Dan Hicks is a loopy thread of 24-karat gold woven through the tapestry that is San Francisco Bay Area pop music, from the amazing '60s clear through to today.
Hicks' loop of gold is returning to the front.
Over the years his career has sometimes shined bright and publically; other times it has ducked behind the weave. At all times, his writing and musicianship have been excellent, intelligent and fascinating.
"I'm not some kind of automatic, you know, recognized star or anything," Hicks said last week from his San Francisco home and office. "I have to earn this.
He started earning his bit of fame and fortune in his early 20s, as a folkie in Bay Area coffee houses, singing and finger-picking in 1963.
That was followed by a gig as a drummer for the Charlatans in 1965 -- the Charlatans being the blues-rock band that a lot of people are now calling the beginning of what became the San Francisco rock scene.
But Hicks wasn't content to sit behind the traps, so started his own band, doing an acoustic swing-folk kind of thing with just him on guitar, a bass player and two female singers. That eventually became Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks, and from 1968 through about 1973, they were, indeed, hot.
There were several albums, including "Where's the Money" and "Striking It Rich." Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett and Flip Wilson all welcomed the band to TV shows, and Hicks twice appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Their shows were a blast. Hicks and John Girton on guitars, "Symphony" Sid Page on violin and mandolin, Jaime Leopold on big-ol' stand-up bass and Maryann Price, Naomi Ruth Eisenberg and Hicks on vocals. Between songs, Hicks talked with the audience, titillating with his dry we're talkin' Sahara wit, while the Hot Licks all seemed to go into comas. Or drug nods.
Then they would swing into a tune something complex, demanding and wonderful, ranging from "I Scare Myself" or "Woe the Luck" to "Walkin' One and Only," and everyone knew these people were great. And unimpaired.
And funny. "I rode in on a horse and can't seem to get out of L.A." screamed Leopold in a rare vocal, on "Skippy's Farewell." "What am I gonna do?"
And then, right at the height of their popularity, came "Last Train to Hicksville," the farewell to the Hot Licks.
"It turned on itself or something," Hicks said last week, while taking a break from packing for a trip to Colorado for a series of shows. "Personality problems, too much to handle, I didn't want to do it anymore.
"I thought, I've got my singing and writing and playing ability, and I'll do a variation on this solo thing ... a couple of guys backing me up for a while.
And that's what he did, on his own, or with Dan Hicks and the Acoustic Warriors. There were many good shows, some TV and other popular interest, a few albums, but sometimes, empty seats.
"All along," Hicks said, "I would get this advice from, uh, Joe Blow that was his name, Joe Blow that I should get the girls again. That I should get the Hot Licks again. Joe Blow knew better than I did."
Joe Blow's advice was not necessarily well received by Hicks during that period.
But, over the years, Hicks kept thinking about it. He stopped drinking and smoking in 1985. Maybe ten years ago, he even took some singing lessons, which could be part of why his voice is maybe even better today, at age 59, than in the Hot Licks days.
But, "When I signed with Surfdog, the guy running that thing (Dave Kaplan) thought I should use the Hot Licks name again, use the girls again, make a record with the girls.
"I had balked at it for a decade or two, didn't want to have to do it.
"But, gradually, I started getting used to the idea again."
The result, in August of last year, was the Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks album "Beatin' the Heat," with cameo appearances by Bette Midler, Elvis Costello, Rickie Lee Jones, Tom Waits and others.
And Hicks fans have been lickin' it up.
"We've been getting great houses, people showing up, really good attendance, real good press coverage for the album, have a great big stack of reviews and stuff," Hicks said.
"It feels better to put forth the effort and essentially the same effort, a lot of effort, if you're doing it for something," said Hicks, something like the full houses the band has played to since reforming as the Hot Licks.
Hicks has gotten almost comfortable with it.
"It's just a good sound," he said. "It's full, it's tight. You know, a good act. More fun to watch, more dynamics going on."
And, hitting the racks later this month, a fabulous new album, "Alive and Lickin'," recorded recently at the Iron Horse in Northampton, Massachusetts.
