Dan Hicks, influential Bay Area singer and band leader, dies at age 74

Press Democrat
Dan Hicks, influential Bay Area singer and band leader, dies at age 74

Bette with Dan Hicks
Bette with Dan Hicks

Singer and bandleader Dan Hicks, who grew up in Santa Rosa and went on to become an influential figure in American roots music in the 1960s and 1970s as well as its recent revival, died on Saturday at the age of 74.

His death was announced by his wife, Clare, on his Facebook page. Hicks, a Mill Valley resident, had been battling liver cancer.

The Bay Area musician and Montgomery High School graduate was best known for his band Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks, formed in 1967. The group incorporated elements of jazz, swing, folk, bluegrass, jug band, bebop and acid mariachi among other styles.

Along with better known contemporaries Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead and Santana, the group and Hicks were among those credited with crafting the experimental and psychedelic “San Francisco sound” in the 1960s.

“His role is really big,” said Jeff Martin, a local musician and recording engineer, of Hick’s influence on contemporary musicians. “He was a brilliant musician and a very good singer.”

Hicks, who got his start as a drummer with the pioneering rock band The Charlatans, landed on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine once and appeared on comedian’s Flip Wilson’s show in 1972.

The Hot Licks released their first album, “Original Recordings” in 1969, followed quickly by “Where’s The Money?” in 1971, “Striking It Rich” in 1972 and “Last Train to Hicksville” in 1973.

Hicks disbanded the Hot Licks after the group’s fourth album and released what would be his last studio album for 22 years in 1978.

But after fighting alcoholism and becoming sober, he revived his career at the turn of the century, when he went back on tour. In 2000, Hicks released “Beatin’ the Heat,” which received good reviews and had an all-star cast of guest spots, including Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Rickie Lee Jones, Bette Midler and Brian Setzer.

He entertained fans with a personality that friends and fellow musicians described as sardonic, sarcastic and deadpan. His lyrics could be humorous and wry.

One of his better known songs, “How Can I Miss You When You Won’t Go Away?” describes a tortured romance.
“I’ve talked to your mother and I’ve talked to your dad/ They say they’ve tried but it’s all in vain/ I’ve begged and I’ve pleaded, I’ve even got mad/ Now we must face it, you give me a pain/how can I miss you when you won’t go away?’’

David LaFlamme, who was an original violinist in the Hot Licks, said Hicks was a stubborn artist and his drinking could make him difficult to love, even for fans.

One night in Houston during the mid-1970s, Hicks was playing a concert and rebuffed song requests from the crowd, playing only snippets of songs before stopping, LaFlamme recalled. The crowd got hostile and began throwing beer at him, forcing the club owner to have security remove Hicks from the performance hall, said LaFlamme.

“He didn’t necessarily like being liked,” LaFlamme said.

But Hicks was a tireless and dedicated musician, he added.

“He worked too hard and put on too many shows. He was a guy who deeply cared for what he did,” LaFlamme said. “He just didn’t wear his heart on his sleeve.”

Dan Hicks was born Dec. 9, 1941, in Little Rock, Ark. His father, Ivan, was a career military man, and the family moved to Santa Rosa when the young Hicks was about 5.

Hicks attended Slater Middle School and was in the first class to graduate from Montgomery High School in 1959. He played in school bands and by the age of 14 was playing gigs with dance bands in the area, according to a biography on his website.
He entered San Francisco State College in 1959, the same year he picked up the guitar and settled into the local folk music scene, playing and singing in coffeehouses.

In 1965, he joined The Charlatans. In addition to drumming, he sang and played guitar for the group, which performed at music halls across the city.

After disbanding the Hot Licks in 1973 at the height of their popularity, Hicks continued to perform in the 1980s and 1990s, including a spot on the TV show “Austin City Limits.”

Later on, he called the revival of his career more of a continuance, noting to The Press Democrat in 2000 that “the smaller companies didn’t have the money to do an album, and the larger companies didn’t know what to do with me.”

He released seven more albums after 2000, including 2010’s “Crazy for Christmas,” and one DVD. The resurgence came at the same time Americana and other folk music genres were gaining more acceptance on the festival circuit and radio stations, such as Santa Rosa’s KRSH.
“I think his influence is going to be felt for years to come,” said Bill Bowker, a KRSH radio DJ, who noted many artists that he plays on the station owe a debt to Hicks.

Fellow musicians posted their tributes on social media outlets Saturday after the announcement of his death.

English musician Thomas Dolby and American composer Van Dyke Parks posted their condolences on Twitter.

Bowker noted that Hicks, who studied broadcasting at San Francisco State, enjoyed being on the air and he would occasionally have the musician in the studio.

Hicks once called to give Bowker a traffic report on the air, telling the DJ that “these cars are passing me by because I’m parked.” Bowker said he couldn’t tell if Hicks was on a roadway or at home pulling a prank.

He last saw Hicks at the 2015 Kate Wolf Music Festival in Laytonville, where the musician was up to teasing Bowker despite being in frail health.

“He was his usual smart-ass self,” Bowker said fondly.

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