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Also in 2004, the dingy club known as the Grand Emporium changed hands. Its new owners slapped glitter on the blues institution and sold it as a sleek martini bar. Purists cried foul, and booking agents began to seek a new place to lure KC's loyal blues contingent.
That summer, Hicks received his first phone call from an agent pitching a touring act — a performer already close to Hicks' heart. "My first concert that I ever went to was Mad Dogs and Englishmen, with Joe Cocker and Leon Russell and Rita Coolidge and Billy Preston at Municipal Auditorium," he says. "I really, to this day, don't know how they picked me out, but I got a phone call from Leon Russell's agent."
Hicks' approach to booking was the same as how he approached his other business: luck and a bit of common sense. To him, the formula seemed simple. "It might be crazy, but I felt like I was doing the same thing if I'd buy a Harley-Davidson to work on. If I buy talent — that person's act — and put it down here, then all I gotta do is say, How many people could I fit in here?"
There were still a couple of kinks to work out, though. Hicks realized this when he opened The Pitch several weeks later and saw an ad for Leon Russell's gig — at the Madrid Theatre on the same date that Russell was supposed to play Knuckleheads.
"I called the agent and I said, 'What's the deal with Leon playing the Madrid?' And he said, 'Well, they offered $500 more than you did,'" Hicks says.
Russell played the Madrid on July 10, 2004. But Hicks' phone began to ring. The Grand Emporium's blues bookings had continued to plummet after the bar's slick makeover. "Within a week or two, I started getting all the people that used to book [at the Grand Emporium] calling me," Hicks says. "And I still don't know why. I don't know how I got on their radar."
Knuckleheads was in the right place at the right time. The venue's first touring show was a blues-act triple-header: Kenny Neal, Little Ed and the Blues Imperials, and Anthony Gomes. "I started learning real quick how to deal with agents," Hicks says. "That was November 2004. And it just started going wild after that."
Even though Knuckleheads is Hicks' creation, many people don't know his face. That's fine with him.
"I like to say I took credit for this, that this was all magic land, but it wasn't," Hicks says. If you ask him, he'll tell you that Knuckleheads exists not because of him but because it's what people around here needed. "If it needed to be a bar, it's a bar. If it needed to be a stage, it's a stage," he says. "You roll with what you need."
And some people are finding that they need something unexpected from Knuckleheads: the Word.
Every Wednesday night beginning in 2008, the bar's Gospel Lounge, a weekly Christian service and music jam led by Pastor Carl Butler and his band, has taken over Knuckleheads' back room. "We might play some Christian music, but we might play Merle Haggard or James Brown," Butler says. As the band plays, Butler strums his guitar, speaking about a principle from the Bible over the music.