Gary James' Interview With The Former Guitarist For
Dan Hicks And His Hot Licks
Paul Robinson has played with the very best music has to offer. We're talking Dan Hicks, Al Stewart, and Maria Muldaur. We spoke with Paul about a career that's about as diversified as you can get.
Q - Paul, where did you call home as a kid?
A - I grew up in Cleveland (Ohio). Cleveland was a great Rock 'n' Roll town in the late '60s. I saw a lot of great shows. A lot of great shows came through there and from there. James Gang. The Raspberries.
Q - I saw Dan Hicks' autobiography on the shelf and didn't realize he passed away. How much, if anything, did you contribute to that book?
A - I didn't contribute much of it. He did that with a writer from The L.A. Times, Kristina McKenna, and she talked to him like every Friday or every other Friday for a couple of years to put that together. And unfortunately he died when he only got up to year 2000. So that's all they were through with his life. He just barely hit the point where I was in his life. I started with him about 1992. The band wasn't even called The Hot Licks at that point. It was called The Acoustic Warriors.
Q - Is there a Hot Licks band as we speak?
A - There is a Hot Licks. It was very strange. If you read the book it's pure Dan, kind of tongue in cheek. He was a funny guy, but he was serious. He was kind of raised by wolves. He was kind of other worldly. He hit bottom a few times, but he bounced pretty well. It ends up he was in a period in the late '90s where he just kind of bottomed out again. What it doesn't say in the book is right after that, about 2000, he got contacted by a guy named Dave Kaplan and Kaplan was Brian Setzer's manager, and Kaplan had started a label called Surfdog and Kaplan said when he was ten years old he saw him on In Concert and he said, "That guy is so cool, I'm gonna grow up and manage that guy. I'm gonna grow up and and get that guy a record contract." So, he said, "You wanna record contract?" and Dan said, "Well, okay." He gave Dan a six CD deal with carte blanche, whatever Dan wanted. One of the contingencies of that contract was that he name it the Hot Licks again. So then the Hot Licks started again about 2001, around then. It became Dan Hicks And The Hot Licks again. Now, it wasn't the same band at all as the '70, '71 band. The band they're best known for is usually called The Blue Thumbs Hot Licks 'cause that was the label they were on at the time. There was a Hot Licks before that, so there was a whole set of singers before that too, and John Weber on guitar before that. His famous albums were "Strikin' It Rich", "Last Train To Hicksville", were from the Blue Thumbs era. He disbanded that band in 1971. He said they were turning into more of a democracy and he didn't want that. He wanted to be the band leader. He was a funny guy, very much a loner and just liked to do things his own way. He wasn't great when you pressed him up the wall for anything. As his life went on he got a whole lot better, especially in those early days when he was imbibing, he was quite the handful.
Q - You were part of The Hot Licks when?
A - I went with The Hot Licks in 2011, 2012, something like that. I was with it until the end. We gave it a rest for about a year and we're starting to play out again as The Hot Licks. It's the last iteration of the band. He taught us how to play the stuff. The interesting thing about Dan and the music in particular is his songs are so quirky and enjoyable on a lyrical level. It's easy to miss, but it's really got a succinct style about it. It had a straight four to it. It sounded like it came out of Western Swing. It sounds derivative of that, but in actuality it's not. The Western Swing guys kind of avoided the straight four. The straight four is more out of that Count Basie Big Band stuff. Dan loved Big Band music. He kind of grew up playing that kind of Jazz and dug that stuff. He and I had a Jazz band from '93. Right after I got in The Acoustic Warriors we started a Jazz band. That went all the way to the end. That band actually played in Sweet Water Mill Valley in 2006, his town, the town he lived in. We played like thirty Sundays in 2006. He loved Jazz standards.
Q - I was watching a clip of Dan Hicks on The Flip Wilson Show. When the band started playing the audience started laughing. They didn't know what to make of Dan Hicks.
A - That was a laugh track. So, they had somebody sitting back there just hitting the button on the laugh track. So, that was canned laughter.
Q - Why did they do that?
A - It was just something they did back then to fill up those slots. He certainly wasn't near the normal when it came to Rock bands. In Cleveland he opened for Steppenwolf. They could barely hear him. The sound system was awful. He was playing acoustic Folk/Swing, right? The Cleveland audience was very Rock centric. They were throwing ice cubes out of the drink at him. He kind of got pelted on stage. He had fond memories of that.
Q - Dan described his music as Folk/Jazz. Rolling Stone described Dan Hicks' music as "blending The Andrews Sisters, Western Swing, rhythm and Jazz." That's quite a few musical styles thrown in there. How do you see it?
