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DAN HICKS, 1941-2016

Dan Hicks, whose inventive and often comic twist on Western swing-based music stood out from all music springing from the rock underground of the late 1960s and early ‘70s, died Saturday in Mill Valley, Calif., after a two-year battle with throat and liver cancer. He was 74.

His wife, CT Hicks, wrote on his website: “He was true blue, one of a kind, and did it all his own way always. To all who loved him, know that he will live forever in the words, songs, and art that he spent his life creating. He worked so hard on each and every detail—they are all pure Dan.

“So, Duke, Benny, Django and Stephane—he's on his way—you'll be laughing soon!”

The musicians she mentioned—Ellington, Goodman, Reinhardt and Grappelli—had considerable sway over the music Hicks wrote for his band The Hot Licks, which made four albums for Epic and Blue Thumb between 1969 and ‘74 before Hicks put the act on hiatus. He revived the Hot Licks with a new lineup in 2000 and recorded four more albums in his trademark style, a blend of swing, bluegrass, jazz and folk music buoyed with a wink and a nod in the lyrics. 

With trademark songs such as “I Scare Myself,” “Walking One and Only” and “How Can I Miss You When You Won’t Go Away,” Hicks and his quintet brought a modern sensibility—his lyrics were as likely to expose vulnerability as drunken behavior—to popular musical styles of the 1920s and ‘30s. 

Ben Sidran, the pianist and singer, compared Hicks’ ability to work with earlier eras to that of the comics artist R. Crumb. “When you read an R. Crumb comic book,” Sidran wrote, “you don’t flash on about how ‘old’ everything is. You realize how true (how real) everything looks. Both R. Crumb and Dan Hicks have this in common:  They  use the mood of the past to rewire your brain for the future. ... Both cats can be very funny in a serious way.” (A sign of his humor: In the San Francisco Yellow Pages, Dan Hicks and his Hot Licks were listed under “bar fixtures.”)

A San Francisco legend, Hicks started as the drummer in The Charlatans, the electric jug band that birthed the mid-1960s scene that would include the Jefferson Airplane and Grateful Dead, but never saw any commercial success. While in The Charlatans, he formed the Hot Licks featuring the Lickettes—i.e., his  two female backup singers—and opened shows for his main band. 

He soon left The Charlatans to focus on the Hot Licks, and signed with Epic Records, which released Original Recordings, which featured songs Hicks would record several times: “I Scare Myself,” “Canned Music,” “How Can I Miss You When You Won’t Go Away” and “Shorty Falls in Love.” The album flopped—Hicks faulted Epic’s promotion of the LP—and he quickly signed with Blue Thumb. He retained violinist Sid Page and bassist Jaime Leopold, bringing in new singers and a rhythm guitarist. His third album on Blue Thumb, Last Train to Hicksville, was the only one to crack the Top 100, and soon after its release, Hicks disbanded the group. 

Hicks started writing music for commercials, television and movies—Warner Bros. Records released a compilation in 1978 (It Happened One Bite)—and stayed quiet during the 1980s. In the mid-90s he worked with a smaller unit, The Acoustic Warriors, putting out a single live album on Private Music. He revived the Hot Licks in 2000 for Beatin’ the Heat with Page and a lineup of new musicians plus special guests Tom Waits, Bette Midler, Rickie Lee Jones and Brian Setzer, and would record several more albums, including a Christmas disc.

He made a much-welcome return to touring in 2000 and performed live up through late last year, making his final appearance at City Winery in Napa, Calif., on 12/27.

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