Dan Hicks, a swinging eclectic San Francisco Bay Area-based acoustic singer-songwriter and bandleader, who described his music as “folk jazz,” died February 6 at his Mill Valley home. He was 74 and had been battling liver and throat cancer for two years.
“He was true blue, one of a kind, and did it all his own way always,” his wife Clare Wasserman posted on Hicks’ website and Facebook fan page. “To all who loved him, know that he will live forever in the words, songs, and art that he spent his life creating.”
Fusing folk, jazz, country, western and big band swing, bluegrass, pop, jug band, and gypsy music, Hicks’ sound was distinctive and hard to pigeonhole. Describing his music during a 2007 interview before a gig in Breckenridge, CO that appears on YouTube, Hicks said:
“My music is kind of a blending. 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.”
Born in Little Rock, Arkansas, Hicks moved with his family to Northern California when he was about 5 and grew up listening to country music. He played drums during his elementary school years, including a stint on snare drum with his school’s marching band. As a teenager, his musical tastes broadened to include swing era jazz and, later, folk, bluegrass, jug band and blues. He took up the guitar and played and sang at Bay Area coffeehouses.
As the San Francisco psychedelic rock scene was just beginning to blossom, he became the drummer for a folk-rock group called The Charlatans in 1965. Less than three years later, he formed his own band, Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks. The group developed a wide cult following and scored hits with “I Scare Myself” and “Canned Music,” while Hicks landed on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine in 1973 — just as the Hot Licks was breaking up following the release of its last album, Last Train to Hicksville. Hicks often injected dry humor into his songs, which bear such titles as “How Can I Miss You When You Won’t Go Away?” During the 1980s he formed another group called The Acoustic Warriors. After spending some years doing some solo projects and writing music for commercials, films and television, he later reformed Dan Hicks & The Hot Licks with different personnel. He continued to tour worldwide and also played some local gigs as a vocalist with the swinging combo Bayside Jazz. Hicks’ last album, Live at Davies, released in 2013, features musical highlights from an all-star revue at San Francisco’s Davies Hall that was held in 2010 to celebrate his 70th birthday.