There are plenty of people in the blues community that have a hard time accepting younger players as legitimate blues musicians. The argument goes that the youngster hasn’t had to deal with life on its own terms, hasn’t loved & lost, hasn’t suffered enough to really feel the music. There is no doubt that many of those listeners would be put off by a teen-aged guitarist and singer being referred to as “Lil’ B.B. King” and “East Montgomery” (in tribute to the legendary jazz artist Wes Montgomery). If they take the time to listen, virtually everyone of the naysayers will be quickly won over by the pervasive talents of King Solomon Hicks.
The guitarist acknowledges that he still has some living to do. “On one hand, I agree with those concerns. I starting realizing that one night at B.B. King’s playing with Junior Mack’s band. He is one guitarist I really admire. Hopefully I can sound as good as he does when I grow up. He took a solo, then I took one. We were using the same twelve notes. Junior was putting so much emotion into his licks. I was doing my best but it just wasn’t sounding as good. You can practice as much as you want when you are young to develop certain skill sets on your instrument, but you aren’t really playing until you’ve lived a certain amount of life. When I play the blues, it is me reflecting on my past, telling my own story. Back in the day of Robert Johnson’s time, what they had to deal with day-to-day is totally different than what somebody born in 1995 is experiencing.”
Hicks got the support of his parents right from the start when his mother got him guitar lessons when he was six years old. While he didn’t learn much theory or how to read music, Hicks did get instruction on playing R&B. His mother listened to Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan, which broadened her son’s musical horizons. “ My Mom got me enrolled at the Harlem School of Arts and the Jazzmobile, a great program run by the jazz pianist, Dr. Billy Taylor. What really got me started was when she took me around to clubs in Harlem like the Lennox Lounge and St. Nick’s Pub. I was sitting in on jams with musicians like Patience Higgins on tenor sax and later on with jazz organists Charles Earland and Jimmy McGriff. Playing with musicians who actually knew what they were doing was my actual training.”
“One of the first guitar players I can say was a mentor was Melvin Sparks, who is an “acid’ jazz player (combination of jazz, soul, and funk). I could play a little bit and was just starting to get into Hendrix Santana, and AC/DC – wasn’t playing much jazz. When I was about thirteen years old, somebody told me to go down to the Cotton Club. I went down, sat in, and did a song. The owner liked me. Soon I was doing two songs. Ed Cherry, who had a lengthy tenure with Dizzy Gillespie, was the guitarist. He was about to go on tour with the Roy Hargrove Big Band, so he was looking to give up the Cotton Club gig. So I took it over. The band was reluctant at first, didn’t want to take me seriously. But I had learned how to read through the Jazzmobile program, so I just kept keeping on. Through eighth grade & high school, I was doing three to four shows a week at the Cotton Club. Both of my parents were very supportive. My Mom was the one who would always take me to the clubs when I was too young to get in.”
Hicks cut his first recording with the Cotton Club All Stars big band at the ripe old age of fourteen. Working the club prepared him for larger stages and for his first tour, which took him to Norway right out of high school. He also appeared at the Cotton Club in Japan. He started to gravitate away from jazz once he started hearing some real blues and roots music. “Junior Mack was one of the guys that gave me personal mentoring. He introduced me to how to play legit blues, not like the jazz or swing blues you hear in New York City. While jazz is a big part of my repertoire, I have the most fun playing blues. That is how I write my music. It doesn’t always have to be about swing.’
“The New York scene is very competitive with plenty of great talent. My Mom would put mein these situations where I had to sink or swim. Some of the clubs are closed now. I did a lot of practicing, messing up, and falling on my face. But eventually I started learning how to swim better. It has lead to me opening for the rock band KISS last year. I never thought in a million years I’d be doing something of that nature. Next year we are going on the Keeping The Blues Alive cruise with Joe Bonamassa, Gregg Allman, and Eric Gales, who are some of my idols.”
Now twenty-one years of age, Hicks has four recordings under his name. The latest features a live show recorded at the Iridium Club in New York, available at his live performances. The previous release, Carrying On The Torch Of The Blues, was a mixture of originals with several exciting covers including the Otis Rush tune, “Homework,” with Southside Johnny on harmonica. Also featured is a memorable rendition of “I Saw Her Standing There”. After a rocking intro, Hicks turns the Beatles hit into a smoldering slow blues with his biting guitar tone offering a contrast to his warm vocal.
“What I am focusing on now is my songwriting and getting my playing to the next level. It’s about the experience and the stories. You can’t rush it. You have to keep practicing your scales, make sure your fingers have enough blood flowing through them. I’m probably not going to be playing from the gut until my forties or fifties, when I’ll something to say. So I’m getting my band together and trying to make the songs as tight as possible. And sometimes I like to take songs people remember and put my spin on them.”
