Dan Hicks, eclectic folk-jazz artist from the Bay Area, dies at 74

Bay Area folk-pop-jazz singer and bandleader Dan Hicks, known for his acoustic eclectism, sense of humor and popular songs such as "“I Scare Myself," died Saturday in Mill Valley, according to his wife. Hicks was 74. 

Hicks had revealed in 2015 that he was battling liver cancer, this shortly after he went public with a bout with throat cancer.

In 1965, Hicks took over the drum chair in the Charlatans, one of the first bands on the soon-to-boom San Francisco rock scene.

Hicks started the Hot Licks in 1968 and won a national following with albums that offered a heady, usually lighthearted blend of Bob Wills-inspired Western swing, jug-band music and jumping jazz. In his early days, Hicks developed a reputation for sometimes combative repartee with his audiences.

"I played a lot of bars, and people would yell stuff at me," Hicks told the Times in 1995. "They'd get a little unruly, and that's how it all got started. I would just try to get them first. I definitely toned that all down."

In late 2015, he had announced tour dates with the Hot Licks, but his wife of almost 20 years, Clare Wasserman, said the liver cancer had worsened in recent weeks. He died in bed at home early Saturday with his beloved dog Coco by his side, Wasserman said. 

Hicks was born in Little Rock, Ark., and his family moved to Northern California when he was about 5. He grew up listening to country music and, as a teenager living in Santa Rosa, fell in love with the sounds of Benny Goodman and other swing-era jazz greats.

Eventually his tastes broadened to include folk, bluegrass, jug band and the blues. While in Santa Rosa, Hicks took to big-band swing and became a drummer in dance bands. But his style was varied and often indefinable. 

"He wanted to play rooms where he could see everybody and feel them," said Wasserman, who also served as his business manager, via phone Saturday afternoon.

"He was a jazz musician, I think, in a lot of ways," she added. "He revered that life and that world, and his heroes were those musicians. They weren't the rockers, put it that way. He came up in a time in San Francisco where all there was, was the psychedelic stuff. Out of all this, comes this sound." 

Hicks' songs had an easy-going, comfortable feel. Songs such as "Hell, I'd Go!," "13-D," and "Presently in the Past," were filled with unexpected turns -- a scat vocal here, or a squiggly string section there, or a playful call-and-response over there.

They had a wide and diverse following, as evidenced by his 2000 album with the Hot Licks, "Beatin' The Heat," which featured guests such as Tom Waits, Elvis Costello and Bette Midler. Still, as Wasserman noted on Saturday, Hicks would bristle at playing large rooms.  

"I don't think my music is especially commercial; it's not even attempting to be," Hicks said in a 1998 interview with The Times. "We're just a little ol' four-piece [band]. We're certainly not your loud, corporate type of band that you'll find in arenas or on MTV."

Hicks is survived by his wife and his stepdaughter, Sarah.

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