Florida's angry troubadour belts out fiery folk tirades. Don't mess with the Sunshine State or Bobby Hicks just might sing about YOU.
By DAVE SCHEIBER
Published February 27, 2004
[Times photo: Lara Cerri]
Florida folk singer Bobby Hicks plays at the KaTiki on Sunset Beach recently. Hicks is a hard-core, Florida-born folk singer whose lyrics often reflect his resentment toward big business, big development and anything that messes with Floridas natural beauty.
Hear samples of two Bobby Hicks' songs from his CD, "I'm Florida" recorded in the early 1980s. Click for audio
TREASURE ISLAND - One time, Bobby Hicks was invited to perform at a banquet for property developers down the road in Pass-a-Grille.
They thought they'd hired a guy to play some pleasant Florida ditties and Buffettlike beach tunes. Poor property developers.
Hicks obliged with his very own beach number, the Condo/Hurricane song. Starting off with a deceptively light-hearted strum, he suddenly ripped into the room with Category 5 lyrics, slamming greedy builders who ruined the Gulf of Mexico's natural shoreline with a condo skyline.
Looks of horror spread through the crowd. People squirmed over their dessert. And when Hicks was done, the fuming, embarrassed organizer told him he'd never work in Pinellas County again.
It was just one more verse in the ballad of the angry folk singer, the native Floridian known for his sometimes searing songs about the state, tunes inspired by water polluters, phosphate contamination, obnoxious tourists, corporations that have stomped on shrimpers and development that has killed wildlife and spoiled the landscape.
Of course, Hicks has worked steadily in Pinellas and all over Florida since that banquet 23 years ago, like the Florida Jam for Live Arts concert Saturday night at St. Petersburg's Palladium Theater with a dozen other Florida singer-songwriters.
And like this recent evening on Sunset Beach in the jammed weekly folk and acoustic music show at the thatched-roof club called Ka' Tiki, where Florida's trouble-shooting troubadour can often be found.
* * *
Smoke swirls in the red neon glow of a Bud Light sign overhead as the emcee yells to the crowd, "Ladies and gentlemen, put your hands together for the Legend, Mr. Florida, Mr. Bobby Hicks!"
Amid a burst of cheers, a rugged, 6-foot-21/2, 215-pound man takes the stage with his graying black hair, normally tied back in a ponytail, tumbling to his shoulders. He greets the crowd with his familiar buzz-saw rasp of a voice, the result of too many Marlboros and too many decades yelling to be heard above the roar of Harley-Davidsons.
If Hicks, 50, looks a bit like a biker in all-black leather, denim and boots, that's no coincidence. He's ridden his old Harley since 1979, from his native Tampa though every state but Alaska and Hawaii, and will be leaving soon for his annual trek to Daytona Beach for Bike Week.
But right now, it's time for a little tune to soothe his fans. It's the condo song from the self-made CD, I'm Florida (And the Need to Say More), of which he has sold thousands for $10 a pop at his frequent gigs. The live version comes with an opening narrative that's not exactly in the mode of Masterpiece Theater.
"THE DIRTIEST WORD I EVER SAID ON STAGE IS CONDOMINIUM!" Hicks shouts like a pro wrestler.
He is just warming up.
"IF YOU GREW UP ON THE BAY LIKE I DID, YOU SEE WHAT A DIRTY, NASTY, FILTHY THING A DAMN CONDOMINIUM IS. HELL, THE PEOPLE SELLING 'EM KNOW HOW G- D-- CRUMMY THEY ARE. THEY CAN'T EVEN GIVE THE DAMN THINGS AWAY. THEY GOTTA GIVE YOU A STEAK-KNIFE SET JUST TO GET YOU TO COME DOWN AND LOOK AT THEM. . . ."
Then he's off and running, the crowd clapping along, soaking in lyrics such as:
Pay $100,000 for a condo, about 99 more than it's worth
Talk about how big and cheap and wonderful everything was up north
Well they don't give a damn about nature
They cut down the last pine tree
So if the hurricane comes tomorrow, it'll be all right with me. . . .
People are smiling and joining in on the chorus, singing with Hicks about "a big wind blowing up from Africa to blow those condos down."
If you just stumbled upon him in mid diatribe, it might be tempting to view the singer as a crackpot Cracker. There's no doubt he rubs some people the wrong way, even folks in the folk community.
But many musicians who have watched Hicks and gotten to know him rate him and retired biologist Dale Crider from Gainesville as the two most important folk artists on the state's preservation scene.
"I first heard Bobby at the Florida Folk Festival (in White Springs) back in the days when Gamble Rogers introduced me to Florida's folk music scene," says Roy Book Binder, a national folk-blues act who lives in St. Petersburg when not touring. "From that first time I heard him (in the late '70s), he was in my eyes the standout Florida songwriter."
Book Binder's biggest problem with folk music is a tendency toward safe tunes with no strong points of view. "Part of what kills the folk music scene is the folk singers," he says. "But Bobby Hicks is the real deal. He knows how to get your attention."
Then there's Frank Thomas of Lake Wales, regarded as the reigning king of Florida folk music, the last link in the chain of such late heavyweights as Will McLean, Don Grooms and Gamble Rogers.
"Bobby's real laid back, not very opinionated," Thomas says, laughing. "Seriously, I think Bobby is the best songwriter writing about Florida today. He comes from the heart, and he's not afraid to say what's on his mind."
Thomas has a favorite story about Hicks, when he would come to White Springs just to watch the music, not play it:
"He was in the campgrounds, and he had played me a few of his songs, and I thought, man, what a writer this guy is. So he gives me this poem and asked me to take it and make it into a song. I said, "Son, you go write it.' And Bobby got mad and stormed off, and to this day, he says "I tried to give you that song, but you wouldn't take it.'
