By Peter Lindblad
Near the tail end of 1967, Canned Heat was a band in turmoil.
The euphoria over the earthy, outlaw boogie-blues band’s triumphant performance at the Monterey Pop Festival that June had faded along with the last dying embers of the Summer of Love.
The infamous Denver pot bust, allegedly staged by a Denver Police Department hell-bent on harassing everyone associated with the hippie ballroom the Family Dog, drained the band’s emotions and finances, even after the unexpected commercial success — it reached #76 on the Billboard chart — of its eponymous debut, released that July.
Reckless drug and alcohol abuse was also taking a toll. Tensions between drummer Frank Cook, a jazz-oriented stickman who’d played with bassist Charlie Haden and trumpeter Chet Baker, and the rest of the band had reached the breaking point.
Changes were needed.
Enter Adolfo “Fito” de la Parra, a straight-laced, young Mexican immigrant — “I was barely 19 years old,” says Fito — with a good job, playing five nights a week, four sets a night in blues clubs, who thought he was living the American Dream.
“Until I joined Canned Heat, I was a total square,” recalls de la Parra. “I was a total square kid wearing a suit and ties and playing rhythm and blues places, but dressing up in a coat and tie. I had never smoked weed. I didn’t know anything about drugs. They used to say, ‘Oh, you come from Mexico. What do you mean you don’t smoke weed?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I come from Mexico,’ but I was innocent. I was not exposed to the cultural explosion of the ‘60s until I joined Canned Heat. They took care of corrupting me real good (laughs).”
Nevertheless, his professionalism, not to mention his dynamic drumming, was just what doctor ordered for Canned Heat, just as the band was about to hit the big time.
A new lease on life
At the tender age of 13, de la Parra began playing drums in his hometown of Mexico City. Two years later, he had a record contract.
“I’ve always been lucky that I never had to work or do anything else, and there were times when I was even making more money than my dad, just beating drums,” laughs de la Parra. “He couldn’t get over that.”
He emigrated to the United States as teen, having married an American girl. But, before that, he had, coincidentally, met Cook in Mexico City.
“I actually let him sit in with my band down there, and he talked to me about Canned Heat,” says de la Parra.
In America, de la Parra easily found work with a variety of bands, and he had drawn the attention of Canned Heat’s managers, Skip Taylor and John Hartmann.
“The band I was playing with, or one of the bands, was called Subway Factory,” says de la Parra, who spent his nights gigging at places like the Tom Cat Club in Torrance. “It was a hippie band. They came to see Skip and John, and they said, ‘You know, we’ve got a better band than Canned Heat, and we got the best drummer in the world,’ and all that, so they heard about me from them.”
After seeing de la Parra play, Taylor and Hartmann arranged for a clandestine audition. “So, they put Canned Heat and one of my bands (Bluesberry Jam) — I was playing with different bands of the time — at a place called the Magic Mushroom. They gave me an audition then, without Frank knowing,” says de la Parra.
The double bill gave de la Parra a chance to display his chops.
“I think they already had some problems with the drummer,” says de la Parra. “They had problems with his personality and with his playing. So, they were talking about replacing him, and that particular night, my band kicked their ass so bad. They were just coming out of that famous Denver bust … they were really off. They were tired. (Singer) Bob (Hite) had a headache. They were fighting with Frank, and on the opposite end, I was with a brand-new band with a great guitar player named Ted Green, who became a guitar teacher and a famous jazz player.”
After the gig, at 3 a.m., Taylor called de la Parra and said the band — minus Cook — wanted to meet him, that “ … they’d like to go into rehearsal with you, and please come tomorrow,” recalls de la Parra.
Serendipity prevailed, as de la Parra walked in with an Junior Wells/Buddy Guy album he’d bought on his way to the rehearsal. Being musicologists and inveterate record collectors, the band, especially Hite, was impressed by de la Parra’s taste.
