SOUND AND VISION PROFILE #1 : THE CANNED HEAT
By Keith J. Crocker
Back in Spring of 1979, I was in Jr. High School. One of the most hateful things I had to do five days a week was to get up in the morning and go to that school. I'd stumble out of bed, fix myself a cup of tea and sit comatose on the living room couch. The radio was always on and set to the oldies station, CBS FM 101.1. I distinctly recall my attention being turned toward a song they were frequently playing on the radio. The voice of the singer sounded very much like Kermit the Frog, a popular puppet character that was a big TV star on a prime time kid's show called The Muppets. That year The Muppets Movie had been released to the movie theaters and was a number one hit in the nation. So my belief was that the song I was hearing had to be from the Muppets Movie soundtrack. I couldn't have been more wrong. It turned out that the song, Going Up The Country, was already over ten years old, and was a product of a band called Canned Heat, not the Muppets as I had believed. You could imagine my shock when I heard the DJ announce the song as the work of a rock group rather than Kermit the Frog. At first I was horrified that someone who sang actually sounded like that. Then I was entranced, I suddenly had to know more about this group and that lead singer with the weird voice. Little did I know that this group of musicians not only had a story to tell all their own, but that they would open my musical taste buds to the Blues in a way that no other musical group has been able to duplicate since.
The Canned Heat was formed in California in 1966. Essentially a jug band dedicated to playing the blues, it was the love child of two men, one Bob "The Bear" Hite, and Alan "The Blind Owl" Wilson. Hiring on an ex-Mothers of Invention guitarist Henry "The Sunflower" Vestine, the group went through two bassist's ( including Spirit bassist Mark Andes) and two drummers before arriving on Larry "The Mole" Taylor and Frank Cook. Taylor, a Brooklyn boy who had been on road for ages backing guys like Jerry Lee Lewis, is one of the best blues bassist on the face of the earth. Frank Cook was a nerdy looking Jew boy who seemed to be having trouble keeping up with the bands upbeat blues. He was dumped after the Monterey Pop Festival in favor of Adolfo "Fito" De La Parra, a scrawny Mexican who was not only the drummer they needed, but the vital force in keeping the group alive for all these years.
Each of the guys in this group had unique and interesting personalities. Bob "The Bear" was the front man, a huge, jovial, good natured California mountain man who had gastrointestinal problems. He was lead singer, harmonica player and crowd pleaser. He had a booming voice, perfect for a blues shouter. On the flip side of the coin, you had Alan "Blind Owl", who was essentially what Canned Heat was all about. A nerd from Boston, Massachusetts, Wilson was a musical genius. Though he looked like he suffered from some form of retardation, he was the band's writer of original blues material, as well as vocalist, harmonica, rhythm and slide guitarist, piano player, etc...In fact, Alan was one of the first to write ecology concern songs, long before it became the fad of the day. Poor Moon and I Know My Time Ain 't Long are two of the best examples of ecology based blues you are ever going to hear. Wilson was taking blues into a whole new direction. Henry "The Sunflower" was from Maryland, his father was a scientist who worked for NASA, and they even named a crater on the moon after his father (the Vestine crater). Henry was a scientist as well. He experimented on his own body, pumping drug after drug into himself in the ultimate experiment of self destruction. That said, Vestine was a one of a kind guitarist, his rifts were truly his own. He had a fast hand, and he picked at the strings, creating sharp and blistering noises, almost like a hundred needles pricking you at one time. Larry "The Mole" is a freaky looking mutant, but his bass, combined with "Fito's" drums, provided the backbone of the group. one of the best rhythm sections ever. Larry likes to really pluck at his base, moving about the stage in a frenzied manner, his enthusiasm nothing less than contagious. Adolfo "Fito", especially early on, looked like he had just crossed over the boarder and was in the group literally trying to hide from the border patrol. Some of the cloths he wore reminded me of materials my mother would dress me in when I was in elementary school. That said, "Fito" beat those drums like nobody's business. When "The Bear' and "The Sunflower" were getting sloppy because of their alcohol and drug addictions, "Fito" was the steady whose playing was most consistent. This was the group that recorded Going Up The Country, this was the group who turned my head around in '79. This line-up didn't last long, but their output in the time they played together produced their classic repertoire.
