King Solomon Hicks grew up in Harlem "around a lot of great musicians." That certainly shows on HARLEM, an 11-song salute to those roots -- and how the 24-year-old guitarist and singer has turned them into his own fierce and distinctive style over the years.
The set, produced by multiple Grammy Award winner Kirk Yano (Miles Davis, Public Enemy, Mariah Carey), showcases Hicks as a writer, player and interpreter. Originals such as the roadhouse ready "421 South Main," the gospel shuffle of "Have Mercy on Me" and the aching instrumental "Riverside Drive" rub musical elbows with staples such as "Every Day I Sing the Blues" and "It's Alright," a Latin-tinged take on Blood, Sweat & Tears' "I Love You More Than You Will Ever Know," a funked-up romp through Gary Wright's "Love is Alive" and a searing rendition of Sonny Boy Williamson's "Help me" that closes the album.
Hicks' playing and singing shine throughout HARLEM, blending reverent familiar with vigorous fresh, the work of an artist deeply rooted in blues birthed decades before him but equally invested in finding his own way of playing it. Yes, every day he sings the blues, but in a manner only Hicks himself can.
"This has been a long time coming," Hicks says of his first major recording, "but I'm really happy with the sound and the way everybody played. This music is where I come from. It's really special to be able to record these songs -- and really important to get 'em right."
Hicks has been steeped in music for as long as he can remember. Harlem, he says, "is not like New Orleans, where music is 24 hours a day -- but it's close." His father and mother played music at home constantly. His mother also took him, as a youth, to local nightspots such as the Lennox Lounge, Saint Nick's and the Cotton Club, where Hicks witnessed performances that made a significant impact on his outlet and ambitions. "When you're around good musicians, it gives you that spark -- 'I want to do what you do. I want to hold my own,'" says Hicks, who started playing guitar when he was six years old. "But being around those types of musicians also taught me to NOT be the fastest guitar player. I wanted to be the one who knew the most riffs and drew on a lot of knowledge so I could play anything, and with anyone."
The self-described "kid in school that had a guitar on his back, interrupting all the classes," Hicks was on stage at the Cotton Club when he was 13, and during high school as part of a 15-piece band playing there three nights a week. "The owner saw I was serious and genuinely loved the music," Hicks recalls. He also learned a great deal from playing rhythm guitar at first, gradually developing his lead and soloing skills at gigs as well as at private parties and open jams -- the latter of which provided a kind of master class for the developing artists.
"I wouldn't know the song or the key of the song; They'd say, 'Hey, go...' and either you sank that day or you swam, and if you didn't get it you got to try to come back the next week and do it again," he remembers.
Hicks, not surprisingly, stayed afloat during those encounters, building a reputation on the scene that began to spread outside of the New York area -- while his home turf expanded to venues such as the Iridium, the Red Rooster, Ashford & Simpson’s Sugar Bar, Terra Blues and more. After high school Hicks began playing in Europe, opening for Jeff Beck and Ringo Starr, playing festivals in Spain and France, as well as at the Cotton Club in Tokyo, and being booked on KISS Kruise V in 2017 and on this year's Joe Bonamassa Blues Alive at Sea Cruise. He's shared stages with the likes of Tony Bennett, Beth Hart, George Thorogood & the Destroyers, Mavis Staples, Paul Shaffer and others.
Hicks also became a member of the Blues Foundation in Memphis and he has Judged the IBC's in Memphis [International Blues Challenge]" along with being a supporter of young Blues Musicians and The Blues Foundation.. He paid his own success forward by teaching music for the Children's Aid Society and working with the Harlem Arts Alliance and the New York City Jazzmobile.
"It's a lot of hard work and responsibility," Hicks notes. "The older I get, it's not just playing music just for me anymore. It's playing music for people to feel good and enjoy themselves, maybe take their minds off their problems."
Hicks and Yano started working on HARLEM two years ago, finishing up during late 2019. "It was just about getting my own sound together," explains Hicks, who was aided by a corps of players that includes members of Soulive, Lettuce, Jack White and Hank William Jr.'s band and others -- including Foghat/Savoy Brown veteran Roger Earl, who plays drums on the smooth, R&B flavored take on Fred Koller's "What the Devil Loves." "I wanted to have a foot in the blues, like coming back home to mama," Hicks says. "But I didn't want it to be traditional. I wanted people to feel like they're in a juke joint, listening to what the blues sounds like in 2019, my own spin on it."
Hicks certainly achieves that on HARLEM, and he's planning on more for the future. As well-traveled as he is Hicks has a long list of places he hasn't played yet that he intends to add to his itinerary. There are also more original songs he plans to release after future forays into the recording studio.
"This is like a first impression," he says of HARLEM. "I want people to know me as a musician first. I'm trying to get my roots planted with the blues fans, and later I'll cross over into some different worlds. There's a lot I want to do -- I'm patient, but at the same time I'm really ready for people to hear my music. Can't wait, actually..."