The disc has 14 tracks and features the new Hot Licks: Tom Mitchell on lead guitar, Brian Godchaux on violin and mandolin, Steve Alcott on bass, Annabelle Cruz on violin and vocals, Susan Raybin on vocals, and, of course, Hicks on guitar and vocals.
Some of Hicks' great oldies are performed here, including "How Can I Miss You When You Won't Go Away?" some new Hicks tunes and some great covers, including a vocal arrangement of Waits' "The Piano Has Been Drinkin'" and an instrumental of Duke Ellington's "Caravan."
Things are copacetic with the new band, so far.
"It's pretty good with the current group," said Hicks. "Everyone seems to be on the trip, digging it, we get along.
"The best part is being up on stage and doing it, you know?"
But, there is still the business of getting packed and taking the cab to San Francisco Airport again, which can get old.
Yet, Hicks will stick with the Hot Licks again, maybe another four and a half years, he said, dryly.
"If it feels like it continues to grow, if the music gets better, if the money gets better.
"If it's just the same thing year in, year out, then no."
Dan Hick's page at Surfdog: www.surfdog.com/
We talked with Hicks and Licks in 2001
to the old Licks?
Dan Hicks found the great players who were Hot Licks and put them together, and they added up, as several of them have said, to be more than the sum of their parts.
Even David LaFlamme, who left the Hot Licks because his A Beautiful Day band was doing so well, kind of misses those days. "I really enjoy accompanying people more than being out front. I like both, but really did enjoy accompanying Dan. When you are out front, doing your own tunes, it's more pressure."
Hicks thrives on being out front. But he also gives a lot of credit to the wonderful musicians who have worked with him.
Here's where some of the former Hot Licks have been since, and what they are doing now.
In the early '70s, Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks were probably the funniest band in all of what we loosely call rock 'n' roll, not just among the best musicians performing back then.
Great music, great gags, great show.
At the Troubador in Los Angeles one night, what seemed to be one of the band's best bits was when all the Hot Licks went into comas between the songs.
As soon as one of the stunning folk-rock-swing-jazz tunes ended audience ears, eyes and minds still reeling from bravura guitars, violins, bass and voices all the players but Hicks just stopped, even hanging down their heads as if nodding off, while Hicks regaled the audience with jokes and banter.
Then, when a new tune began, those seeming laggards swung back into the music with power and precision. Amazing.
It seemed like theater, stagecraft, something extra to amuse the audiences.
But no, as it turns out. The Hot Licks really were just bored.
"Dan could go on for quite a while," recalled violinist "Symphony" Sid Page the other day from his home in Southern California. "Our joke was, 'Come on, Dan, why don't you see if you can do one (song) in a row.' There were hit and miss nights when Dan would do his patter ... sometimes there was real repartee with the audience. And some nights we'd just kind of hunker down and wait for the next tune."
"To my memory we never planned that sort of falling-asleep," said bassist Jaimie Leopold, from his office in Portland, Oregon. "By that time we were bored with Dan's patter. And, possibly, under the influence of something."
Hicks' latest live album, with new Hot Licks on hand, "Alive and Lickin'," shows that he is still hilarious between tunes, and is not afraid of interrupting a song when he feels like it.
For instance, breaking in to "How Can I Miss You When You Won't Go Away?" with a few lines from "I've Seen Fire, I've Seen Rain."
"Two songs for the price of one, ladies and gentlemen," he intones dramatically.
Or, telling a heckler, "I'll tell you what's up, my friend" getting a big laugh then breaking into this song, borrowing from Duke Ellington for the melody:
"Missed the toilet last night; went all over the floor. Cleaned it up with my toothbrush, don't brush my teeth much anymore."
Hicks fans will get a chance to see their boy in action again Sunday evening (in December 2001), as Hicks celebrates his 60th birthday at the Warfield in San Francisco, with 40 or 50 or so of his closest musical friends along to help.