Another highlight for Hicks are his multiple appearances at the legendary Apollo Theater. “I have done several of their Christmas shows and been a part of their Amateur Night Super Top Dog competition. I also appeared live on the West Coast in California for Live at the Apollo. The first time was very scary and quite intense. You have to wait in a long line. You get there at 1 am and by the time 6 am rolls around, the line is wrapped around two blocks. You can barely see into the audience. They don’t allow you to boo the kids. If you are older than eighteen, they clap if you are good. If you aren’t, they boo you off the stage and the Sandman comes. There is no other experience like that in New York”.
After going through the usual array of guitars, Hicks finally settled on a Benedetto guitar, a brand well-known in the jazz community. He uses a GA-35, which gives him an unbelievable tone plus allows him to do whatever he needs to for blues or jazz. The company thought enough of his abilities to give Hicks an endorsement contract. The guitar is fitted with La Bella strings that are molecularly modified to be longer-lasting. After an array of Vox and Fender amplifiers, Hicks is currently using a Fender Hot Rod Deluxe for his tube amp, “because once you go tubes, you can’t go back!”. He also has a Roland Cube 80, “ …great for taking around the city on the train, an amp that works rain or shine, even if you drop it or somebody spills a beer on it”.
New York City has a vast and varied musical landscape that Hicks finds very invigorating, especially for his songwriting. “I have a love for a lot of different styles – Latin, hip hop, even some modern stuff can be heard on my playlist. I feel I am a blues musician with a jazz mind, thinking about things like why does it make sense to bend a note here. How do I deal with the pain, use my voice and guitar to rise above it to better place. With songwriting, I am trying to relate to artists like Drake, Kendrick Lamar, or Kanye West while keeping the blues element in place. I want to connect with older listeners who know Al Green as well as people my own age. It’s the same stories between men and women, just a matter of how do you connect.”
“I start out with the music, working on the bass line initially. I’m not going to use Pro Tools. There has to be a real drummer, three horn players. I work out the songs at home, then get a rehearsal space to get the band to learn the tunes. The lyrics come later because I never know what to say right off the bat. My preference is for simple funky, grooving stuff. I still want to have the traditional I-IV-V blues progressions too, so even though I am branching out, when you hear my vocal, the story, and definitely the guitar, you will recognize it as the blues. Another of my favorites is Chris Cain. I saw him live once and the next day I wanted to quit. You can’t play like he does unless you have been through some things. Not too many artists have that kind of effect on me.”
Preferring to play with a rhythm guitarist or an organ player backed by a bass and drums, the demands of being a band leader are another element that Hicks has to deal with. Experience has taught him not to put all of his eggs in one basket. He maintains a deep list of qualified players that can wrap their head around his music. The sound of the Hammond B3 organ really moves him, especially when the player can make full use of the organ pedals. It gives the band a unique sound and fills up plenty of space. Rehearsals are a must so that the original material is played to the best of everyone’s abilities.
Right from the start, Hicks knew he needed a catchy stage name. At one of the first jazz clubs he played at, someone suggested the Prince Solomon title, but another voice chimed in, stating that Hicks was a king, not a prince. It was meant as a joke but the title stuck. “Solomon Burke was known as King Solomon, so I added the Hicks to personalize it. I stuck with the name because it is big shoes to fill. Some listeners say it is obnoxious. I don’t do use it for bragging rights or as a gimmick. People actually call me that”.
As a member of the millennial generation, Hicks is well-versed in all things related to social media outlets. He uses YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other platforms to keep his name in front of his fans. “It can make a big difference if you really use it. Once in awhile someone will post a video of you messing up on stage, which isn’t ideal. I am working on a new video that will highlight some new music. During our tour recently in Spain, I made an announcement at the end of shows that fans could find me on social media at King Solomon Hicks. When I got back to the hotel, I’d post a picture from the show, asking people that were there to comment. Within an hour, I would get multiple responses with comments about how much they enjoyed the show, asking when would we be back. I couldn’t believe people were actually listening to my announcement. But I made those connections”.
Hicks has already learned the importance of getting visual feedback from the audience at his live shows. “We might do a B.B. King or Bobby Blue Bland song, then we’ll do one of my originals. I pay attention to how people react to it – do they go to the restroom, are they on their phone, or are they dancing or actually listening. The tour of Spain taught me something. I don’t speak Spanish, so there was a bit of a language barrier. Doing the originals can be hit or miss. I’m not trying to get an award for composition from Berklee or Julliard. My joy has always come from moving people.”
Visit Solomon’s website at: http://kingsolomonhicks.com/
Interviewer Mark Thompson lives in Florida, where he is enjoying life without snow. He is the President of the Board of Directors for the Suncoast Blues Society and the past president of the Crossroads Blues Society of Northern Illinois. Music has been a huge part of his life for the past fifty years – just ask his wife!.