With charting singles, a committed following, and appearances at the Monterey Pop Festival and Woodstock, Canned Heat emerged as a prominent blues-rock band in the mid- to late 1960s. Fronted by record collectors Bob Hite and Al Wilson, the band drew its material and inspiration from thousands of vintage blues recordings. “Canned Heat were unparalleled in their singlemindedness and painstaking histori-cism,” noted Christopher North in the Marshall Cavendish Illustrated History of Popular Music. Although the band’s commitment to the blues put it at odds with the psychedelic West Coast scene, the band had no intention of living in the past. Adding a jolt of electricity to its classic repertoire, it combined harmonicas and loud guitars to create a distinctive blues boogie that matched its contemporaries in volume if not style. Tragedy, however, struck the band at the height of its success in 1970, leaving fans to wonder what might have been.
Hite and Wilson met in 1965 and discovered their mutual love for collecting early blues records. Hite, known as “the Bear,” was a former record shop owner with an outgoing personality and a gravelly old-time blues voice. Wilson, called “Blind Owl,” was his opposite. Quiet and reserved, he had majored in music at Boston University, and was known for his extraordinary prowess on the harmonica. The two formed a jug band with drummer Frank Cook and were later joined by guitarist Henry Vestine. In the mid-1960s, the band decided to call itself Canned Heat, borrowing the phrase from a 1928 recording titled “Canned Heat Blues.” “Over the next year,” wrote North, “the group perfected a mixture of country blues, modern electrification and driving boogie-woogie in the clubs of LA.” After performing their first show at the Ash Grove in Los Angeles, Canned Heat settled into residency at the Kaleidoscope.
While Canned Heat gained a local reputation in Los Angeles, manager Skip Taylor engineered a recording contract with Liberty Records. The group began recording in April of 1967, but the tracks remained unissued until 1994. After Canned Heat returned to the studio in May and completed songs for their self-titled debut, Liberty released “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” as a single. On June 17 the band reached a national audience by performing at the Monterey Pop Festival. This appearance paved the way for Canned Heat, which went to number 76 on the charts when it was released later in the year. The follow-up tour ended abruptly, however, when the band was busted for drug possession in Denver. To make bail, the band took an advance from Liberty in exchange for their song publishing rights.
Adolfo de la Parra replaced Frank Cook on drums in 1967 and joined the band in the studio for their sophomore album. Boogie with Canned Heat was released in January of 1968, and after a Texas station began playing “On the Road Again,” Liberty released the song as a single. “On the Road,” featuring Wilson’s high airy vocals, became a hit in both the United States and Europe. The album included a guest appearance by pianist Sunnyland Slim; Wilson, Vestine, and Taylor later returned the favor by playing on the pianist’s Slim’s Got His Thing Going On. Canned Heat also toured Europe in 1968, receiving an especially warm welcome in Germany.
During 1968 Canned Heat released Living the Blues, a two-album set that featured the best and worst tendencies of the band. The record included several succinct, upbeat blues songs like “Pony Blues,” “My Mistake,” and “Walking By Myself,” and incorporated guest appearances by John Mayall and John Fahey. It also gave the band another hit, “Going up the Country,” a song derived from blues player Henry Thomas that eventually reached 19 on the Billboard charts. Both “Parthenogenesis” and the live “Refried Boogie,” however, seemed self-indulgent by comparison. The latter lasted for 41 minutes, taking up both sides of an entire album, and included what James Chriswell of All Music Guide called “some of the most boring soloing ever set to vinyl in the 60s .” Canned Heat followed Living the Blues with Hallelujah in 1969, and although the album produced no new hits, it proved more concise and artistically successful.
