Even at age 70, singer/songwriter/musician Dan Hicks is still teaching Kollege. There is no final exam and the best part of his classroom is a concert stage. Since the early 1960s, Hicks has deftly blended elements of Swing, Jazz, Folk and Country music to create the appealing sound he sometimes calls “Folk Jazz,” which has coalesced in his musical revue, the “Kollege of Musical Knowledge.” As luck would have it, Professor Hicks and his band, the Hot Licks, will teach “students” some music history for one night only at Lone Pine’s “Concert in the Rock” series in the Alabama Hills’ Lone Ranger Canyon on June 2.
“I stole the show’s name from bandleader Kay Kyser, who had a radio quiz show in the 1930s and ‘40s,” he recalled. “It’s a narrative history of pop, jazz, folk. It started with a couple of different concepts, one folk, another about singing cowboys.”
He and the Hot Licks — Daria and Roberta Donnay on vocals and percussion, Michael Price on bass, Paul Robinson on guitars, and Benito Cortez on violin and mandolin — will spin monologues and musical yarns about the blues, pop western, Count Basie, Chuck Berry, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, among others … and, of course, some of his own tunes. “You’ll definitely hear some Hot Licks sounds,” Hicks stated.
Originally from Arkansas, he’s lived in California since grade school. “I started out as a drummer in school, playing jazz, Dixieland and Swing,” he recalled. Hicks earned a degree in Broadcasting from San Francisco State, and kept playing music. “When I was 20, I took up the guitar and got into folk, which was taking off in the coffee houses and with Bob Dylan. I played hootenannies and anything I could get.”
Labeling himself an “advanced folk guitarist,” Hicks has always used his guitar as an accompaniment to singing. “I’m more of a rhythm player, not a soloist.”
He’s never strayed far from his jazz roots, though, adding that the Hot Licks sound is based more on swing than anything.
In the spring of 1965, Hicks alternated on drums, guitar and vocals for San Francisco folk-rock group The Charlatans.
The band never achieved the commercial success enjoyed by Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead and Quicksilver Messenger Service. As Hicks explains it, “The Charlatans were kind of dysfunctional anyway. There was no real management, and it was just kind of some loose guys.”
Following the disbanding of The Charlatans, he formed Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks, which recorded five critically lauded and Billboard-charting records during the 1970s, and toured all over the world.
He even managed to achieve the Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show dream of seeing his picture on the cover of Rolling Stone … twice. “For a while, just about every week I could find my name mentioned in an issue somewhere.”
And one of the songs from that era, “Where’s the Money?” recorded in 1971, was used in an episode of HBO’s landmark TV series, “The Sopranos.”
“That was a great coup,” he acknowledged. “Somebody on the show has to be a fan. It’s a great calling card. You tell people you had a song in ‘The Sopranos,’ people bow with respect. As they should,” he quipped.
As the group’s notariety grew, so did Hicks’ dismay with constantly trying to wrangle the band and its clash of personalities. In 1974, he pulled the plug. Laying low much of the 1980s, he reunited the group once in 1992 for an edition of the PBS TV concert series Austin City Limits.
By the new millennium, Hicks decided it was time to get hot again with a new Hot Licks incarnation. “I wasn’t exactly sure at the time, but it clearly was the right move,” he said. After 12 years, Hicks is still having fun and has no intention of stopping.
He and the band have been busy, releasing a string of recordings … “Beatin’ the Heat” in 2000, featuring collaborations with Bette Midler, Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, Rickie Lee Jones and former Stray Cat Brian Setzer … “Alive & Lickin’” in 2001 … a 2003 CD and companion DVD “Dan Hicks and The Hot Licks Featuring an All Star Cast of Friends,” that reunited Hicks with virtually every musician he has ever played and recorded with … 2005 brought the release of “Selected Shorts,” featuring the likes of Willie Nelson, Jimmy Buffett, legendary session drummer Jim Keltner and songwriter Van Dyke Parks … the 10th Hot Licks studio album, “Tangled Tales” in 2009, … and in 2010 Hicks issued his “Crazy For Christmas” album, featuring 12 mostly original tunes that the New York Times reviewed as “exemplary!”
One thing he’s known for on stage is being a colorful, snazzy dresser. “I like to look a certain way, yes,” he related. “I have to keep up with the ladies in the band, who are sort of trendsetters. We don’t have any requirements or particular looks … just tasetful. It’s also a visual show.”
Of course, that jives with his taste in music, which he said is decidedly eclectic. “I can even listen to polka … for about five minutes,” he said.
Apart from that, and continuing with the Hot Licks, Hicks said he’d like to do more “Bayside” jazz, singing standards in the style of Mel Torme and scatting.
Having recently turned 70, Hicks said he doesn’t really “get” being that age. “It sounds weird … but it doesn’t feel weird.”
Buses to Lone Ranger Canyon start picking up at the Lone Pine Film History Museum starting at 5 p.m. Concert and dinner at 6 p.m. Tix: $80. Info: 760.876.9909 or www.lonepinefilmhistorymuseum.org. Find out more about Hicks at www.danhicks.net.