Dan Hicks (Hot Licks) was born in Little Rock, Arkansas on December 9, 1941, the only child of Ivan L. Hicks (a career United States Army and United States Air Force non-commissioned officer) and the former Evelyn Kehl. At age five, Hicks moved with his family to California. Following brief stints in Lomita, Cambria, and Vallejo, the family settled in Santa Rosa, the largest city in the North Bay subregion of the San Francisco Bay Area, where he was a drummer in grade school and played the snare drum in his school marching band.
At 14, he was performing with area dance bands. While in high school, he had a rotating spot on Time Out for Teens, a daily 15-minute local radio program. After receiving an A.A. in general education from Santa Rosa Junior College, he went on to earn a B.A. in broadcasting from San Francisco State College in 1965. Taking up the guitar in 1959, he became part of the American folk music revival scene during his undergraduate studies, often dropping out intermittently to perform at venues across the United States. Strongly influenced by the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, he would cultivate friendships with several of the group’s members (most notably Maria Muldaur) later in life.
Although he maintained an equivocal stance toward rock music (lauding the early recordings of Elvis Presley and The Byrds while retrospectively maintaining that “rock has never really been my thing”), Hicks joined seminal San Francisco psychedelic rock band The Charlatans on drums in 1965.
In this capacity, he participated in the group’s celebrated summer 1965 engagement at the Red Dog Saloon in Virginia City, Nevada. After the band failed to secure a long-term recording contract, he switched to rhythm guitar in 1967 and briefly performed his original material as the group’s frontman before leaving in 1968.
When Hicks reformed the band circa 1972, Page and Leopold remained, and vocalists Naomi Ruth Eisenberg and Maryann Price joined, followed later by guitarist John Girton. This group recorded three albums, culminating in 1973’s Last Train to Hicksville on which the group first added a sparingly used drummer, Bob Scott. Last Train to Hicksville was so good that Rolling Stone magazine put Hicks’ mustachioed mug on its highly coveted cover.
Though he disbanded the Hot Licks in 1974 at the peak of its popularity. Of this move, Hicks said, “I didn’t want to be a bandleader anymore. It was a load and a load I didn’t want. I’m basically a loner.”
For the next fifteen years, Hicks chose a lower profile, playing solo acoustic shows; writing commercial jingles for products such as Levi’s, Bic Lighters, and Ball Park Franks; and composing scores for films and television programs—most notably the score for the animated Ralph Bakshi film Hey Good Lookin’ (1982). Hicks’s songs were featured in the popular television shows The Sopranos and The Osbournes,and Hicks appeared in the Gene Hackman legal drama Class Action(1991), performing two songs in the film. During this period, Hicks was involved in only musical two projects that resulted in commercially released music; both were relatively obscure and remain somewhat rare.
In 1998, Hicks poised himself for a return to the mainstream when he signed a deal with Surfdog Records. This resulted in Beatin’ the Heat (2000), which became his first release with the newly re-formed Hot Licks since 1973. After that, he released a number of studio albums and collaborated with artists such as Jim Keltner, Gibby Haynes, Elvis Costello, Rickie Lee Jones, Van Dyke Parks, Willie Nelson, and Jimmy Buffett. Hicks’s music is featured regularly on the Buffett-affiliated Sirius/XM satellite radio station Radio Margaritaville. In 2009, Hicks released Tangled Tales, his fifth album with Surfdog Records. Hicks and his band also released a Christmas album in 2010.
On tour in 2007, Dan Hicks’ Hot Licks included Paul Smith, Dave Bell, Richard Chon, and the two “Lickettes,” Roberta Donnay and the mono-monikered Daria. The combo paid homage to jazz greats such as Django Reinhardt with “Topsy” and Fats Waller with “Honeysuckle Rose.” Hicks sang Tom Waits’ infamous anthem to alcohol, “The Piano Has Been Drinking,” while the ladies were featured on “I’m an Old Cowhand,” a big hit for Bing Crosby back in 1936.
“My music is kind of a blending,” Hicks told a Colorado concert audience that year. “We have acoustic instruments. It starts out with kind of a folk music sound, 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, kinda carefree. Most of the songs are, I wouldn’t say funny, but kinda maybe a little humorous. We all like jazz, so we like to play in a jazzy way, with a swing sound you know, so I call it ‘folk swing.’ There are a lot of original tunes that I’ve been writing through the years, so that has its personal touch on it.”
Discs released in 2009 and 2013 show Hicks still dabbling in early jazz and swing. The CD Tangled Tales has Hicks crooning “The Blues My Naughty Baby Gave to Me” from 1919 and “Ragtime Cowboy Joe” from 1912. On 2013’s Live at Davies, Hicks handled “Hummin’ to Myself” by the Washboard Rhythm Kings and Duke Ellington’s “Take the A Train.” “Dan was one of contemporary music’s true innovators,” said Patricia Lockwood-Blais, poet, novelist, and essayist, who booked him in 2007 to play the Earlville Opera House in Upstate New York. “And his wit was irresistible.” In fact, humor has always been an important part of the Hot Licks’ act.
Dan Hicks died Feb. 6, 2016 at his home in Mill Valley, Ca, after a lengthy bout with throat and liver cancer. He was 74.
In a report on his death, the New York Times called Hicks “defiantly unfashionable, proudly eccentric and foot-tappingly catchy.”