little lower on the totem pole.
Relix: Did you write much of the Charlatan material?
Hicks: I had maybe five or six tunes.
Relix: What type of music did the Charlatans play? There is little musical documentation around.
Hicks: I’d say it was folk rock and it was old timey rock. We’d take folk songs like “Alabama Bound” and make it electric with drums. Old timey things—blues, early Stones-like things, or John Hammond’s electric album, that kind of stuff.
Relix: Would you say you were an early psychedelic band?
Hicks: It depends on what you mean by psychedelic. I guess so. I remember, to the best of my ability, down in Palo Alto the Grateful Dead were getting together as the Warlocks at the same time as the Charlatans were forming. I think we were the first ones to play a gig though. As far as psychedelic, I guess you just mean the San Francisco underground. I guess we were the first ones to surface. Other bands were right on our heels.
Relix: What was your reaction to the phenomenon of the Summer of Love? Did you get caught up in it?
Hicks: I lived right at Haight and Ashbury. I felt then, and I still feel, a little detached. I’m kind of a loner, and I would walk down the street and it would be going on. I don’t know, you’d get a little calloused. There were just a lot of weird characters around there then and the main thing you’d hear is “spare change” or they’d have dope for sale. And you’d just hear it and hear it. And I was still there when it was getting worse. Then the bikers started coming in, then the riots. It just disintegrated. I just remember there were a lot of people there and I wasn’t into crash pads.
During the Summer of Love itself, a film crew made a film called Revolution. I was just sitting with my guitar on a bench. Nobody was around really, and I hardly ever did it, but I happened to go out that day. That film crew asked me if I wanted to be interviewed. They were interviewing flower children. I told them I didn’t think I was a flower child but I did this song about someone stoned and they really liked it. So that came out the next year – 1968.
Relix: Did you spend much time at 1090 Page (the house where Big Brother lived)?
Hicks: I went there a few times. I didn’t play in the jams or anything. I knew Peter Albin, I think from before Big Brother started. I he was a friend of mine, so I’d go over to see him.
Relix: Does it surprise you that a band that has little or no commitment on vinyl could be considered one of the most symbolically significant bands from the San Francisco music scene?
Hicks: I don’t know. My opinion is that we’re the band that didn’t get very popular, the band that never made a record, really. We’re the band that never got any farther than Denver. We also played in Portland and Vancouver.
We never stayed together that well. We never had a manager or anything that solid that could keep us together, so it seemed that it was inevitably destined that we’d fold. We were never that musically consistent. There were a lot of nights that didn’t sound that great. There was no sense of arrangement. So I pressed on. I was doing my folk singing thing. I started writing a little more. I started bringing songs in for the Charlatans. I wanted to play guitar more. I got this other guy to play drums, and I’d be up on guitar and rhythm instruments, and I picked up on the bass, not too well. I would bring in tunes, but it was a little too rock and roll for me. You couldn’t hear the vocals. Everything would come out kind of boom, bang, and I wanted things smoother.
Finally, when I got the Hot Licks together, or what was to be them, I had a couple of girls, I had a violin player and a bass, the basic set up. We got a real good review from Ralph Gleason in the (S.F.) Chronicle back in ’68. I was still in the Charlatans, I was doing both. I did my (Hot Licks) debut and got the good review, and I decided to give up the Charlatans.
Relix: When you brought women into the band, were you thinking of it as a gimmick, or were you more concerned with a certain sound? There were very few women in bands then.
Hicks: I was thinking of the sound when I did it. I was getting more and more out of it. I was playing more gigs than I ever had with the Charlatans. I had a violin player at the time, David La Flamme, and a bass player, Bill Douglas. I don’t remember just how it came up, but I think he mentioned that his wife sang and that she had a friend. And I had a girlfriend at the time and she had a friend, but none of them could sing. So we were just goofing around. They could sing pretty well with the radio, but when it came time… Well, that’s how it all incubated. It gave me a chance to write stuff for the girls, little call and response things. Kind of like the Rayettes who performs with Ray Charles, the things they did. I was a Big Band fan, and I would listen to Brazil and Sergio Mendez in Brazil 66, and that kind of thing. So the girls just evolved from there. I wasn’t thinking of an image thing. It just happened. I didn’t think about how it would look, I thought about the sound.
Relix: What were your musical influences?
Hicks: Early was Big Band and swing stuff. I was a drummer in junior high and high school. The high school math teacher was a piano player, and he was into jazz. We had jam sessions after school. And I was in the Big Band, the dance band, as a drummer. My parents were country and western fans, so I heard that on the radio at home.
Relix: You played acoustic music in an electrically dominated musical time. What made you form a drummerless band (The Hot Licks)?