“I didn’t know those guys were record collectors and avid blues experts, so Bob Hite told me later, when he saw me holding that record under my arm, he said to himself, ‘This is the guy for Canned Heat.’”
Even though he had steady gigs that paid the bills, de la Parra couldn’t turn down Canned Heat’s offer. In fact, when told he had the job, de la Parra responded, “I was born to play with Canned Heat.”
“You know, typically musicians … we are mercenaries, okay?’” says de la Parra. “Like, when you are making a professional decision, it’s so hard to make ends meet that when they offer you a gig, the first thing you ask always is, ‘Well, how much am I going to make?’ I knew Canned Heat was not making any money. I mean, they were making about as much as I was making, you know, working with other bands. And I was struggling here in Los Angeles, but I also knew that Canned Heat was a special band. I just thought that my style, my music and my style of thinking fit right in with them. ‘Cause I was in love with the blues and in love with rhythm and blues way before I met them. I didn’t know they were classic musicologists and record collectors. They went way beyond me in knowledge and all that, but I was way beyond them in experience on the stage, because you see, all the founding fathers of the band were basically musicologists and music lovers, but they were not performers.”
‘The Bear’ and the ‘Blind Owl’
It was Hite and Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson — so nicknamed for wearing thick-framed glasses that helped his eyesight — who founded Canned Heat in 1966, with Hite naming the band after “Canned Heat Blues,” a song about the “medicinal” properties of Sterno made in 1928 by bluesman Tommy Johnson. The cooking fuel Sterno was used during prohibition as a means to get high. “Canned Heat” was the name for Sterno in Mississippi. Drinking it killed Johnson.
Steeped in the history of the blues, Hite and Wilson grew up on opposite coasts, with Hite in Torrance, Calif., and Wilson in Boston.
Hite had a musical upbringing, with a mother who was a singer and a father who played in a dance band in Pennsylvania. He heard his first blues record at age 8, and he was hooked.
He developed a chronic record-buying habit, and as a teen, he spent many of his days haunting record stores. Later, he would manage one. All the while, Hite soaked up as much knowledge of old blues as he could.
Known for his unique vocals, which amounted to “shouting the blues,” Hite grew into a hairy, bigger-than-life character, with a bushy, brown beard and a large body. His appearance gained him the nickname “the bear,” and when de la Parra first met him, he admittedly was intimidated.
“Well, the first time I saw Bob was when I saw the band at the Topanga Corral,” says de la Parra. “I didn’t know them, and I was very scared. It was my first visit to the United States, and I was like totally flashing on all this intensity and all the music that was going on. I was scared of Bob, to be honest, ‘cause I saw him cussing and fighting, or something. He was doing ‘the bear’ thing, you know? Eventually, he did that the rest of his life, but later, he didn’t scare me. But, when I first met him, I thought, ‘Man, this guy is a mean guy.’ I didn’t know that he was actually a lovable person, you know? He was really a wonderful man, but when I saw him in the beginning, and you got ‘f**k this’ and ‘f**k that,’ and all this screaming and all that. It was like confronting a big biker or something, you know? But later on, I figured out he was wonderful, the lovable ‘bear,’ as we called him.”
Wilson didn’t make much of an initial impression on de la Parra, either. A music major at Boston University, Wilson made the rounds in the Cambridge coffeehouse folk-music circuit. His deep, in-depth analysis of the works of bluesmen Robert Pete Williams and Son House for the Boston music publication Broadside of Boston won him admirers at Downbeat magazine, who praised his scholarship.
Wilson eventually would work with an elderly House to help him regain his memory of House’s own songs and help him make his comeback album, Father of the Delta Blues. In his advanced years, House was plagued by Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.
As a slide guitarist, Wilson, who also was blessed with a one-of-a-kind tenor voice that could morph into an ethereal falsetto, had few equals. He had even fewer peers as a harmonica player. His tone was fat, and his playing was inspired.
