TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. We're going to remember Dan Hicks, who died of liver cancer Saturday. He was 74. He was a singer-songwriter and leader of the band Dan Hicks and his Hot Licks, which he formed in the late 1960s in San Francisco. His music, an acoustic mix of folk, jazz and swing with modern, quirky lyrics, was out of step with the rock bands of the time. But our rock historian Ed Ward says Hicks was so far behind the times, he was ahead of them. We're going to listen back to a piece Ed recorded about Hicks in 2002, after the release of the album "The Most Of Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks," which collected previously unreleased demos along with tracks from the band's first album.
ED WARD, BYLINE: By 1969, Dan Hicks was already a San Francisco-scene veteran. He'd been the drummer and, later, guitarist with the first of the psychedelic bands there, The Charlatans, who specialized in Wild West attire and electric folk rock but got passed over when the recording gold rush came to town. But Hicks had another vision, one that was to put him completely at odds with what America expected from the city of the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOW CAN I MISS YOU WHEN YOU WON'T GO AWAY?")
DAN HICKS AND THE HOT LICKS: (Singing) I've talked to your mother, and I've talked to your dad. They say they've say 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? Keep telling you day after day. But you won't listen. You always stay and stay. How can I miss you when you won't go away? You're never in...
WARD: Quitting The Charlatans, he cast around the city for acoustic musicians. Instead of a lead guitar, he wanted a violin and recruited David LaFlamme for that job but lost him when LaFlamme started his own band, It's A Beautiful Day. Hicks wanted call and response with a couple of girl singers and found Tina Gancher and Sherry Snow. The band was delayed while their bassist, Jaime Leopold, did a few months for selling pot, but when he came back, he brought about his guitar-playing roommate, Jon Weber, and the Hot Licks were almost there. With a recording deadline looming, Hicks took his mother to a cocktail lounge for her birthday and heard Sid Page playing violin. That was it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY OLD TIMEY BABY")
DAN HICKS AND THE HOT LICKS: (Singing) Baby, you sure are looking good tonight. I sure do like your style, all the while. She's a bit old-timey, but that's all right with me. She wears a dress of velvet that hangs below her knees, her knees. She...
WARD: While his peers were delving deeper into electric blues and hard rock, Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks were exploring swing, and their first album, "Original Recordings," baffled nearly everyone who heard it. Nonetheless, Epic Records called them back to do a second one produced by blues scholar Pete Welding. But it was never finished or released. Still, it had made an impression on some people, and in late 1970, Tommy LiPuma, who was a partner in a new record label called Blue Thumb, signed the latest edition of the Hot Licks to the label and set them up in the Troubadour, an LA nightclub, for five days and recorded them live.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
DAN HICKS: This is a little exercise in control, this next tune. You probably think it's easy being up here, singing and everything and playing. It's not. It's not easy. Thank you.
DAN HICKS AND THE HOT LICKS: (Singing, unintelligible).
WARD: It was the right decision. In the couple of years since their debut, the Hot Licks, and fiddler Sid Page in particular, had gotten hotter. Naomi Ruth Eisenberg and Maryann Price were far more accomplished vocalists than the previous girl singers had been, and Jon Weber was gone.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
HICKS: This expresses our feeling, ladies and gentlemen. It's called, "I Feel Like Singing."
One, two - one, two, three, four.
DAN HICKS AND THE HOT LICKS: (Singing) There are people who live for the moment. The moment. The moment. The moment. And others who don't seem to get much enjoyment. Enjoyment. Enjoyment. Enjoyment. Some are always glad, others, always sad. But lately - lately - it seems that I've been somewhere in between. It's a - It's a funny feeling. Love is what I mean. Yes, I'm so in love. Can't tell down from up above. Down, down, down from up above. I feel like singing. I feel like singing...
WARD: The resulting album, "Where's The Money?", flopped, rising only as high as 195 on the hot 200. Undeterred, LiPuma put the band in the studio and tried again, this time with a hot lead acoustic guitarist for Page to interact with - John Curtin.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WALKIN' ONE AND ONLY")
DAN HICKS AND THE HOT LICKS: (Singing) Some folks think it's cool to have some kind of lover. He don't believe it's true 'cause he just found another. And when they see him, they might see him on the street. He walks with rhythm so he's got some kind of beat. He clicks his heels a bit. His suit's a perfect fit. He knocks 'em out. Though he looks alone - somebody - somebody wants him on the phone. Shout. He won't shout. He's walking one and only, and they're calling him by name. He won't be leaving town till he can count some fame.
WARD: "Striking It Rich," the second album, was a masterpiece. Maryann Price's sardonic reading of Johnny Mercer's "I'm An Old Cowhand" became a number so identified with her that she still performs it today. And they re-recorded a couple of numbers from their early days, "Canned Music" and "I Scare Myself," and brought them to perfection, particularly the latter tune where Sid Page spent two minutes and 47 seconds fiddling himself into history.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CANNED MUSIC")
SID PAGE: (Playing fiddle).
WARD: The second Blue Thumb album did no better than the first, but the band toured and they went in for a third try. This time, it showed signs of life, rising to no. 67 the charts. As always, there was life in the grooves, too.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LONG COME A VIPER")
DAN HICKS AND THE HOT LICKS: (Singing) I'm standing on a corner with my feet in my shoes racking my brain. I've paid my dues. My jug is empty of my number one booze. 'Long comes a viper and I blow my blues. I got the elation, hesitation, dissipation, coagulation, relation, angzation, emancipation, propagation, moppin, soppin', talk about your coppin' blues. It's never too late to be up-to-date. You can get it now, but you have to wait. Along come a chick, come a little dolly. She's out walking a big fat collie. Golly, Miss Molly says, you're looking mighty jolly. There ain't nothing left and I'm really mighty solly. I got the outer space, what a race, dropped an ace in my face, a goose chase, you want a taste, match it, scratch it, stretch it, catch it blues.
WARD: Maybe it was a joke calling it "Last Train To Hicksville: The Home Of Happy Feet," but that's what it turned out to be. One day, in 1973, Dan just broke up the band, and that was that. One of America's best bands disappeared before most people had had a chance to hear them. He finally got another album out in 2000, with guest appearances by Rickie Lee Jones, Bette Midler, Elvis Costello and Tom Waits among, and Sid back on the violin.
GROSS: Ed Ward recorded that profile of Dan Hicks in 2002. Hicks died Saturday of liver cancer. He was 74.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
JOEL GREY: (Singing in foreign language).
GROSS: Tomorrow, my guest will be Joel Grey. He originated the role of the decadent MC in the 1960 Broadway production of "Cabaret" and co-starred in "Chicago" and "Wicked." He's written a new memoir about his career and about being gay and closeted.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
GREY: (Singing in foreign language).
GROSS: He fell in love with an actress, they raised two children and then divorced. Only recently did he publicly come out. I hope you'll join us. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
GREY: (Singing in foreign language). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.