Canned Heat continued to build their fan base with extensive touring in 1969 and 1970. “As a live act,” wrote North, “they proved extremely good value, concentrating on the extended boogie workouts typified by recorded tracks like ‘Fried Hockey Boogie.’” In the
Members include Frank Cook (left group, 1967), drums; Adolfo “Fito” de la Parra (born on February 8, 1946, in Mexico City, Mexico; joined group, 1968), drums; Bob Hite (born Robert Hite on February 26, 1945, in Torrance, CA; died on April 5, 1981, in North Hollywood, CA), guitar, vocals; Harvey Mandel (born on March 11, 1945, in Detroit, MI; band member, 1969-70), guitar; Larry Taylor (born on June 26, 1942, in Brooklyn, NY; joined group, 1968), bass; Henry Vestine (born on December 25, 1944, in Washington D.C.; died on October 20, 1997, in Paris, France), guitar; Alan Wilson (born on July 4, 1943, in Boston, MA; died on September 3, 1970, in Topanga, CA), vocals, harmonica.
Group formed in Los Angeles, CA, mid-1960s; signed to Liberty Records, 1967; appeared at Monterey Pop Festival and released self-titled debut, 1967; released Boogie with Canned Heat and Living the Blues, 1968; appeared at the Woodstock Music and Art Fair and released Hallelujah, 1969; recorded with John Lee Hooker and released Future Blues, 1970; continued under Robert Hite’s leadership following Al Wilson’s death, 1970, and under Adolfo de la Parra’s leadership after Hite’s death, 1981.
summer of 1969, the band performed at the Woodstock Music and Art Fair, and the following year, appeared at the Isle of Wight Festival. Canned Heat also underwent several personnel changes: Harvey Mandel replaced guitarist Vestine in 1969, only to have Vestine return after Mandel left to join John Mayall in 1970. The band toured Europe for the second time in late 1969 and early 1970, and their version of Wilbert Harrison’s “Let’s Work Together” eventually reached number three in the United Kingdom. At the end of 1969 the band released the compilation, Canned Heat Cookbook, followed by Future Blues in 1970. The band also worked on a project with John Lee Hooker called Hooker ‘n’ Heat. “The sessions with Hooker,” wrote North, “showed that they had finally made it as white men playing the blues.”
Before Canned Heat could enjoy its newfound success, however, Al Wilson died of a drug overdose. Although the band was planning a third European tour, “Wilson had for a long time been subject to fits of depression,” wrote Geoffrey Stokes in Rock of Ages, “which he had increasingly been holding at bay with heroin.” On September 3, 1970, Bob Hite’s wife Verlie found Wilson, who had been camping beneath the redwoods in the Hites’ backyard, dead in his sleeping bag.
Many critics felt that the band never recovered. Bob Hite steered Canned Heat through still more personnel changes during the 1970s, but the band lost its major-label backing after 1974. Parra took the band into its fourth decade after Hite’s death in 1981. Vestine, the last active member from the original lineup, died of respiratory failure after completing a tour with Canned Heat in 1997.
Canned Heat, Liberty, 1967.
Boogie with Canned Heat, Liberty, 1968.
Living the Blues, Liberty, 1968.
Hallelujah, Liberty, 1969.
Live in Europe, Liberty, 1970.
Future Blues, Liberty, 1970.
Hooker ‘n’ Heat, Liberty, 1970.
Live at the Topanga Corral, Wand, 1971.
Collage, Sunset, 1971.
Historical Figures & Ancient Heads, Repertoire, 1972.
New Age, United Artists, 1973.
Rollin’& Tumblin’, Sunset, 1973.
One More River to Cross, Atlantic, 1974.
Infinite Boogie, Rhino, 1986.
Reheated, Varese, 1989.
Internal Combustion, River Road, 1994.
Gamblin’ Woman, Mausoleum, 1996.
The Ties That Bind, Archive, 1997.
Don’t Forget to Boogie: Vintage Heat, Varese, 2002.
Brown, Ashley, editor, Marshall Cavendish Illustrated History of Popular Music, Marshall Cavendish, 1986.
Marsh, Dave, and John Swenson, editors, Rolling Stone Record Guide, Random House, 1979.
Ward, Ed, Geoffrey Stokes, and Ken Tucker, Rock of Ages: The Rolling Stone History of Rock & Roll, Summit Books, 1986.
“Canned Heat,” All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (June 15, 2003).
—Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.
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