“As a harmonica player, I have to say I’ve never heard a better one,” says de la Parra. “It’s not just me who says that. John Lee Hooker says that. And many, many people who listen to him now still agree that he was very careful, very meticulous and made the harmonica sound sometimes like a different instrument, too. There was something very special about Alan. You know, harmonica can be a very obnoxious instrument if you don’t play it right, and there are a lot of so-called harmonica players out there who play too much or too many notes, or are just out of tune, you know? And a lot of those who call themselves harmonica players to me are just blowing too many notes, like crazy stuff. Alan actually played music on the harmonica. He could play like a jazz solo … and that’s what made him fantastic and great, not how fast he played or any of that. It’s the tone he got, and how he utilized and applied notes, not like a lot of other harmonica players now who are just so overbearing.”
Wilson wasn’t much to look at on stage. Keeping up appearances was not his first priority.
“Actually, I didn’t like Alan before I joined the band, because he had no stage presence,” says de la Parra. “He like a nerdy-looking guy. In the beginning, when I saw Canned Heat, I was impressed with Bob’s personality and Henry (Vestine) and (bassist Samuel) Larry’s (Taylor) personality. Alan, I used to think, ‘What are they doing with this dude there, you know what I mean, this weirdo there (laughs)? But, of course, I didn’t know the guy … but, finally, when I started really listening, and then he started playing bottleneck and harmonica, then I said, ‘Well, this guy’s got a lot of talent. We’ll have to forgive him for his looks and his … the dirty pants and all this stuff,’ because he was always wrinkled and funky, you know? That was his personality. You know, I am a professional musician, and I was always trained to look your best on stage … but Alan didn’t care about stuff like that. He was way beyond any of that.”
Being the new guy, de la Parra was forced to room with Wilson on the road in the beginning and put up with his idiosyncrasies.
“For example, he would just roll his pants and his shirt in a roll and put it in the corner,” says de la Parra. “That’s how he stored his clothing. And then, he would grab the sheets and the blankets and put ’em on the floor and sleep on the floor. He liked sleeping on the floor more than in a bed. And then, sometimes he’d just sleep outdoors. He’d be outdoors all night. He would just go and sleep outdoors. He was very much a nature guy.”
Canned Heat before de la Parra
Wilson and Hite met through a mutual friend, finger-style guitarist extraordinaire and folklore academician, John Fahey.
They’d hold record collectors’ meeting at Hite’s house, with Hite, Fahey, Wilson and Mike Perlowin holding court. Those get-togethers brought forth the original group, which formed as a jug band with Perlowin on lead guitar, Stu Brotman on bass and Keith Sawyer on drums.
Only days into rehearsals, Perlowin and Sawyer left, to be replaced by a friend of Wilson’s, guitarist Kenny Edwards, and temporary drummer Ron Holmes. Scoring a gig at Ash Grove on Melrose Avenue in Hollywood, the group was heard by Vestine, another guitar player. Invited to join the band, Vestine, who played in the Mothers of Invention prior to Canned Heat, leapt at the chance.
Now with three guitar players, the group decided it had one too many, so Edwards was dropped. Cook would join the band around the same time, replacing Holmes.
With the revolving-door lineup of Hite, Cook, Vestine, Brotman and Wilson stabilized, Canned Heat recorded its first LP in 1966, with Johnny Otis as producer. However, it was not immediately released and didn’t actually see the light of day until 1970, when it was put out as Vintage Heat. Versions of Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful,” John Lee Hooker’s “Louise” and Muddy Waters’ “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” were included in the album that has become, according to Canned Heat’s biography on its Web site, “the most re-packaged and bootlegged record in Canned Heat’s discography.”
Canned Heat’s proper first album was released about a month after the Monterey Pop Festival appearance. Sticking to traditional blues fare, Canned Heat again dipped into its bag of covers to remake Dixon’s “Evil is Going On,” Williamson’s classic “Help Me,” and, again, “Rollin’ and Tumblin’.”