Hicks' entire 40-plus years musical career will be represented. The Redwood Singers, which Hicks was a part of at age 19. The Fabulous Opinions doo-wop group. Three players from the Charlatans San Francisco's first big-deal rock band of the '60s. David LaFlamme (who went on to "White Bird" fame with A Beautiful Day) and bassist Jaime Leopold the original two Hot Licks as well as the rest of early Hot Licks groups. Not to mention the current Hot Licks guitarist Tom Mitchell, violin and mandolin player Brian Godchaux, bassist Steve Alcott, singer/violinist Annabelle Cruz and singer Susan Rabin.
And, oh, as many as 25 former Acoustic Warriors and almost anyone else who has played with Hicks during his long creative career.
And it's likely to be a great show. "They'll be at the top of their game when they walk into the room," Hicks said by phone a couple of weeks ago. He has always had great bands because "I usually pick people that are better than me. They know more music than I do, are more trained.
"We'll do "Canned Music' with 15 people instead of five," Hicks said. "We'll start the show with a cast of 40, with 'You've Got to Believe,' and close with 'The Buzzard Was Their Friend.' During the show we will have different aggregations.
"I hope it works out."
Hicks is "One of the great American songwriters," says Leopold, who still plays bass but puts food on the table via his ad agency. "A great American voice. He combined '40s swing jazz, folk, jazz, pop. He's always been a real original lyricist. The tunes themselves ... some of the stuff is as good as anybody who's made it."
LaFlamme, talking from his Southern California home on Tuesday, agreed about Hicks' greatness as a songwriter. "In the style of a Hoagy Carmichael," said LaFlamme.
At a time when there were a lot of great songwriters working in pop music Bob Dylan, Stephen Stills, Neil Young, Sly Stone, Van Morrison, Carole King among them Hicks stood out for mixing so many musical styles with both excellent musicianship and great wit.
Audiences got to move between something as belly-busting funny as "O'Reilly At the Bar" to something as thoughtful and touching as "Canned Music."
His latest albums including new material, "Beatin' the Heat" and "Alive and Lickin'," show he's still writing and performing great tunes. (If you can buy only one Dan Hicks album this year, make it "Alive and Lickin'.")
But maybe the biggest Hicks show-stopper of all time is "I Scare Myself," which Hicks first wrote and recorded back when LaFlamme was the Hot Licks violinist. But that recording was only released just last year; the version Hicks fans know best is the one from the great album "Striking It Rich," with Page taking a fabulous solo on a recording that is more than five and a half minutes long.
"Out of all of Dan's great tunes, I guess that was the one that kept my interest particually alive," said Page last week. "It's just such a serious, meaty tune."
At the show on Sunday, there may be six or more past and current Hot Licks violinists working on that tune.
"I'm not sure what he has in mind," said Page, who is now a top film-studios violinist and concert master. "In one of his early letters to me he mentioned, made some glib remark, about "then of course we'll have the three-hour jam on 'Scare Myself" as the last tune.' Which may or may not be a veiled threat, I don't know."
LaFlamme, who continues to tour as A Beautiful Day and who plays many other types of violin gigs in Southern California, hopes it doesn't happen that way. If he had his choice, he, Dan and Leopold would get to play, just the original trio. Because, "that's one of the things I don't like jams with a lot of musicians. But that's the way it goes. (Dan) always does something crazy."
Speaking of crazy, that's what some of the old Hot Licks seem to think Hicks was to break up that band back in the middle '70s.
"He quit right at the top of being the hottest," recalled Leopold. 'Last Train to Hicksville' had just come out it was 56 with a bullet on the charts, we were all set to tour behind it. We probably could have made some real money."
"We were more than the sum of the people (as a band)," noted former Hot Licks guitarist John Girton, from his Northern Sierras home. "Now (Dan) is doing good again, and he has that same thing going."
Girton, who has a small recording studio and still tours as a guitarist, thinks the show on Sunday will be a blast. "The best thing about the whole Hot Licks thing is the music is great. When you get on stage it somehow made it all worth it, ya know?"
"I'm going to have a good time," said LaFlamme, who recently played at Mary Bono's wedding. "It's a birthday party, I know everybody who'll be there. I'll just get up to play when he wants me to."