Dan Hicks back on track with Fats Waller tribute
May 19, 2014 | Updated: May 19, 2014 4:02pm
It helped that Dan Hicks had Fats Waller to focus on over the last few months, when he was undergoing treatment for throat cancer. The celebrated Mill Valley singer, songwriter and bandleader was committed to putting on Wednesday night’s SFJazz 110th birthday tribute to Waller and his effusively swinging and mischievous music. He worked on the project every day after being zapped with radiation or chemo, singing that joyous music into his tape recorder to create the crisp arrangements that he and his Hot Licks - joined for the occasion by Waller-soaked stride pianist Mike Lipskin - will perform.
"You do it, you get through it, especially when you have an obligation, when you made a deal," said Hicks, an Arkansas-born original known for his impeccable musicianship and parched wit. "A deal is a deal."
He was chilling in the shady San Rafael backyard of guitarist Paul Robinson on a blazing hot afternoon last week after rehearsing with the band. Cool in khakis and a green and yellow Hawaiian shirt, he was in good spirits and singing voice, phrasing Waller’s sly songs with airy grace and polishing the ensemble until everything meshed and grooved just right.
"I’m doing a lot better, you know. I mean than, say, a couple weeks ago," said the laconic Hicks, 72, a private man who likes to cut to the chase. He mentions the hellish aspects of treatment in passing - among other things, he lost 30 pounds - but has no interest in "doing a medical journal report. How about we just say I had throat cancer for three or four months and now I’m going to do this gig?" He’d been told when diagnosed in January that his vocal cords were unaffected, "which was welcome news."
Hicks, who grew up in Santa Rosa, performed at hootenannies while at San Francisco State and played drums and sang with the seminal San Francisco rock band the Charlatans, rose to fame in the early 1970s leading the popping Hot Licks. They played stylish original music that brought together the jumping swing sounds of Bob Wills and Django Reinhardt, a bit of bluegrass and Hicks’ sardonic contemporary lyrics.
The composer of such quirky classics as “How Can I Miss You If You Won’t Go Away?,” “Where’s the Money?” and “I Scare Myself” had always dug Waller’s music. He played the Harlem master’s “Your Feet’s Too Big” when he was learning folk guitar, and over the years has sung other Waller evergreens like “Ain’t Misbehavin’ ” and “Honeysuckle Rose.” Prepping for this show, he plowed through Waller’s vast oeuvre, picking tunes whose lyrics he could sing convincingly, and whose musical material he could shape for the Hot Licks sound, with its back-and-forth vocals, and violin and guitar riffs.
"There’s so much good music," he says. "The lyrics are good, and it’s got that good beat, the groove. To me, this isn’t retro; I always feel the good stuff is the good stuff, no matter what time period it’s from. I still gravitate to the swing stuff."
To inspire the players, Hicks played videos of some of Waller’s old “soundies,” or movie shorts, to the band before last week’s rehearsal. He’d borrowed them from Mill Valley record maven John Goddard, who ran the beloved Village Music, while researching the exuberant African American entertainer, “raconteur, singer, innovator and lover of life,” as Hicks describes him in his intro to the show.
What the noise was about
"I wanted them to see what the noise was all about. I thought it would be uplifting," said Hicks, who’s jazzed by how well the music has come together. He usually doesn’t use a pianist, but how can you pay tribute to Fats Waller without one? He’d never worked with Lipskin, but admired his playing and was planning to call him when Lipskin, a longtime Hicks fan, phoned to offer his services.
"Dan is so original in the way he’s synthesized everything. He has tremendous taste, and his timing is beautiful," Lipskin said.
"His choice of chords on occasion is very inventive. They’re different, but they fit. You see little things he’s done, and you wonder if it’s going to work. Then you play it, and it works beautifully! I’ve heard "Write Myself a Letter" played the same way for 60 years. He arranged it as a Latin thing, which is a great change of pace. Also, he makes me fall down laughing sometimes."
Hicks canceled a dozen or so out-of-town gigs before he began treatment - “you don’t know how long you’re going to be out of commission or how it’s going to affect you,” he said - but the Waller tribute kept him going.
"There was a goal. I had something down the road to get together, and it was a good thing," Hicks said. "I’ve been Fats Waller 24/7. I work pretty hard on a concept show. I want it to be good."
Dan Hicks & the Hot Licks: With pianist Mike Lipskin. Tribute to Fats Waller. 7:30 p.m. Wednesday. $24-$45. SFJazz Center, 201 Franklin St., S.F. (866) 866-920-5299.www.sfjazz.org.