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Artist:     King Solomon Hicks

Album:     Harlem

Label:     Provogue/Mascot

Release Date:     3.13.2020

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When this writer first heard of King Solomon Hicks, he was described as “sings like Sam Cooke and plays guitar like B.B. King.” Yikes, those were lofty accolades for the then 20-year-old. His live performance, however, proved those words to be somewhat accurate as he impressed the group gathered at a private party with the only negative being, “Wish he didn’t just do covers.” Since then he’s performed in Pennsylvania several times, perhaps most notably at last year’s Briggs Farm Blues Fest, where he is scheduled to perform again this July. The timing couldn’t be much better as Hicks, now 24, has released his debut recording, and, yes, Harlem is a mix of covers and two instrumental originals, though when he does cover a tune, he’s long been able to put his own stamp on it.

Hicks was a child prodigy of sorts. Growing up in Harlem, he was brought to the local jazz clubs by his parents, taught himself guitar by age six, developing his skills at gigs, private parties, and open jams. By 13 he was playing the Cotton Club three nights a week. He quickly expanded to venues like the Iridium and Red Rooster, and in recent years toured the world and shared the stage with artists like Jeff Beck, Ringo Star, Tony Bennett, and Mavis Staples. Until relatively recently he played abroad more than locally, but has managed to build a following in the NY-NJ-PA area in recent years.

These 11 songs salute the artists and scene that shaped him. Produced by multiple Grammy Award winner and bassist Kirk Yano (Miles Davis, Public Enemy), Yano recruited a group of players that includes members of Soulive, Lettuce, Jack White and Hank William Jr.’s band. Because the album was recorded in starts and stops, there are many players but Yano, guitarist Eric Krasno and keyboardist Neal Evans appear most often. Foghat/Savoy Brown veteran Roger Earl plays drums on the R&B flavored Fred Koller’s “What the Devil Loves.” In fact, speaking of R&B, Hicks has a style that will remind some of Robert Cray, certainly vocally and groove-wise but let’s not engage in any guitar comparisons or certainly songwriting just yet. Cray is a singular talent there. Hicks put it this way: “I wanted to have a foot in the blues, like coming back home to mama. 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 and Yano began working on the album two years ago and finished it in late 2019 as they continued to develop his own sound. This is Hicks as a writer, a player, and an interpreter. He also showcases numerous styles in his originals from the roadhouse blues of “421 South Main,” the gospel groove of “Have Mercy on Me” to the funky instrumental “Riverside Drive.” Among the best covers is his Latin-tinged take on Blood, Sweat & Tears’ “I’ll Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know.” He brings Gary Wright’s “Love Is Alive” into filthy, funky territory and closes with a searing version of Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Help Me” segueing into the gospel “Walk With Me” as the album ends.

Hicks, by his own admission, may use the blues as a foundation to explore other genres but let’s hope he continues down this blues/soul/R&B path. If so, we can rest assured the future is in good hands.

—Jim Hynes

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