Hicks: Well, it just evolved from the folk act. I didn’t really know what I was going to do, or where I was going to go with it. I was playing coffee house gigs. I never thought “I’m going to take this and enter the world of electric music with this and see what happens.” I never thought of entering the competition or being in the race. I even felt flattered when the name appeared in Rolling Stones for the first time. I expected to see it in Sing Out, or something. The popularity was happening in spite of me. It was an added extra thing. I certainly welcomed it when I first got a record contract, though. It was tough. When I first signed with Epic, they had a convention in L.A. where they presented new products. Mine was supposed to be shown. They had a screen where they would show visuals, and you would hear cuts from the album, a slick presentation of all the new product. Mine wasn’t there! I asked why. We had postponed the release date just to be in this convention. They said they didn’t think the music would be loud enough against everything else. So it was sort of the opposite of an endorsement from our own record label.
Then I was playing on a bill with Steppenwolf, this was my first time out on a tour after I’d moved on to Blue Thumb Records. We were just about unknown at that time. People were throwing stuff at us. We were in the rock context, but there was no such thing as direct then, when we put the acoustic instruments through the PA system. We didn’t do any of that, we were just on the mikes. So it must have been real light. It was in a 6000 seat capacity place in Cleveland. So they threw stuff at us, ice cubes, basically. It was kind of bad. We could only play five songs before we had to leave… but not until after we told them where they could put it all.
Something I think still that I should have an electric band. Get a drummer and go pop (laughter).
Relix: Your music has been called sarcastic harmony-ridden 1930s soft shoe rock. Do you have a better term?
Hicks: I’ve been using “Folk Swing.” What do you say when you’re in a taxi and the driver asks what kind of music you play? Country tinged acoustic jazz, a contemporary throw back.
Relix: Much of your material is humorous. Have you ever written seriously?
Hicks: I think so. I’ve got some songs that are serious.
Relix: Have you ever had a period of time when you just wrote serious songs?
Hicks: Oh no. If I’m that serious, I don’t write at all. I haven’t written in a while. I wrote my first tune when I was about 19 or 20. It was funny because I was hanging around in Santa Rosa and I was going to Junior College part time. But I was mainly over at the coffee house learning guitar, and someone said “Why don’t you write a song, ‘How Can I Miss You If You Won’t Go Away?’” And I did. I never was able to write, then someone said that and suddenly I could write. I didn’t write anything for a few months, then I wrote one or two things. Then I didn’t write for a long time. Then I started writing more. I really started writing when I had the Hot Licks because I had the girls and I could think of more stuff.
Relix: You wrote an excellent song from a female perspective in a bar…
Hicks: I call that “Bottoms Up.” That’s serious. I have another song called “It’s Not My Time to Go.” It’s almost a musical answer to someone suggesting that you commit suicide. Yeah, I’ve got some serious stuff.
Relix: In 1975, you toured with a tape as your back-up. How did that go over?
Hicks: I was doing a single act opening up for people. I had my guitar but they had these tapes of old standards, a little jazz combo backing you up. It was probably against union rules to use this, but I did. But I only had a few songs I’d do. I could jump around the stage and pretend I was playing the piano. It was kind of okay. I got to sing a different style, more of the old type of tunes that I like, and not be restricted by my guitar. It wasn’t very extensive. I only did a few gigs that way.
Relix: Who was the Opening Night Jazz Band?
Hicks: In 1979, I went up to Portland (Oregon) and played with them. It was significant in that I met the guy who still plays guitar with me now, Turtle Vandemar. Jamie Leopold from the Hot Licks was from Portland, and she went back there. She was in that band, so that was how I made that connection. I went up there to play a gig and they backed me up a little bit.
Relix: Have you played with other artists on their records?
Hicks: Not significantly. I was on a Norman Greenbaum (Spirit In the Sky) record once, his second album, I think. I played washboard on one song, I played harmonica on an album by a guy named Leonard Shaefer. He’s passed away since then. So it’s not very extensive. There’s a jug band I’m in around Mill Valley, some guys from Cody, Country Joe’s old drummer. We get together and do some Christmas novelty tunes every year. And we made a cassette album. It’s real good. It could be a record by next year. I’m on that, playing different instruments.
Relix: What do you think of the music coming out of San Francisco now?
Hicks: There isn’t that much that reaches my ear. I went to the Bammies. I’m not really in tune to rock and roll. I like it for dancing. I’m mostly a jazz fan. I listen to the radio and buy old tapes, old stuff, Louis Jordan, and Bob Wills. I guess I’m more into the older stuff. I’ve got Manhattan Transfer tapes.
Relix: Do you have any projects that you’re currently working on?
Hicks: I’m in the process of thinking about making a small tape of a few of my songs with the Acoustic Warriors, the guys I play with, so I can get it into the hands of a few labels so I can get a record deal and make a record. If I want any change to happen with me right now, something different with growth, I’d have to make another record. I’ve been saying this same sentence for about a year, but it’s getting closer. It’s still in the thinking stages, but I may go into the studio next week. No matter what you’ve done, people still want to hear what you’ve got now.[ Close Window ]