Dan Hicks has been a part of musical history in at least two big ways.
First, he was the drummer for The Charlatans, which is widely credited as the first psychedelic rock band. The Charlatans formed in San Francisco in 1964, and Hicks joined in time for their summer 1965 residency at the Red Dog Saloon in Virginia City, Nev. When they returned to San Francisco, The Charlatans were important players in the city’s burgeoning music scene, helping to pave the way for the emerging San Francisco Sound.
Second, in 1968 he founded Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks, which went in a more eclectic acoustic direction colored by jazz, country and swing influences. Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks released several well-regarded albums before disbanding in the mid-1970s. A little over a decade ago, Hicks put together a new incarnation of the Hot Licks to record new material and to tour.
Jeff Moehlis: What can we look forward to at your show at the Maverick Saloon?
Dan Hicks: I recently did a show here in Mill Valley, where we did a bunch of new material. That stuff’s good. We’ll be doing a mixture of some of this new stuff and the regular tunes, the signature songs that I do like “Scare Myself,” those kinds of numbers that I’m known for. We’ve got all that material that nobody’s heard, got the girls to sing with me — two ladies — and swing violin, guitar and bass. It’ll be a pretty good show.
JM: You mentioned some new material. Does that mean you’re working on a new album?
DH: Yeah, you know this stuff is definitely going to go into a new project eventually, sometime later this year. I don’t know exactly when this would come out. I definitely should do an album at some point here.
But also, as far as new albums go, last April I did a 70th birthday concert in San Francisco at the Davies Symphony Hall, with a big sold-out crowd. And that was recorded. So there will be an album, sometime this spring quite possibly, an album Live at Davies, with highlights from that show. That’s a new thing coming out. I did songs with Rickie Lee Jones, Maria Muldaur and the old original Hot Licks, and the new band, and Jim Kweskin and Dave Grisman. A bunch of people. Tuck & Patti. So it’s going to be a cool album.
JM: I have to ask you about the old times. According to my calculation, the 50-year anniversary of The Charlatans is coming up in a few years. What are some of the highlights for you from your time with that band?
DH: Well, I got together with The Charlatans in 1965, and I was with them until 1968, at which point I formed the Hot Licks — you know, went off on my own. You know, we played a lot of the early dance halls — the Avalon, the Fillmore, Winterland, all that. We stayed pretty local here. I was the drummer a lot of the time, and I switched to some rhythm guitar.
You know, as far as highlights go, just being in the scene, living in Haight-Ashbury and being in the whole thing. I was one of the guys that had a job [laughs]. As far as the hippie thing goes and everything, I was employed. I was in a band. Just being part of that got my name going. While in the band, sometimes I worked as a solo folk singer acoustic guy with my guitar. I was inadvertently getting a reputation, getting my name around San Francisco. It was good to be in The Charlatans for that stuff.
JM: From your perspective, what was the influence of The Charlatans on the San Francisco scene?
DH: Well, people say The Charlatans was the first band. That could be. I think there were other bands rehearsing at the time. I think the Grateful Dead was forming down toward Palo Alto. But I think in the city, The Charlatans were really the first underground, alternative, long-haired kind of band. So, that was an influence I think on other people to form bands, and stuff like that.
A lot of it was, I think, guys who were acoustic players that played around town, then they got together and plugged in, got electric instruments and formed bands. I mean, I used to see people in the Jefferson Airplane, you know, before they were in the Jefferson Airplane, just playing around. And Quicksilver [Messenger Service], different bands like that.
I think maybe The Charlatans might have had an influence on just getting other people to get together and form bands, just making that electric-acoustic sound, that folk rock, really is what it was. The folk rock sound.
JM: Why did you leave The Charlatans to form the Hot Licks?
DH: The Hot Licks kind of evolved from my singing solo stuff, which I liked to do. I could sing my own songs, I could sing whatever. I had my own repertoire going, and I was performing a little bit around town. I just added a violin player one night, finally got the girls going. I got an idea of more singing, listening to the singing more, concentrating on more of a folk-jazz kind of sound.
I’d always been a jazz fan, so that was kind of where I was headed. That was just what was going to happen. Just to be the leader, and get my own sound, to make more the music that I wanted to do, rather than a rock thing. Rock was secondary to me. It wasn’t like what I always wanted to do. I wanted to do swing stuff, really. It was a matter of choice and taste. The guys in The Charlatans were sometimes difficult, you know personalities, so I got out of there.
JM: What made it the right time to revive Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks, I think it was back in the late ‘90s?
DH: Yeah. Well, I’d been still performing all along, had different guys playing and was still writing songs. Kind of keeping my same sound, all along in the ‘80s and ‘90s. I met the guy that runs Surfdog Records, which I’m still on that label. He was a big fan of the Hot Licks, so he kind of talked me into it. Getting the girls back with me, and using the name The Hot Licks again, you know, making a record. So I warmed up to the idea eventually. Got some lady singers.
At first it wasn’t my idea, but now I’m glad I did it and am doing it. People always associated my name with the Hot Licks thing, anyway, even if I was with the Acoustic Warriors or any other name. So it was kind of an artistic choice. I always liked making that sound, that three voice sound with the girls. It was suggested to me but then I kind of took it from there.
It was time, I guess. And I’m still doing it.
— Jeff Moehlis is a Noozhawk contributing writer and a professor of mechanical engineering at UCSB. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his web site, music-illuminati.com. The opinions expressed are his own.