Undoubtedly, Canned Heat’s biggest moment before adding de la Parra was the Monterey show. For his part, de la Parra didn’t see any seeds of discontent being sown that day.
“No, that particular day, they must have been having a good time, or they must have been trying hard to play,” says de la Parra. “But I knew there was already some discontent with Frank. I believe that Frank also had some problems with Skip Taylor, the manager. They used to argue. I don’t know all the works of the inside of the band, but sometimes, things happen that push a band into saying, ‘We need to replace this person.’ It’s a hard thing to do, a hard decision.”
Canned Heat with de la Parra
The stormy relationship between Cook and the band ended when de la Parra joined Canned Heat. Interestingly enough, Cook went straight from Canned Heat to de la Parra’s old band, Bluesberry Jam.
With de la Parra on board, Canned Heat’s classic lineup was established, and a new R&B influence crept into the band’s sound.
“I brought a little harder playing,” says de la Parra. “I brought a rhythm and blues theme into the band. Like, for example, Alan was a genius, but he had no idea how to play a standard-tuning guitar. He always played open-tuning, country-blues guitar. So, when he started learning standard tuning, we started playing a little more city blues and a little more rhythm and blues.”
With his R&B background, de la Parra brought more horns into play.
“The horn arrangements, the horn ideas, the endings, the beginnings … things like that, they were things that I used to do with my other R&B bands that were adopted by Canned Heat,” says de la Parra. “I may not show up as a writer on some of the songs, but I certainly did have an influence on how the arrangements were made, especially horn parts and things like that that they were not really familiar with.”
Offstage and out of the recording studio, de la Parra contributed in other ways.
“Of course, business wise, I was really the only adult there,” laughs de la Parra. “I’ve got to say, unfortunately, they started destroying themselves at a very early time, and their attitudes changed. They started drinking a lot, doing a lot of drugs, and then Alan killed himself in 1971. And things just started getting really bad.”
But, before the downfall, Canned Heat accomplished its life’s mission of turning the world onto the blues. Spurred on by de la Parra, the band started generating strong press reactions, and its second album, Boogie With Canned Heat, yielded one its biggest hits, the slowly simmering “On the Road Again.” The spooky crawl of Wilson’s harmonica and his otherworldly falsetto, plus Wilson’s work on tamboura and guitar, made it an instant classic off an album that also featured the 12-minute, extended jam “Fried Hockey Boogie” — spawned from Hooker’s “Boogie Chillen’” riff — and Hite’s anti-drug lament “Amphetamine Annie.”
“Yeah, that was a real magical thing,” explains de la Parra. “This is a nice story, because we never expected or wanted to be a popular band. We never really even hoped that we would break the way we did. So, when ‘On the Road Again’ became a hit, it was like, ‘What??!! How did we do this??!! How did it happen??!! That was a time where the song was just played by a disc jockey in Dallas, Texas, and all of a sudden, the song broke. That was magical, those times. I mean, forget it now. Corporations control all the radio stations. They control everything. In those times, one lowly Dallas, Texas, disc jockey could break a song, and it was wonderful that that’s how it happened.”
Hailed as blues innovators, Canned Heat was now spreading the gospel worldwide, and in October 1968, the band unleashed Livin’ The Blues, which brought forth the 19-minute, psychedelic experiment “Parthenogenesis.” A hallucinogenic dose of blues, sitar music, raga, honky tonk, distortion and electronic effects, “Parthenogenesis” is Canned Heat at its most experimental.
Strange as it was, Canned Heat did another about-face for “Goin’ Up The Country,” a simpler song that defined Woodstock and made Canned Heat a household name. It stalled at #11 on the U.S. charts but went all the way to #1 in 25 countries.
