Frank Hicks’ initial plan was to open a motorcycle repair and parts business, a side job to the body shop he ran down in Kansas City’s East Bottoms — an outpost along the Missouri River rife with train tracks, warehouses and industrial businesses.
To attract more customers to his new, hard-to-find business, he started hosting parties featuring live music and free yard beer. Those grew so popular he started hosting more of them and charging $10 admission to cover his costs. He eventually got “all the appropriate licenses and permits” and became a legitimate bar.
These days, the body shop and motorcycle businesses are long gone, replaced by Knuckleheads Saloon, a music venue that comprises five stages and hosts some of the biggest names in music.
Hicks ventured slowly into the live music business. Initially he booked local bands only, three days a week — Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays.
He would change the scope of his venue considerably in 2004, when the venerable Grand Emporium, another Kansas City music venue, closed its doors.
“I started getting calls from agents looking for places to play,” he said. “That’s when we decided to become a full-fledged music venue.”
He called it Knuckleheads for two reasons.
“My dad and I watched the ‘Three Stooges’ a lot, and they were always calling each other knuckleheads,” he said. “And Harley made an engine called the Knucklehead, which I thought was their best-looking engine. They stopped making it in 1947, the year I was born.
“So it was in memory of my dad and the Harley engine. I’m not sure now it was the best decision, but… here we are.”
Knuckleheads opened in a 120-plus-year-old railroad boarding house, which Hicks bought in 1985 and was, for a while, living quarters for one of his sons. It originally included two stages: one indoors, capacity about 250, and one outdoors, which now can hold as many as 1,300.
The outdoor stage includes a caboose that was once part of a restaurant. A friend bought all the cars, and when Hicks offered to buy the caboose for the stage, the friend told him “you can borrow it until I die. Then you’ll have to deal with my daughter.”
In the early 2000s, a microburst severely damaged the outdoor stage, resulting in a major remodeling of the space. It also nearly toppled the caboose, which has since been implanted in the ground beneath it and rendered immobile. It seats as many as 14 people.
The car stands as a symbol of the tracks that run just south of Knuckleheads. The sounds of trains rumbling by, horns blaring and drowning out the music, is a trademark of the venue, part of the romance of the raw, rugged environs that surround it.
Hicks kept the motorcycle-parts shop around for a few years, but closed it in 2007, when costs started exceeding profits. About a year later, he turned it into the Gospel Lounge — an intimate listening room that seats about 80.
He has since opened two more rooms: the Garage, former home of his body shop, which holds about 650; and in the same building, the Fender Stage, capacity 90. It’s not unusual on weekend nights to have three or four shows booked, mostly national acts.
Right off the bat, Hicks learned a few hard lessons about dealing with those big touring acts and the people who work with them. The first show he booked was Leon Russell.
“The first concert I ever saw was Leon Russell, the Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour,” he said. “So I really wanted him to play here.”
Hicks made a deal with Russell’s agent to have the legend perform at Knuckleheads on July 10, 2004. Or so he thought, until he saw an advertisement for a Russell show at a different Kansas City venue that same evening.
“I called his agent, who said, ‘We only had a handshake deal; we never had a contract. [The other place] offered $500 more than you.’ He was a snake.
“Leon Russell was the first act I booked, but I didn’t get him. So I found someone to school me on contracts and booking bands, and I got Leon to play here several times over the years — after he got a new agent.”
That “schooling “ has led to Hicks’ bringing in an impressive array of performers. Some of them, like Ray Price and Merle Haggard, already were legends; others were stars on the rise, like Sturgill Simpson, who played his first-ever Kansas City show at Knuckleheads.
“He was a friendly guy,” Hicks said. “He said we were the first real honky-tonk he’d ever played at.”
And some of them were Kansas City musicians who got their starts at Knuckleheads and have gone on to national and even worldwide acclaim.
One of those is Samantha Fish, who was 16 when she started joining in the weekly blues jam sessions. Fifteen years later, she is an award-winning singer-songwriter and guitarist plumbing several music genres and getting lots of acclaim for it.
In 2018 she won artist of the year at Best of the Beat Awards, sponsored by “OffBeat,” a music magazine based in New Orleans, where Fish now resides.
In 2017, Fish told “OffBeat”: “I credit a lot of my career to Frank Hicks, the owner. He put me up on stage. … That’s how I met most of the people I know now, because of Frank and Knuckleheads.”
Another homegrown star is Danielle Nicole, a Grammy nominee who was known as Danielle Schnebelen when Hicks booked her as the inaugural flatbed performer at that first free-music/free-beer street party for his motorcycle business.
Knuckleheads has grown and changed considerably since those days. But, Hicks said, the mission hasn’t: “It’s still about enjoying music and having a good time.”
–Timothy Finn wrote about popular music for The Kansas City Star from 1996-2018. He now writes about music for IN Kansas City magazine and co-hosts a music show every Thursday from 4 to 5 p.m. on 90.9 The Bridge.
Ray Price, Merle Haggard, Nick Lowe, Jason Isbell, Rodney Crowell, Larry Carlton, the North Mississippi Allstars, Sturgill Simpson, Los Lobos, Robert Earl Keen, Lucinda Williams, Bruce Hornsby, Asleep at the Wheel, Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Marshall Crenshaw, Steve Earle, Lee Ann Womack, Matthew Sweet, John Hiatt, Living Colour, Sarah Borges, St. Paul and the Broken Bones, X, Kasey Chambers, Margo Price, Dweezil Zappa and Cee-Lo Green.