A blazing blues guitarist, soulful singer and energetic entertainer, 19-year-old Solomon Hicks, known to his fans as King Solomon, has since boyhood reigned as a musical legend in Harlem, his home turf.
An eclectic who can play anything from R&B and funk to gospel and classical, Hicks has been dazzling listeners everywhere uptown from the modern Cotton Club to top blues and jazz nightspots (accompanied by his parents) to venerable churches, and, in the ultimate kick, the fabled Apollo Theater where he first played at age 13. He recorded his first CD, "Embryonic," at 14 on the Cotton Cub label.
King Solomon brings his regal, rocking blues, jazz, funk, R&B, Afro-Cuban and classic rock-inspired act to town for his Hartford debut as he leads his trio, Band of Brothers, at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 1, at Japanalia Eiko, the West End refuge for live cabaret, blues and jazz.
"What really hooked me about the blues was the great energy I heard in the guitar players I listened to as a kid," Hicks says by phone from his Harlem home, explaining his obsession with a classic American genre more frequently associated with musicians old enough to be his great grandfather, or even older.
"One of the things that grabbed me about Buddy Guy's or Freddie King's blues playing is the terrific amount of energy and the power they generate with their vibrato," says Hicks who began playing guitar at age 6 and whose kingly chops have been turning heads ever since.
The onetime child prodigy, who might well be on the verge of stepping into the national or even international limelight with his new CD, "Jukin' at the Cotton Club," was initially home-schooled in music. And he learned not just how to play the guitar, but also about the profound historic and cultural legacy of African-American music in all its rich, often blues-inspired diversity.
Solomon's road to royalty started out when a guitar playing friend of the Hicks family taught him the rudiments of the instrument. Even then, at that baby-step stage, it was readily apparent to his supportive parents, Holly and Gullins Hicks — two music loving, non-musicians — that their son had a natural gift for playing the instrument and a genuine passion for music. Not many years later when Hicks was becoming known as a wunderkind guitarist playing premier clubs in Harlem, his string skills earned him such monikers as King Solomon (this seems to have stuck permanently), along with Lil B.B. (as in B.B. King) and East Montgomery (echoing the name of jazz great, Wes Montgomery).
"I started him right away on guitar lessons when he was six because I didn't think his fingers were long enough for piano — and I love piano. But he took to guitar phenomenally," Holly Hicks, Solomon's mother, explains about spotting the early signs of her son's gift.
Holly Hicks, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of popular music, became her son's first tutor in the history of African- American music and the importance of preserving its legacy. She began schooling him on everything from blues, gospel and jazz to Motown gems, Stax classics, the rap music of Tupac Shakur and beyond, totally immersing him in sophisticated, compelling music rooted in grooves, soul and melody.
"I grew up in the age between Miles Davis and hip hop," she says of what originally inspired her eclectic taste and urge to learn about the music and how it fits in our cultural history.
"I loved jazz, blues, R&B. I loved Santana. And I told Solomon early on, 'You've got to make the guitar cry,' " she says.
Typically, as part of her home-grown curriculum, she'd focus for months on individual greats like Marvin Gaye, Al Green or Aretha Franklin, among other master practitioners in a variety of genres. Plus, she stressed the music's historical importance and the need to preserve that precious legacy, maternal wisdom that her son, as a guitarist, composer and bandleader, has followed as he assumed the mantle of torchbearer of the blues.
"I gave him the history of the music and the struggle," Holly says, "and made him understand that certain rich traditions and significant songs need to be kept going, songs like 'Strange Fruit,' (a Billie Holiday classic social protest song), which is about lynching, not about exotic food. Somebody has to remember the story and the roots from where it came. Somebody has to remember blues. Somebody has to remember funk and R&B and keep it going," she says with deep conviction.
Solomon has continued to increase his musical knowledge by intense study of the rich lode of material on YouTube, examining the styles and performance techniques of blues masters and jazz greats, including such 20th century musical giants as Sarah Vaughan and Duke Ellington.
A Signature Move
Not that he hasn't also been schooled in the traditional, one-on-one manner of master and apprentice, including instruction from the late great blues and jazz-oriented guitarist Melvin Sparks. And for schooling, you'd be hard-pressed to surpass his six, busy years of hands-on-learning when jamming in Harlem's hottest music spots, real-life experiences that no classroom can match. (Eventually, Solomon, a good student through high school who's taking a sabbatical, would like to earn a Ph.D. from New York's New School. His long range goal is to teach in high school or college.)
One of Solomon's greatest guitar heroes is the legendary T-Bone Walker (1910-1975), who was not only a master blues musician but the original inspiration for Solomon's signature guitar move of playing while holding the guitar behind his head.
"T-Bone was one of the best showman for guitar performances. One of the guitar moves I got from T-Bone was playing the guitar behind my head. It took me a while to work on it, but I think I got it to the point where I can incorporate it in my show and be seamlessly smooth. But I haven't done the splits like T-Bone," Solomon says. (Walker could simultaneously do a split on stage while playing the guitar behind his head.)
"T-Bone did splits, but he was a little skinnier than I am," he says laughing.
Doing that behind the head move, the guitarist explains, requires two elements.
"One, you have to know your instrument really well. I've been playing a certain number of years, so the guitar is almost like second nature to me. And the other element," says Solomon, who's skilled in martial arts, "is that I'm double jointed."
Like T-Bone, a master showman, Solomon also likes to spike his performance with entertaining elements — synthesizing showbiz and sizzling swing —- without ever sacrificing the quality of the music, whether its blues, funk, R&B or jazz.
"In most cases with an audience, I want to put on a show for them to keep them engaged and entertained. It's not just about the musicians having some kind of private knowledge contest for themselves on the bandstand. We're actually giving the crowd something to watch and be entertained by."
Asked about his most influential mentors, Solomon immediately names his parents, who for years have had to accompany him to liquor-serving clubs that never would have even let in the underage youngster by himself, much less permitted him to play on the bandstand.
So for many years, Solomon's mother would drive him all over Manhattan to get him to his gigs, wait around for a couple hours and then drive back home later that night.
Now that he's 19, Solomon gets around pretty much on his own, using the subway or the shoe leather express whenever his gigs are nearby and his guitar and gear aren't too much of a burden.
While Holly Hick's driving duties have diminished, she's still Solomon's first and only manager.
"Momager means I'm chauffeur and gofer," she says laughing. "I get him there. I give him food and make sure he's warm and safe. The difference is that manager's actually get paid," she says.
KING SOLOMON HICKS and his Band of Brothers perform at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 1, at Japanalia Eiko, 11 Whitney St., Hartford. Tickets: $48 stage-side table seating; $28 general row seating. Reservations: 860-232-4677.