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Catch fire with Canned Heat

Near the tail end of 1967, Canned Heat was a band in turmoil. Changes were needed. Enter Adolfo “Fito” de la Parra.

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.