By Richie Unterberger

Dan Hicks's stint with Warner Brothers in the mid-1970s yielded just one album, recorded shortly after he broke up the Hot Licks, the band he'd led since the late 1960s. Yet It Happened One Bite had the idiosyncratic wit and lively swing characteristic of all his work since he'd left the Charlatans to start recording with other musicians in the late 1960s. Its journey from genesis to release, however, was about as odd as any undertaken by a major-label LP of the era. So convoluted was the route that it was something of a feat for the record to even see release at all, its subsequent under-promotion ensuring that it's been one of the more difficult of his albums to find over the last few decades.

    Soon after the Hot Licks split and Hicks signed with Warners as a solo artist, Ralph Bakshi—the director responsible for the smash 1972 animated feature Fritz the Cat—contacted Dan with a mind to use some of Hicks's music in what was intended to be the next full-length Bakshi cartoon, Hey Good Lookin'. "The part I liked was that this film had all these cartoon characters," explains Hicks today. "They had maybe six-seven-eight main characters in the movie, and there was, ideally, a little theme song for each character. So I wrote a song about, say, Vinnie ('Vinnie's Lookin' Good') and Boogaloo ('Boogaloo Jones'). That was a cool part, coming up with little melodies and lots of words. I tend to be kind of wordy; I put in little descriptions.

    "In a way, that's kind of the same as some of the other things I do that aren't movies. I think of a character and I create a picture, and a story. So I did all that, and Bakshi liked my lyrics. As a matter of fact, he said, 'I gotta use more of these kind of words that you're using in my dialogue with the characters'; I had some kind of colloquialisms and stuff. And there was more, like, kind of incidental music; say, where they're in a car and supposed to be going along. And that was 'Cruizin.'" Similarly, "Mama, I'm an Outlaw" was for "the footage where they show old-time black-and-white '30s gangsters shooting it out from their car, sped-up and going around corners."

    Though he began writing songs for the project at home in the San Francisco Bay Area, Hicks traveled to Los Angeles to work "with this guy Milton, an old movie music pro. There were parts of the movie, or parts of my assignment, where I was to write something that lasted a certain length, and then have it stop right at [a certain] moment. They have a formula, like frames per second times the metronome beat, and you can figure it out exactly where supposedly you get in there and set the metronome. Whoever is playing, they play for this length of time; and it all matches up. I had a little difficulty in that I sort of guesstimated some things, [but] everything seemed to be okay as far as that goes. It wasn't like, 'Oh no, you're way off.'"

    Adds Dan, "It wasn't like I got the final film and did all this music. I saw little bits of things on a Moviola, [and] just made it work myself. I stood there and looked at it, and then went into another room with my guitar and worked on stuff. I stayed at the Tropicana Motel [in Los Angeles], and they rented me an Ampex— I think it was four-track—in the room so I could work out stuff."

    When the material was recorded in the studio, producer Tommy LiPuma (who'd produced Hicks' previous three albums with the Hot Licks for the Blue Thumb label) brought in some L.A. jazz musicians. While two of them, drummer Richard Borden and bassist Lyle Ritz, do play throughout the LP, three of the former Hot Licks—guitarist John Girton, violinist Sid Page, and singer Maryann Price—were brought in to get something closer to the sound Hicks had pioneered on his previous outings. "He's one of those 'I'll let you do pretty much what you want' kind of guys," says Hicks of LiPuma. "He did a typical good job." Michael Franks supplied what Dan terms "kind of a [Earl] Scruggs banjo," while Ritz overdubbed some ukulele as well.

    "I liked all those tunes I came up with," remembers Hicks, naming "Vinnie's Looking Good," "Collared Blues," and "Cruizin'" as his favorites. He recorded the sole non-original on the album, "Garden in the Rain," because Bakshi "wanted incidental music in the background going on the jukebox, standards of the time. It was supposed to be set in the '50s or something like that, so I said to him, 'Hey, I can sing those. You know, like "Garden in the Rain"' [a hit for the Four Aces in 1952]. So that's why we recorded 'Garden in the Rain.' There was no other reason. The idea would have been they're sitting in a joint, and there's something going on the jukebox in the background."

    But though the soundtrack was delivered to Warner Brothers in April 1975, the movie was far from finished. "The movie never got to where my stuff was used," Hicks explains. "I guess they were running out of money, so [Bakshi] showed it to the Warner Brothers people or the money folks. We went to some private screening here, probably on a Warner Brothers lot. A handful of people watched this movie, including me, and they used a lot of my stuff. He had other music in there too. He had like Benny Goodman's 'Sing Sing Sing' and other stuff; it was kind of a hodgepodge of music. He had live action, live people, animation, and even rotoscope, where you take live action and sort of trace it, turn it into a cartoon. And there were places in the film where he hadn't finished even animating. They were just line drawings; the dialogue kept going, but you just saw drawings of stuff. The movie ended, and if I remember correctly, people stood up, and nobody applauded or anything. Everybody just filed out silently.

    Hey Good Lookin' would not come out until 1982, by which time it had taken a much different form, losing entire scenes in which actor Yaphet Kotto (playing a boxer) appeared. Gone too was Hicks's soundtrack. "There was none of my music in it when I saw it finally," says Dan. "He used some kind of other music altogether when he finally patched it together. There was like a bunch of more rock'n'roll-type music. I can't even say if it was from that period."

    Back in 1978, however, Warner Brothers—for whom Hicks hadn't finished a conventional album, though he did a jam-type session for the label in mid-1976—decided to release the recordings Dan had done for the Hey Good Lookin' soundtrack as an LP. As he tells it, "The movie never seemed to be happening, so we said, 'Let's put this out anyway.' So I made up a name; I thought I'd just do a movie takeoff, and call it It Happened One Bite. I submitted artwork. I never really meant it to be the cover. I was doing it as sort of an example, like 'it could kind of be like this, maybe,' and they used it." Upon its release, he adds, "I don't remember any support, really. It must have gotten around a little bit, because there were some reviews. But I think it wasn't long after Warner Brothers somewhere along the way dropped me anyway, so I don't know what they were thinking."

    As a three-year-old soundtrack recording without a movie into which to tie it, It Happened One Bite was perhaps doomed to commercial obscurity. Yet the irony is that, removed from its back story, it plays as well as a typical accomplished Hicks album. As Melody Maker astutely noted at the time, "This is not, however, soundtrack music—long instrumental themes repeated ad infinitum—but thirteen songs in the typical Hicks mold...He takes the expression 'laidback' about as far as it can go, never rushing, always taking the laziest route possible—but then he's not a singer-songwriter. His music contains the same soporific feel as western swing—but then he doesn't play country. If he has a reference point, then it's the pop music of the '30s and '40s—but then he's not a revivalist like Manhattan Transfer or the Pointer Sisters, nor does he have that energetic sharpness typical of those vocal groups." As the review concluded: "A lovely album, this, and a reminder, if any should be needed, that the Wonderful World of Rock 'n' Roll stretches far and wide." – Richie Unterberger

contents copyright Richie Unterberger , 2000-2010
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