“My favorite new find!” That’s what many people are saying about King Solomon Hicks after seeing him perform recently at the Big Blues Bender in Las Vegas. But Hicks has actually been playing professionally since he was thirteen years of age. Born and raised in Harlem (where he still lives), Hicks first picked up the guitar at age six and was known as the kid who always had a guitar on his back and was always being told by the teachers in school to put his guitar away. He was playing at the Lenox Lounge in New York at age thirteen when a woman named Princess Billie Holiday approached him about coming to the legendary Cotton Club to replace a departing guitarist. Initially he played on only three songs but was soon asked to play five nights a week. Hicks acknowledged that not everyone was happy to see a young kid join the band.
“Initially there was a little bit of animosity about me being a kid, but that went away once they saw that I wasn’t goofing off and was trying to be one with the band. The Cotton Club is where I first felt my love for entertaining the crowd and was the first place I learned how to work with a band. I was able to develop my sound and it sparked my interest to continue playing. And playing five nights a week helped me sharpen my skills and connect with the audience.”
From the Cotton Club, Hicks played a two-week tour in Denmark and Japan, opening for Jeff Beck and Ringo Starr, and then was booked on the KISS cruise with Gene Simmons, and the Joe Bonamassa Keeping the Blues Alive at Sea Cruise, which all seems somewhat unusual for a teen who had just graduated high school at that time. He was also invited to be a judge at the International Blues Challenge (IBC) in Memphis, although he had never competed at the IBCs.
“We were just very blessed. I do believe in luck and being in the right place at the right time, but I also believe in preparation and practice and focus. For the IBCs, I was already out playing professionally, so that’s why I did not compete. It was an honor to be there as a judge, and, of course, I’ll take any excuse to be in Memphis.”
Hicks first studied jazz, which provided a good foundation for him musically, but he soon found himself drifting over to the blues.
“Jazz is dealing with theory and harmony, but sometimes the theory doesn’t give you the feeling I want. Jazz is dealing with harmony clashing, versus letting a note ring long enough for the right vibrato. If I have to dedicate myself for the next 50 years, I’ll take that over playing 25 chord changes. Jazz will always be a part of who I am, and it gives you a base music-wise, but the blues makes you feel good.”
Hicks added ‘King’ to his name as a tribute to the three ‘kings’ (BB, Freddy & Albert), and noted that he hoped to “carry on some of that same classiness they had.” He appears to be accomplishing this goal, as he is already known for consistently appearing very well-dressed and well-mannered. Hicks also identified numerous musical influences besides the ‘three kings’, including Selwyn Birchwood’s storytelling ability, the guitar work of Walter Trout, Marcus King, Kingfish, and ‘Monster’ Mike Welch, and the innovative ways in which Kevin Burt is able to reimagine popular songs.
When asked if he thought it was rare for a young person to be interested in the blues, Hicks compared it to developing a taste for alcohol.
“It’s like a drink. Some people can drink straight whiskey like some people can listen to straight blues. Other people need a chaser for the alcohol, or to break it down with a little Sprite. They can’t handle straight booze and they can’t handle straight blues. Maybe when they get older, they might appreciate straight blues, but until then we find a way for them to like it. I have been playing for teens who never heard blues, but if you present it in the right way, you can get them turned on. There are always ways to change things and reinvent it for someone who hasn’t heard the songs—to make it multigenerational.”
While playing as a solo musician at a festival in Brooklyn, Hicks met his current manager, Kirk Yano, who also recorded, co-produced and played bass on Hicks’ album, Harlem. Yano, who is a three-time Grammy winner and has worked with a wide variety of artists, such as Mariah Carey and Public Enemy, seemed like the perfect pairing to Hicks.
“Kirk is the perfect producer because of how he likes all of these different styles of music. He never pigeon-holed me into saying we’re just going to play traditional blues, and we’ve been working together for the past six years. You never know who you meet in life, and when you meet the right person and you are both focused and have the same goal, it’s a beautiful thing.”
Hicks discussed the two original songs on the album, both named for street addresses.
“Riverside Drive is looking right at New Jersey on the Hudson River. It is one of my relaxing places. I write best near some type of water. I will always be a city person, but it’s also nice to be out in nature. And ‘421 South Main’ is a salute to the blues museum in south Memphis. Going to Memphis was a turning point for me.”
He noted that he focused mainly on covering great songs for this first album but planned to include more original material in his next album. This decision was partly due to his insight that the quality of songwriting often improves with life experience.
“For the next album I’ll be writing more original material. You have to live a bit more of life, and get your heart broken to write good songs. I had one heartbreak already, and that really messed with me, and I listen to lyrics differently now. After that loved one passes away, or someone steals your guitar, those are the dues that you don’t really see on stage, but you live through it. You don’t get to be a great player like Walter Trout until you have paid your dues. You don’t necessarily have to have bad times to play the blues, but it definitely helps. For this album I was focused on taking great songs and putting arrangements that really related to me. I was born in 1995, so I would never understand what Junior Wells went through. So, I won’t do a song note for note like the original. I have to try to find a way to put myself in every song.”
One such song on the album is a bluesy version of Gary Wright’s song, ‘My Love is Alive’. This seemed like an unusual choice, not only because it was not originally a blues song, but also because it was popular in 1975, decades before Hicks’ birth.
“Kirk turned me onto ‘My Love is Alive’. He’ll give me songs that he heard his whole life. We’ll be in the studio, and I’ll think he’s crazy, and then I realize it’s genius crazy. It’s fun seeing when people realize what song it is—it’s like a bolt of electricity. We also did ‘I Love you More than you Know’ more like a samba, and I put my own direction to ‘Every Day I Have the Blues’. I’m trying to find my own imprint. Sometimes the best things come out of people who are willing to take chances and push the envelope. It’s great working with someone who has an open ear.”
When asked if the pandemic caused significant disruption to his blossoming career, Hicks noted that he was in Spain when it hit, and he was supposed to play Paris, but had to fly back to the United States immediately or risk being unable to leave Europe. His album had just dropped, which is an unfortunate time to have gigs cancelled.
“It was kind of the best of times and the worst of times. It was the worst because of the pandemic, and everybody took huge blows, but the best because the album was out there, and also just to be alive. Lots of people are not here because of COVID, so any day above ground is a good day.”
Hicks is already giving back to younger musicians, as he was one of the few artists who donated the money made from airing a performance on the ‘Can’t Stop the Blues’ Facebook page. He donated that money to the Pinetop Perkins Foundation and the Blues Museum. (For those not familiar with the Pinetop Perkins Foundation, it is a non-profit that offers support for young people in the early stages of their musical career, and also provides care and safety for elderly musicians in the twilight of their career.) His generosity is not surprising, as his humility, sincerity and kindness seem quickly apparent in any interaction with him. He noted that he held the following belief.
“You don’t need to take money all the time. It’s good to give to the cause and help when you can. There were times when people have helped me. It’s a cyclical world—a very spiritual thing. I’m more spiritual than religious, but I think the music comes from a higher power than ourselves.”
Most recently, Hicks collaborated with Eliza Neals for her song “Sugar Daddy” and is featured in the music video for that song. He is also scheduled to open for Samantha Fish in the near future. You can find out where King Solomon Hicks is playing by checking his website: www.kingsolomonhicks.com.