A - I call it Folk/Swing. And that's what Dan called it too. I call him the King Of Folk/Swing. It's not like a derivation of Western Swing. Western Swing guys went more for a two feel, boom chuck, boom chuck. One two, one two. That's more of the European Swing feel. The Western Swing guys opted for that rather than the Count Basie thing witch is a straight four. Dan was all about that straight four. So, he was doing his Folk style and playing his guitar with banjo finger picks, so he was down stroking with his fingers extended, kind of glancing at the side 'cause the finger picks are curled toward the strings. If you catch 'em they'll shoot across the stage, which would happen. That was the bedrock of that sound, Folk/Swing. It's his style. There's nobody else really quite like that. The Western Swing style kind of similar with two fiddles and Gypsy Jazz sounds kind of similar sometimes. Gypsy Jazz has got that two feel. Dan's is a straight four. I'd say Dan is to Folk Swing what Bill Monroe is to Bluegrass. He's the Daddy of that style. He started it.
Q - What kind of venues was Dan Hicks playing when you were with him?
A - It didn't change a whole lot. When I started with him in '92 we were playing like 300 seaters. It was national. He was big on the West Coast, but also really popular on the East Coast. So, we'd go up 95 and Connecticut from New York up into Maine. We played small theatres. Then when he started to get with The Hot Licks in 2001, Dave Kaplan was getting him into bigger places, 300 to 500 seaters. Sometimes 1,000 seaters. That continued pretty much up to the end. When I got back with him in 2010 we were playing pretty good sized rooms. Not playing a lot, playing a week out of the month. Something like that. Dan was in his early 70s in the end. But, nice rooms and his fans were just voracious. They just loved him. His music is so identifiable. It's so original. There's nothing like Dan Hicks songs. They're very much himself. He had an incredible sense of humor and an incredible sense of Swing. It's just a really neat style.
Q - You toured with who?
A - Dan and Al Stewart.
Q - How about Joni Mitchell, Roger McGuinn and Dave Mason?
A - I mentioned all of 'em 'cause we opened for 'em. Dan and I did a gig in Edmonton, Canada with Joni Mitchell. Al Stewart and I did a tour with Dave Mason and Jim Capaldi, opening for them. Roger McGuinn, Dan and I opened for him in Alabama at City Stages. Super nice guy.
Q - These days you teach guitar. Are you getting young kids through the door or older people who want to learn some of your techniques?
A - I get all ages. I love music. I started when I was like ten. The Beatles hadn't hit yet. They weren't on the scene. I was listening mainly to The Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul And Mary, which is funny because The Kingston Trio is a full circle to Dan. Dan's first demos were paid for by Nick Reynolds of The Kingston Trio and his wife Joan Reynolds, who was one of his best friends all through his life. Nick Reynolds was definitely my hero. When The Beatles hit in '64 I was poised and had already put a band together right around then. But I loved all styles of music. My mom used to listen to Sinatra and Ella (Fitzgerald) and all that stuff. When I heard "Purple Haze" I taught my band that song by memory that night. My dad knew the local promoters in Cleveland, so for my 17th birthday I had second row seats right in front of Hendrix for the "Axis: Bold As Love" tour and that changed everything.
Q - How is it your father knew the promoters? Was he in the music business?
A - No. he was a sales guy. He worked in window shades. The local promoters for The Balkin Brothers, the same guys who put the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame together, decided to go on a venture just to try it as Rock promoters. They were tailers at the time. They had a haberdashery shop in Cleveland and my dad used to go to them for clothes. I saw Hendrix was coming and in the paper they said, "The Wild Man From Borneo is coming." They had a really gnarly picture of him and I said, "Dad, I'd really love to see that." So, for my 17th birthday he got me second row seats right in front of him.
Q - That was probably a memorable concert.
A - Oh, man, that was a killer. "Axis: Bold As Love" is still one of my all time favorite albums. They were loved and Hendrix looked like nobody else. It's easy to forget how original that guy was.
Q - There are some people who didn't understand the changes that were occurring in the 1960s music scene. They preferred the 1950s music.
A - The '50s music I liked. The Rock-a-billy was cool. I was much more a
Carl Perkins guy than an Elvis guy. I know that's blasphemy to some people, but I dug Carl Perkins' guitar playing and his style of Rock at that time. People forget that a lot of what we know as Rock kind of came out of Big Bands, the late Count Basie stuff with Little Jimmy Turner. The roots of R&B Rock really came out of that stuff as well as Ike Turner. It was just a wonderful thing to be learning guitar and really getting into it when The Beatles hit. The Beatles were like nothing else. They were such a departure. It was a generational thing as much as a musical thing. They not only sounded completely original, it was also a reason to say to our parents, "We are not you." (laughs) I feel so bad that I haven't seen a generation since that has had that. Nobody's had anything like The Beatles. It clearly said we're over here and you're over there to our parents. It changed. Everything shifted.