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The American Eccentric: Acid Days and Ragtime Jazz with Dan Hicks

Max Bell pays tribute to psychedelic pioneer and folk swing vaudevillian Dan Hicks

Dan Hicks was a genuine American eccentric. A member of influential West Coast group The Charlatans, he was better known for his role as bandleader of Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks, a vaudeville and ragtime troupe who specialised in what Hicks termed "folk jazz”, albeit with tongue in lugubrious cheek. His best known songs were throwback tunes, but then Dan was always happier gazing at the past, and was delighted to tell people, “I don’t have a computer… yet.”

The Charlatans were an eccentric outfit. They dressed as Wild West gunslingers or Gold Rush prospectors, with a touch of Mississippi river boat gambler thrown in. Hicks was hired to play drums, but his songwriting blossomed so he moved front of stage and strummed a nifty rhythm guitar. Dandified and rebellious, The Charlatans laid claim to being the Bay Area’s first psychedelic group, although their music was hard to categorise. On one hand they hit dark druggy depths in Buffy Saint Marie’s Codine and toughed up Robert Johnson’s blues 32-20, but they could also trip out with the hypnotic Alabama Bound, a song that managed to sound as old as the railroad but as acidic as anything by the Airplane or the Dead.

Like many pioneers, The Charlatans were usurped by their followers and only released one single in their original guise, a cover of Lieber and Stoller’s The Shadow Knows for Kapp Records. Produced by Lovin’ Spoonful mentor Eric Jacobsen, the record was a local hit but failed to ignite interest elsewhere, and by 1967 Dan was itching to move. He already had the idea for his next project, and formed Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks in 1968.

"The Hot Licks was more of a cabaret act that evolved from the folk thing I was doing before the Charlatans. It was quieter (than The Charlatans), more lyric-oriented, swinging. The stuff I liked was jazz, Jim Kweskin’s Jug Band and Sergio Mendes’ Brazil 66. That jazz influence with contemporary tunes which somehow had a retro feel. It just sounded better to me. It’s not about retro or modern, it’s about this note or that note, which sounds better? The Charlatans were falling apart, there was no good management, didn’t seem to be any future in it. I was only fond of the music up to a point. Rock and roll wasn’t really my love. Then I started getting a couple of gigs, and added the girls, a female accompaniment came to mind.”

Hicks made a cameo appearance in the 1968 documentary film Revolution, but even in that exploration of San Francisco hippie counter culture he looked like a fish out of water, though he performed at all the big West Coast venues - the Fillmore, Carousel and Avalon Ballrooms. Audiences loved it, but the Hot Licks were viewed as light entertainment when it took hours of practice to sound that straightforward. As Hicks would say "You probably think it's easy being up here. Singing and everything, and playing. It's not. It's not easy. Thank you."

With his ideal group in place — violin, vocals, guitar, bass, no drums — Hicks released his 1969 debut on Epic, Original Recordings, produced by Bob Johnston (Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Mac Gayden). It featured I Scare Myself, Waiting For the 103 and Canned Music, as well as the laconic How Can I Miss You When You Won’t Go Away? Hicks and co. eventually won a deserved reputation for their musicianship, and there was plenty of humour in his writing alongside the poignancy. He spent his life creating. "He worked so hard on each and every detail – they are all pure Dan," says his wife, Clare Wassermann. And it wasn’t just the music. Hicks also designed his own concert fliers. He said, "I'm just a doodler, really". A damn good one.

The minutiae evidently didn’t impress Epic much. Hicks switched to the well-regarded Blue Thumb Records, whose boss Tommy LiPuma was more enamoured of the band’s crazy fusion of jump jazz and Western Swing. LiPuma produced the live at the Troubadour album Where’s The Money? and the ironically titled Striking It Rich. Still getting nowhere fast LiPuma insisted a drummer be drafted in for Last Train To Hicksville (1973), and Dan even made the cover of Rolling Stone in August that year, posed in front of a naked woman's crotch while she ruffled his hair.

Still, Hicks was usurped again by the infinitely cheesier Manhattan Transfer, though he had more in common with Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen, Asleep At The Wheel or Willie Nelson & Family (all four acts recorded a version of Merle Travis’ Western Swing hit Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette).

Just as he was gaining mainstream acceptance, appearing on popular TV outlets like The Flip Wilson Show, Hicks disbanded the Hot Licks and became a virtual Mill Valley recluse. I arranged an interview with him in 1978, but he’d vamoosed from his London hotel before I arrived, leaving a note that read “Sorry to let you down, but I don’t think I’ve got much to say that will interest you.” Curses. I saw him disappearing into a local public house but left him to it.

In his wilderness years Hicks gained a reputation for being a committed toper. Surf Dog Records rescued him and he graced the studio again in 2000 with a star studded comeback, Beatin’ The Heat, featuring fans Rickie Lee Jones, Bette Midler, Brian Setzer, Elvis Costello and one of his most ardent acolytes, Tom Waits, who growled along to I’ll Tell You Why That Is.

Even better was Featuring An All-Star Cast Of Friends (2003) where he was reunited with Charlatans Richard Olsen, George Hunter and Mike Wilhelm and the Hot Licks, including original violinist David LaFlamme. That 40-strong crew performed live at the Warfield, San Francisco in 2001.

His last album, with intros from Harry Shearer and Van Dyke Parks, was recorded at Davies Symphony Hall in 2013, by which time Hicks was sick and sang while sitting down.

After his passing, aged 74, Dan’s wife posted “So, Duke, Benny, Django and Stéphane — he's on his way — you'll be laughing soon!” Mike Wilhelm concurred. “I just found out that our beloved Dan Hicks left to play in the Really Big Band... If I know him he is already spicing up the arrangements of that esteemed aggregation. He will be sorely missed by everyone who knew him or was touched by his music and great wit.”

Thanks for all those hot licks.

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