“So, we had this big hit record (‘On the Road Again’), and then, of course, the manager started going, ‘Now, you have to come up with something else. Now you are famous. Now you’re going to have to continue with this train and come up with another hit,’” says de la Parra. “So, one time we’re sitting in rehearsal, and Alan shows up, and we’re just spacing out, maybe smoking a joint or something, and Alan starts going ‘dot da-da, dot da-da, dot da-da’ and goes, ‘You know, I heard this song called ‘Bull Doze Blues’ by Henry Thomas, and he says, ‘It’s got a real nice hook and it’s a nice song.’ So, he starts singing, ‘Goin’ up the country, baby don’t you wanna go’ and then Larry and I jump in and start playing, almost like magic. Before the first verse is over, we stop playing and look at each other, and Larry looks at me and says, ‘This is going to be a f**king hit.’”
It was a revelation for a band that had always prided itself on staying on the fringes of the mainstream.
“I’m talking about a band that’s anti-commercial, that writes songs that are 10 minutes long, 15 minutes long, that doesn’t care about having a hit record, but this time, we couldn’t help it,” says de la Parra. “We just looked at each other and said, ‘This has to be a hit record.’ It’s a great song. And so, we went on and on and on. We heard the flute part and that’s it. We knew that song was going to break.”
Woodstock and the aftermath
Flush with success, Canned Heat’s popularity exploded after knocking them dead at Woodstock in 1969. Before that moment of cultural zeitgeist, though, Canned Heat recorded a concert album, Live at Topanga Corral, and then released a fourth album, Hallelujah.
A bit of a red herring, Live at Topanga Corral was not actually recorded at Topanga Corral. It was actually recorded at the Kaleidoscope nightclub in Hollywood, a venue owned by Hartmann and Skip Taylor. The band’s label did not like the idea of a live album. To get around that, the record was originally issued on the Wand label in the early ‘70s, with Topanga Corral intentionally listed incorrectly in the title.
Internally, trouble was brewing between Taylor and Vestine. It came to a head at a performance at San Francisco’s Fillmore West when Taylor drew a line in the sand, saying he wouldn’t go onstage with Vestine. The situation became untenable and Vestine quit to form Sun, a band with a short shelflife.
Unfazed, Canned Heat carried on with his replacement, veteran Chicago musician Harvey Mandel, and after two more shows at the Fillmore, the band headed for upstate New York to play Woodstock.
“Well, one of the funny things was, I didn’t want to go,” recalls de la Parra. “I was really exhausted. I didn’t know how important that gig was going to be. To me, it was just another gig. So, that night, I was really tired. I didn’t want to go, and I fought it, but Skip Taylor actually got a key for my room, and if he hadn’t been in my room, I wouldn’t have gotten out of bed. So, he got the duplicate key and started turning the TV on, and ‘Look at this! There’s all these people out there. This is going to be a great gig. Come on, let’s go!’”
The idea of going on in his state was so repellent to de la Parra that he actually quit.
“I said, ‘F**k you. I’m quitting. I hate this shit.’ I remember saying that. I hate to play when I’m exhausted, and part of being on the road is being always tired and always hungry. So, he basically pulled me out of bed — he was bigger than me anyway — and dressed me up … and we finally took off. When we were in the helicopter, finally, a few hours later, and [we] made it to the festival, that’s when I realized, ‘My God.’ I said, ‘Look at these people.’ And that’s when I realized I’m glad he got me out of bed.”
Though the band was tense, according to de la Parra, its energy was electric, and the group’s show is often cited as one of the highlights of the event. “I think we got the best ovation of the festival,” says de la Parra.
You wouldn’t know it from the original “Woodstock” movie. “Later on, they cut us out of the film for political reasons, because we were not a Warner Bros. act, and they were trying to keep their acts in the film,” says de la Parra. “That’s why they cut Janis Joplin and Paul Butterfield, but they kept bands like the Incredible String Band. I mean, give me a break. How could they cut Janis Joplin and Canned Heat but keep the Incredible String Band?”
