Born December 16th, 1961 in Valdosta, Georgia, William Melvin Hicks was the youngest of three children. By the time he was seven, Bill had lived in four states before settling in Houston. As a child Bill yearned to be a comedian. He idolized Johnny Carson and the stand-up comedy of Woody Allen.
In junior high school, Bill met Dwight Slade and they became fast friends. Together, the two spent hours creating comedy routines. Bill and Dwight’s ambitions of performing in front of an audience seemed hopeless. Even though there were no comedy clubs nearby, they made recordings and sent them to local agents. One package earned them an overnight slot on the Jerry Lewis telethon, but they were underage and couldn’t perform. Finally and opportunity arrived when the Comedy Workshop opened in Houston. Chauffeured to the club by friend Kevin Booth (the only one of the three with a driver’s license), they convinced the club manager to give them a shot. Bill & Dwight became the venue’s youngest regular comics. With only a handful of performances under their belts, Dwight’s family relocated, leaving Bill to focus on his solo act.
Shortly after graduating high school, Bill moved to LA to start the first phase of his love/hate relationship with the city. Performing alongside then-unknowns Jay Leno,Jerry Seinfeld, and Gary Shandling, Bill found the going rough. After two years he had had enough and returned to Houston. Although his experience in the heart of the showbiz beast had been disappointing, Bill remained enthusiastically dedicated to stand-up comedy. He began touring, relentlessly, building a small but loyal base of fans.
In 1984 with the support of Jay Leno, Bill appeared on David Letterman’s show for the first time (at the time of his death, Bill had performed on the show eleven times). He began playing more prestigious rooms and fellow comedians developed tremendous respect for his work. Hicks tried again to integrate into traditional showbiz by moving to New York which he found more agreeable than LA. There Bill stopped taking drugs, a habit he had picked up during hard years of touring. Although he attended AA meetings, Bill never renounced his drug use, explaining in performances that he had “some great times on drugs.” This blunt honesty flowed over into other areas of his performance and Bill addressed a variety of subjects with new, pure clarity.
Bill’s comedy (despite his own claims to the contrary) was not about hate or pessimism. Bill was an unabashed optimist. He believed that most people were good at heart but evil forces were deliberately distracting us all from creating a better world using television, lies, tobacco and alcohol as opiates. Bill felt a revolution of thought was coming and that it was his duty, as an emissary of the truth, to bring whatever light he could to anyone who would listen. This blunt, straightforward expression of these ideas could cause clashes with less enlightened, unsuspecting audiences. The result was sometimes dangerous; Bill had his ankle broken and a gun was pointed at him on stage. Despite these experiences, he refused to compromise his material and soldiered on.
His first standup comedy video, Sane Man, was recorded in 1988 before an enthusiastic crowd in Austin, Texas. Much of the material heard on his later albums is here in the embryonic stage. Bill toured the clubs even more incessantly in the early 90’s, playing 250-300 gigs a year. Although he loved performing, he hated traveling. But the effort was showing results; his legend was spreading by word of mouth. His first comedy album, Dangerous was released in 1990. That year Ninja Bachelor Party was released on VHS and HBO aired an all-Hicks episode of One Night Stand. At the Just For Laughs Festival in Montreal, Bill was a hit with audiences and critics.
Soon after his Montreal gig, Bill debuted in the United Kingdom appearing in an American comedy revue. British audiences enthusiastically embraced Hicks (Bill joked that it was because of his pale skin), and he toured the country, extensively, winning the prestigious Critics Award at the Edinburgh Comedy Festival. Bill’s second album Relentless was a developmental step from Dangerous but still only hinted at what is to come. On a 1992 English tour he filmed the Revelationsperformance video. Although he was working harder then ever and his career was building momentum, Bill was still not reaching as large an audience as he had hoped. Meanwhile, other comedians were breaking into mass consciousness with a watered-down version of Hicks’ comedy. While it would have been lucrative for Bill to tone down his act and supersede these pretenders, he had no interest in doing so. Uncompromisingly Bill moved forward, expanding his world-view. Turning his back on the opportunity to cash in, he plowed ahead fearlessly. Bill’s material and performances evolved at a tremendous rate.
In 1993 a breakthrough seemed closer than ever. Rolling Stone had declared Bill “Hot Stand-Up Comic” of the year. He began work on Counts of the Netherworld, a high-concept talk show for British TV. He had been nominated for Stand-Up Of The Year by the American Comedy Awards for the third time. He wrote a column for the British humor magazine Scallywag and was asked to write for the political journalThe Nation. Rock bands flocked to his banner; Radiohead, Rage Against the Machineand Tool professed their admiration. He had been invited by the New York Public Library for Performing Arts to speak at Lincoln Center in June of 1994. Performance films, screenplays, books and CD box sets were in various stages of discussion. Perhaps to take advantage of this synergy, Bill moved back to LA.
Then, in June, Bill learned he had cancer. Choosing to keep his illness a secret, he told his family, a few close friends and went straight back to work. In August of 1993 Bill’s brother Steve flew to LA and together they packed Bill’s belongings into his jeep and drove to Little Rock, Arkansas where Bill moved into his parent’s home. He had already recorded both Arizona Bay and Rant In E-Minor, with ambitious plans to mix music that he had recorded into the performance to compliment the comedy themes. He described the conceptual Arizona Bay as his Dark Side Of The Moonbuilt around the theme of LA falling into the Pacific Ocean. Throughout the year, Bill underwent chemotherapy on a weekly basis. The tour dates didn’t let up and his writing pace accelerated.
In October, Hicks taped a performance for David Letterman that became one of his most infamous moments. Returning to his hotel following the early evening taping, Bill was told that censors had cut his segment. In a 39-page letter to John Lahr of The New Yorker, Bill expressed his frustration. He had reason to be enraged; the set had been approved (twice!) by the powers that be. It would’ve been his last television appearance. The set was finally aired on January 30, 2009 when Letterman had Bill's mother as that night's Late Show guest. Bill's last live gig was on January 6, 1994 at Caroline’s in New York City – he did not complete the series of shows.
Despite his illness, Bill was at peace. He spent time with his parents, playing them the music he loved and showing them documentaries about his interests. He called friends to say goodbye and re-read J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Fellowship Of The Ring.