"If I had caved in to Bobby Hicks and taken that song, it would never have happened. But he turned it into I'm Florida, Need I Say More? That's the best song he ever wrote."
I guess I'm a little bit of everything
Seen so many flags unfurled
Someone still remembers, they come and see us all over the world
I'm the Spanish moss hanging from the live oak tree
I'm what's left of the panther and the old manatee
I'm an eagle in flight, I'm the ocean's roar
I'm Florida, need I say more.
* * *
It's just past 9 a.m. on Thursday, time for the weekly Florida Folk Show on WMNF-FM 88.5.
Hicks co-hosts the one-hour program with Peter Gallagher and makes it his business to be the musical gatekeeper, objecting to any song that might not be authentically Florida.
This show starts off on a strong homegrown note, with a guest appearance by Bill Leavengood, artistic director of the Live Arts Peninsula Foundation. The nonprofit group, dedicated to developing and producing folk presentations about Florida, is sponsoring Saturday's Florida Jam for Live Arts with artists such as Hicks, Scotty Clark, Ronny Elliott, Fiddlin' Elan Chalford, Sunset Beach Pete & Raiford Starke, Shana Smith and Lee Ahlin.
The hosts play a humorous, talking blues tune by Ahlin called A Gator Ate My Poodle. Then comes trouble.
The next guest is Ricky Wilcox, formerly of the Tampa Bay rock band Deloris Telescope. Wilcox is no folkie, but he's come on the show to plug an upcoming gig and be part of a gag. He suggests a certain cut be played off his album, because it features "nice folks from Florida" and thus meets the show's Florida folk criteria. A rocked-up song blares over the air, and Hicks pretends to go ballistic.
"TURN THE DAMN THING OFF! I DON'T WANT TO HEAR THAT ON THE AIR!"
Hicks continues the tirade, and with sound effects added, makes it appear as if he has physically thrown Wilcox out of the studio. Within seconds, the call-in line rings with an alarmed listener, followed by more calls and e-mails throughout the day. That night at a performance, friends kid him about "The Florida Fight Show," and he has trouble convincing them that it was all staged.
The truth is, it's not much of a stretch to imagine Hicks in a fight. He says he often wound up in the middle of fisticuffs in the '70s and '80s while performing his anti-phosphate industry song, The Suwannee Flows Deep, in phosphate-rich Polk County.
How I wish, how I wish I could turn the clocks back
before industrial parks with their factory stacks,
before they mined the damn phosphate and her waters turned black,
for the Suwannee flows deep in my heart
"Sometimes I had to duke it out," he says. "And I've had to swing microphone stands. Have I been beat up before? Hell, yeah. But I never backed down."
* * *
If there was a galvanizing moment for Hicks, it happened during his childhood in Tampa.
Hicks' father had left home, leaving his mother to raise four children, including Bobby, then only 2 years old. But he had a mentor early on, an educator named D.G. Erwin, who took the 10-year-old to see how phosphate dumping had turned the Alafia River white and killed off the fish.
"That had a big impact on me," he says. "That's when I got to thinking about the phosphate mines. I've fought the phosphate people for a long time."
Hicks, who traces his Scottish heritage back five generations in Florida, has deep roots in Tampa. He graduated from Plant High and the University of South Florida, where he thought about becoming a lawyer, and did a three-year Army stint.
But heavy drinking undermined him. "I drank from 14 to 27," he says. "I wasn't a happy partier. I thought I controlled it, but it controlled me."
All that changed on New Year's Eve 1980, when Hicks showed up at a gig too drunk to perform. When someone at the show offered assistance, Hicks vowed, "You'll never see me drunk again. And by the grace of a higher power, I'm still sober."
He pulls out a special coin marking 23 years, starting Jan. 1, 1981, without alcohol. Hicks went on to work as an electrician in security alarms and repaired motorcycles. He has been married 13 years to Virginia "Gini" Hicks and has a 21-year-old son, Dawson, from a previous marriage. "I've been married several times - this is the first one where I've been totally sober," he says.
Hicks insists he's not a starry-eyed environmentalist, opposed to all development. "I'm a conservationist - we just need to be more sensible and hold on more to what we got," he says.
A Bob Dylan devotee, he found his calling at White Springs, hearing many people sing about rivers and the land. "But they weren't really lashing out, naming names," he says. "I saw a need for that."
Despite his reputation, Hicks isn't really that angry most of the time. He loves a good laugh, loves good music about Florida, loves helping people in need. He once cut off his long hair to donate to a program providing wigs to children with cancer.
Last Thanksgiving, he cooked all day for a big celebration at Ka' Tiki, then drove a truckload of food to the St. Vincent de Paul Society. And last week at Ka' Tiki, he heard that one of the performers' trucks, containing the singer's prized guitar, had been towed. Hicks hopped on his Harley, drove to an ATM and returned with $120 to give the singer so he could get his truck and guitar back and still play that night.
"He told me just to pay him back whenever I was able," says the singer, Jack Kelly, who toured in the '70s and '80s with the Kingston Trio. "Everything I had that was important to me in the world was in that truck. But he heard I was in trouble and said in that ol' Harley voice of his, "Oh, we'll take care of it.'
"The man has a huge heart. But when it comes to his music, he's got an agenda."
Because an angry folksinger's job is never done.
To hear a sample of Bobby Hicks' music, go to www.sptimes.com and click on the Floridian link.
At a glance: Florida Jam for Live Arts, a concert of original Florida folk and show music benefitting the Live Arts Peninsula Foundation, 7 p.m. Saturday, Palladium Theater in St. Petersburg, $25, (727) 822-3590.