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Who is Chicken Hicks?

Ben Steelman

Malcolm Ray “Chicken” Hicks (1925-2004) probably did not invent shagging, or shag dancing, but he was one of its greatest innovators and popularizers. Most histories credit him along with Billy Jeffers with spreading the craze. In the years after World War II, he also helped introduce the African-American “bop” sound to white audiences, which led to the evolution of the “beach music” sound.

Well known on the Eastern Seaboard from Virginia to Florida, Hicks regularly performed exhibitions at the Grand National dance championships in Atlanta; his last appearance there was on Memorial Day weekend 2004, just weeks before his death. He was admitted to the Shaggers Hall of Fame, and the Cape Fear Museum proudly displays his signature white “shaggin’ ” shoes.

Born Nov. 27, 1925, in Durham, N.C., the son of Leo and Gurley Hicks, young Malcolm had his first exposure to black dance music as a teenager, slipping into “Colored Only” shows at the Durham Armory. He supposedly picked up one of his distinctive moves, the “camel walk,” while hanging around at Skinny’s Shoeshine Parlor in Durham.

Hicks served in the U.S. Coast Guard, then, by his own account washed up in Carolina Beach in 1943. Back then (he later told reporter Lee Roberts), “It was like a state fair, 24 hours a day … There were places that had no doors, ’cause they were always open.”

Along the way, Hicks made friends with ex-Merchant Marine Jim Hannah. Hannah, or possibly Hannah and Hicks in partnership, founded a Carolina Beach dance spot called the Tijuana Inn (the name inspired by an excursion to the Southwest).

Before long, Hicks — along with younger brother Bobby Hicks and few other white boys — began to slip over to nearby Seabreeze, the “colored” beach resort under segregation, to check out the dance scene in the “jump joints.”

Back at Carolina Beach, sometime in 1946, Hicks persuaded Hannah to loosen up the Tijuana Inn and put a few “race records” (45s by black recording artists) on the bar’s jukebox. According to Billy C. Wirtz, these included such cuts as Lionel Hampton’s “Hey Bop A Ree Bop,” “The Honeydripper” by Joe Liggins and ” ‘Round the Clock” by Johnny Otis.

“I got chummy with the jukebox changers,” Hicks said in a 1996 interview, “and I’d say ‘Bring that record and that record.’ I got rid of Glenn Miller in Carolina Beach jukeboxes.”

Hicks also began to show off some of the new bop and jitterbug steps he’d picked up from Seabreeze. He did not, however, call it shagging. “I’m gone tell you the truth, I didn’t call it anything,” he said in 1996. “I couldn’t stand it, how they all called it the jitterbug. All I said wa, ‘Come on, let’s go jump awhile.’ ” His favorite white jump joint, he later recalled, was the Sugar Bowl, at the south end of Carolina Beach.

By 1948, shagging had broken out at Carolina Beach’s Ocean Plaza. The following year, however — after a spate of fistfights between local boys and servicemen (and a couple of rumored killings) the mayor of Carolina Beach ordered a crackdown. The Tijuana Inn and Sugar Bowl were closed, along with a couple of other places. According to Wirtz, Hicks may have had to leave town for a while. (He never left for long.) The only dance hall left, the Ocean Plaza, limited dancers to ages 18 and older, so by 1950, the shag scene shifted down the coast to Myrtle Beach.

Hicks, meanwhile, pursued a conventional career in the building and construction trades. He worked for PMSI Southeast for a number of years and at the time of his death was president of the All Wood Fence Co. of Carolina Beach.

He still found plenty of time to dance, though, marrying his longtime partner Lynda Myers.

Hicks struck a memorable appearance. According to Bo Bryan, author of “The Shag Book,” he was “tall and rail-thing with arms as long as railroad ties, skinny as toothpicks with sledgehammers attached at the business ends.” Bryan claimed Hicks had boxers’ hands with thick fists (which occasionally came in handy, when things grew rowdy).

“The young girls still loved him when he was logically too old to flirt,” Bryan wrote. “They would sidle up to him on the edge of the dance floor and wait for him to stop talking, which might take awhile …(h)e allowed himself to be led onto the floor, a silver-haired, silver-tongued barbarian, out of another age, when giants still slept under the boardwalk … He danced around the girl as if she were a small goddess fresh out of cheerleader’s training camp, him a renegade high school dropout who would spirit her away to Fort Lauderdale while her mama wasn’t watching.”

Hicks was a longtime member of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Carolina Beach. He died on the Fourth of July, 2004, at New Hanover Regional Medical Center in Wilmington.

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5 Responses to “ Who is Chicken Hicks?”

  1. On July 14, 2009 at 1:52 pm Heather wrote:

    Just wanted to say……’Chicken Hicks’ grew up with my grandfather in Durham, NC. Before he passed away, he put up my neighbor’s privacy fence. What a small world!

    Wilmington, NC

  2. On December 22, 2010 at 11:52 pm Lane Holt wrote:

    I suppose I spent as much time with Chicken as anyone. I never saw him dancing in shoes during the summer, always barefooted. James Warwick is never mentioned as a * shagger *. In my opinion he was the best. His brother Milton also.
    Their sister Patsy was the best that ever came from Carolina Beach, Period. End of story !


  3. On February 25, 2011 at 3:45 pm Joyce wrote:

    Chicken Hicks was one of my best friends. I was thrilled to dance in some of the HOF exhibitions with him. He taught me the camel walk and the shorty george. I always saw shoes on his feet, but never saw any socks.
    He loved a crowd and danced to please everyone. He was a true shag icon and I miss him dearly.

  4. On July 23, 2011 at 3:09 pm Mack Hicks (Malcolm Ray Hicks Jr.) wrote:

    I am proud to read all this stuff about Chicken
    Hicks. After all, he was my dad.

  5. On January 21, 2013 at 1:35 pm Christopher Smith wrote:

    I’ve been on a Chicken kick lately and found this wonderful article. He helped me out more than he probably ever knew. Really miss him!

    (A couple of trivial notes…the jukebox records back in 1946 were 78 rpm, not 45s and Johnny Otis was white)

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