Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks, began performing in the late 1960s in San Francisco, where psychedelic rock bands like Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead dominated the music sound. The Hot Licks’ sound could not have been more different.
Dan Hicks, a singer, songwriter and bandleader who attracted a devoted following with music that was defiantly unfashionable, proudly eccentric and foot-tappingly catchy, died Saturday at his home in Mill Valley, California. He was 74.
The cause was liver cancer, said his wife, Clare.
Hicks began performing with his band, Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks, in the late 1960s in San Francisco, where psychedelic rock bands like Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead dominated the music sound. The Hot Licks’ sound could not have been more different.
At a time when rock was getting louder and more aggressive, Hicks’ instrumentation — two guitars (Hicks played rhythm), violin and stand-up bass, with two women providing harmony and backup vocals — offered a laid-back, all-acoustic alternative that was a throwback to a simpler time, while his lyrics gave the music a modern, slightly askew edge.
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He came to call his music “folk swing,” but that only hinted at the range of influences he synthesized. He drew from the American folk tradition but also from the Gypsy jazz of Django Reinhardt, the Western swing of Bob Wills, the harmony vocals of the Andrews Sisters, the raucous humor of Fats Waller and numerous other sources.
“It starts out with kind of a folk music sound,” Hicks explained in a 2007 interview, “and we add a jazz beat and solos and singing. We have the two girls that sing, and jazz violin, and all that, so it’s kind of light in nature, it’s not loud. And it’s sort of, in a way, kind of carefree.”
Songs like “How Can I Miss You When You Won’t Go Away?,” “Milk-Shakin’ Mama” (“I found the girl who serves the ice cream/And now it’s I who scream for her”) and “Hell, I’d Go,” about a man whose fondest wish is to be abducted by aliens, displayed his dry and often absurd wit, as did his gently self-mocking stage presence. But he had his serious side, too: “I Scare Myself,” a longtime staple of his repertoire, was a brooding, hypnotic minor-key ballad about being afraid to love.
Hicks’ records never sold in the millions, but at the height of his popularity in the early 1970s, he and his band appeared on network television and headlined at Carnegie Hall, and he appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Fellow musicians were among his biggest fans: Guest artists on “Beatin’ the Heat” (2000), the first Hot Licks album after a long hiatus, included Bette Midler, Elvis Costello and Tom Waits, while Willie Nelson and Jimmy Buffett joined him in the studio four years later for “Selected Shorts.”
Daniel Ivan Hicks was born on Dec. 9, 1941, in Little Rock, Arkansas, the son of Ivan Hicks, a career military man, and the former Evelyn Kehl. His family moved to Santa Rosa, California, near San Francisco, when he was a child.
He took up drums in sixth grade and guitar as a teenager. After graduating from San Francisco State University with a degree in broadcasting, he performed in local folk clubs while also playing drums with dance bands.
From 1965 to 1968, Hicks was the drummer and occasional vocalist with the Charlatans, widely regarded as the first San Francisco psychedelic band, although he himself remembered it as less a band than “just kind of some loose guys.” While still with the Charlatans, he formed the first version of the Hot Licks.
The group’s 1969 album, “Original Recordings,” sold poorly, but three subsequent albums for the independent Blue Thumb label established it as a successful touring act.
Hicks nonetheless disbanded the group in 1973, at the height of its popularity. “It was getting old,” he explained in 1997. “We became less compatible as friends. I was pretty disillusioned, had some money, and didn’t want to do it anymore.”
His career stalled after that, but he returned in the 1980s with a new group, the Acoustic Warriors, which duplicated the Hot Licks instrumentation without the female singers. In the late 1990s, he added two singers and brought back the Hot Licks name.
The band, with frequent changes in personnel, toured regularly and continued to perform occasionally in recent years when Hicks’ health allowed, most recently in December in Napa, California.
In addition to his wife, Hicks is survived by a stepdaughter, Sara Wasserman.
“I will always be humble to my dying day,” Hicks, tongue in cheek as usual, said when interviewed in 2013 by Roberta Donnay of the Hot Licks. “On my dying day I will explain to the world how lucky they have been to be alive the same time as me.”