The omission later was corrected was the Director’s Cut of “Woodstock” put in the Canned Heat performance.
After the cheering died down, Canned Heat experienced more turbulence. A powerhouse recording of “Let’s Work Together” roared up the charts in Britain and elsewhere in Europe, reaching #1 in many overseas markets. In the U.S., it rose to #11.
However, in May 1970, Mandel and Larry Taylor left to join John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. Undeterred, Canned Heat marched on, bringing back Vestine and hiring bassist Antonio de la Barreda, an old friend of de la Parra’s. The reconfigured unit went into the studio with Hooker to record the critically acclaimed Hooker ‘N Heat. They would join forces again on Hooker’s 1990 Grammy-winner The Healer.
Controversy dogged the band in 1970, when Canned Heat, anxious to address social and political issues, especially ones involving the environment, issued Future Blues. The album cover showed five astronauts on the moon depicting the famed Iwo Jima pose, only the flag was upside down, a not-so-subtle warning that the earth was in trouble. And so was Wilson.
On Sept. 3, the sensitive, ecologically conscious Wilson — he was not a part of the Denver arrest because he was out collecting leaves at the time — was found dead on a hillside behind Hite’s Topanga Canyon home. Problems in his personal relationships were exacerbated by the pollution he saw enveloping L.A., and Wilson, who had undergone psychiatric care in a hospital, had attempted suicide a number of times.
Wilson’s death shook the band to its foundation, and in the wake of it, Canned Heat underwent constant roster reshuffling. Joel Scott Hill was the first to attempt to fill Wilson’s giant shoes. He wouldn’t be the last.
In 1973, Hite, de la Parra and Vestine, also known as “The Sunflower,” reformed the band with Hite’s brother, Richard, on bass, Ed Beyer on keyboards and James Shane on rhythm guitar. They went to France to record Gate’s On The Heat with legendary blues vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, one of many collaborations with blues greats of the past.
Brown and Vestine got into a heated argument after Vestine and Shane altered the tuning of Brown’s guitar. They made up and played together at the 1973 Montreux Jazz Festival.
Not everything had a happy ending for Canned Heat. In 1981, a heart attack felled “The Bear.” Sixteen years after Hite’s death, Vestine died in Paris after the last gig of a European tour.
But Canned Heat has survived, thanks to de la Parra. With a new lineup, the band (now including de la Parra, Barry Levenson, Greg Kage and Robert Lucas) still tours annually, as de la Parra strives to further Hite and Wilson’s vision of a blues-educated world. To that end, a bevy of Canned Heat releases have hit the stores recently, including the 2-DVD set “Canned Heat Live at Montreux 1973,” which includes the “Boogie With Canned Heat: The Canned Heat Story” 140-minute documentary.
And then there are the CDs from Friday Music, like The Very Best of Canned Heat Volume 2, and reissues Internal Combustion and Reheated, along with Canned Heat Live at the Turku Rock Festival Finland.
In addition, a possible feature film on the history of the band, based on de la Parra’s book, “Living The Blues,” is in the works.
Looking back, de la Parra sees Canned Heat as missionaries of sorts.
“There are two things that Canned Heat did that you cannot deny,” says de la Parra. “One thing that was very important was that we put blues-oriented music in the ears of the white audiences by having hit records worldwide, like ‘On the Road Again’ and ‘Going Up the Country.’ Those were two undeniable country-blues songs, and we put them in the Top 10, so we made white audiences aware of it … and the other one was, as a journalist mentioned, he said, ‘Canned Heat is the band that married country blues with rock ‘n’ roll.’ ‘Cause that was another important thing. We were not just repeating what the black guys were doing. We did it in the beginning, before I joined, but after that, we certainly put a lot of rock ‘n’ roll influence into blues music. And that was something that neither Paul Butterfield or John Mayall, or any of those guys were doing. They were pretty much playing city blues, and they were pretty much being traditional. We broke traditions.”