In 1969, during a club gig, "Sunflower" swallowed a handfull of pills and in turn produced one of the most pointless guitar solos ever, it went no where and then some. "The Mole" hit the ceiling, vowing he would never play with Vestine again. In attendance at the gig was Jews Blues boys Mike Bloomfield and Harvey Mandel. Vestine was fired on the spot, and during the second set Bloomfield sat in with the boys. He was asked to join but declined because he was already with the Electric Flag. However, Mandel took the offer, and a new phase of Canned Heat was born. While "Sunflower" helped give the band its sound, Mandel took the band psychedelic, his light touch a definite contrast to "Sunflower's" bursting powerful chords. Mandel's guitar seems to literally produce sounds that could lift you and then gently float you across the room. His guitar seemed to have a natural hum that would warm up the proceedings, in a sense it was the very shot of acid that the group needed to win over the psychedelic crowd. They already had the hippie thanks to Going Up The Country, but now they had the acid head as well. Mandel had the nickname the "Snake" because he sort of slithered through the music, though "Fito" maintains it was due to the size of his penis (he saw the "Snake" in action on various groupies, he wasn't peeking in the men's room).
THE LONG ROAD DOWN
In 1970, Larry Taylor, always the perfectionist, and the straightest of the group, decided to call it quits, believing that Bob's voice was shot, Alan had no soul, and "Fito's" drumming sucked. Harvey, never really feeling welcome in the group because he was replacing the fired Henry, deciding to leave along with Larry. Those two went and joined hardass John Mayall. Bob in turn hired back Henry, who by this time had developed a love affair with heroin. "Fito" brought in a friend from Mexico, Antonio De La Berrada, a sub standard bassist by all means. Together with Alan, who by this point became manic depressive and had to be hospitalized on several different occasions, the group continued on. Henry took to wearing dark glasses and cut his hair shorter. Gone was the smiling hippie who looked like a good natured Viking, and in his place was a good ol' boy who played with all the fury of Hell. They cut an album with talking bluesman Johnny Lee Hooker and then Alan decided to overdose on barbituates, leaving the group without it's genius. When Alan "Blind Owl" Wilson died, he took a piece of the group with him, they would never recover from this. One of his last songs, Human Condition, proves without a doubt that had he lived he'd of been able to reinvent blues in his own name, hence proving that the group was not locked into "oldies but goodies".
Singer Joel Scott Hill, who came from a group called Jerome (Antonio De La Barrada also came from this group), was brought in to replace Wilson. Scott was a pretty boy who played ok guitar but was really a much better singer. However, he already thought he was a "Big Star" and his attitude caused the group a lot of strife. So was the drug abuse that Bob, Henry and Barrada indulged in, not helping anything. Scott did contribute some good songs, Big City Girl being the best of these. But after Al Wilson's genius, Scott Hill pales by comparison. Finally, Hill decided all the drugs, women, etc... were too much, became a born again Christian and joined The Flying Burrito Brothers. Needless to say, Barrada also flew the coup. No loss. In place of them, Bob hires guitarist/vocalist James Shane and keyboardist Ed Beyer. Richard Hite, Bob's little brother, was brought in to handle bass. He wasn't a good bass player, but he was a fantastic background vocalist. Shane looked like a cranky redneck, a perfect buddy for Henry. Shane did contribute some fantastic material, Looking for My Rainbow being a really nice treat and a true departure for the Heat sound, a tad folky you might even say. At about this time (1973) the record sales were dropping, disco was starting to make its way in, the blues were out, and Bob "The Bear" was enraged. He took to yelling at the audience, farting into the microphone, etc... needless to say promoter Skip Taylor split (off course, the Heat wasn't bringing in the money and he had needs, typical of a promoter), as did James Shane, Ed Beyer and even Henry Vestine. The year was 1975 and Bob and "Fito" found themselves without a group.
HERE'S WHERE IT GETS COMPLICATED
The line-ups for this group started change more than my underwear. In 1976, the group consisted of Bob Hite, Richard Hite, "Fito" De La Parra, guitarst Chris Morgan and keyboardist Gene Taylor. Taylor looked like he could have been a member of the Hite family. He quit when the group went to France and he couldn't get a pizza for lunch. Harvey Mandel would pop up from time to time to help the group out. In '77 they added slide guitarist Mark Skyer on slide guitar, but the output was not up to what they had established in 68-70, and were touring as an oldies act only. In 1979, a line up finally occured that brought the Heat back into prominance once again. It was now ten years after Woodstock, and hence a lot of mini-festivals commemorating Woodstock began to pop up. Since Canned Heat was a huge hit over at Woodstock, it was natural that they be an important part of retrospect going. Enter Larry Taylor and Mike "Hollywood Fats" Mann. "Hollywood Fats" was a rich Jew boy from Hollywood, California who bore an uncanny resemblence to porn star Ron Jeremy. Along with them came blind piano player Jay Spell (who was an associate of Ronnie Milsap). Finally, Canned Heat had a line-up that could truly kick some musical ass. Even "The Bear' was back in high spirits, proving himself to be one of the best frontman a band could ask for. He even took a break from farting into the microphone. Of course, all good things must come to an end, and as soon as the Woodstock anniversary celebrations wore out, Larry Taylor decided to ditch, with "Hollywood Fats" in a close second. Needless to say, after many years absence Henry Vestine returned, and this time he was whistling Dixie...
WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH HENRY
Henry Vestine was an odd sort of guy. Whenever you see live footage of the Canned Heat, Henry is either loaded with smiles, suggesting that he really enjoyed playing for the public. The other half of the time he looks like he's taken a nasty pill and might even burn down your house if you angered him. Henry had severe problems with addiction. On the other hand, he was a music historian, a great guitar player, and one of the true kings of the boogie. "Fito", who wrote an excellent book on his experiences with the Canned Heat, called Living The Blues, points out that throughout Henry's life was this fascination with his Southern heritage, so much so that not only did Henry live in the South throughout the remainder of his life, but at one point in the early eighties he even joined the Klu Klux Klan. While that might piss many off, you must first look at why he did this, what it amounted to and remember at all times that this was his life, not yours. Henry viewed himself as the consumate rebel, this actually being a product of the turbulent sixties. When you drink and drug like Henry did, your decisions become clouded, and you tend to hang around with like minded people. Also, the KKK of the 1980's was nothing like the KKK of the 1920's. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960's created an awareness that reduced groups like the KKK to a boys club who grumbled about immigrants. So now I ask, does this info really bother you? Chuck Berry likes to fart in white groupies' faces, doesn't that shows ten times more hate than Henry joining the KKK? "Fito" also complained of Bob getting a racist attitude when he was coming off some high. He claimed Bob made a remark about James Brown and "Nigger" came into play. Folks, musicians, like filmmakers, are human, they are subject to bad moods and offbeat opinions. Besides, I always thought that James Brown was a jackass anyhow, so who really cares? Do you? Does my opinion really matter all that much. Besides, deeds speak louder than words. Canned Heat did more for recognizing black musicians and black music than just about any blues band in the U.S.A. Now if you told me that Henry blew up 12 churches, I'd be of quite a different opinion of him, but drunken words of hate do much less damage than burning crosses and bombs. If Henry's guilty of anything it's being a drunken asshole, and this behavior got Henry kicked right in his can, and kicked out of Canned Heat once again in 1981.
BIKERS, BROADS & DRUNKEN BRAWLS
Henry Vestine's loud playing caused Jay Spell to split in '81. Bob "The Bear" was getting progressivly drunk, fat, and fartier than ever. Bob hands over management of the group to the Hell's Angels. Enter Mike Halby, guitar player and singer. Enter Ernie Rodreguez, bass player and vocalist. Both these guys have ties to the Angels. Henry gets smart with Ernie and Ernie punches Henry in the face, knocking out a tooth. Henry heads back to Dixie, and is replaced by guitarist Walter Trout. Bob "The Bear" Hite dies in 1981 after taking a snort of way too much heroin. Bikers attempt to get him out of his stupor by giving him a snort of cocaine, but this only causes the fat man's heart to explode. "Fito" decides to take control of the group. The group heads to Australia and becomes a favorite of the Australian biker scene. Trout is a fantastic guitarist. This line-up is very good but because it is so drastically different, it doesn't seem like Canned Heat, but rather some kind of variation of Van Halen. By 1984, "Fito" fires the band because they are playing gigs without him and calling themselves "The Heat Brothers." "Fito" is about ready to call it a day when Larry Taylor pops back into the scene. They reform the original group, "Fito", Taylor, Vestine, and they bring in keyboard player Ronnie Baron and a new slide guitar player and lead singer James Thornberry. It's a powerful line-up that gets picked away by Baron's and Vestine's drinking and drug habits. Both are fired, Baron first, Henry later. Henry is replaced with Jr. Watson, a good guitar player but much more jazz oriented. Finally, in '92, Fito gets sick of Larry insisting that everyone else be fired so Taylor is told to take a walk. Henry comes back and now you have Henry and Jr. Watson!!! Are you confused yet? James Thornberry decides to marry and settle down. "Fito" even considers bringing a chick into the fold, so briefly they hire singer/guitar player Becky Barksdale, a Texan who wore a short skirt and boots. Finally, God intervined and brought the group it's strongest line-up yet with the introduction of a blues man by the name of Robert Lucas.
UP AND DOWN IN EUROPE
Lucas was the shot in the arm this group needed. Physically he was a perfect replacement for the bear, a big boy in overalls, with a loud, booming voice. Talent wise he has more in common with Alan Wilson, he writes lots of his own, original blues material, plus he's a multi-instrumentalist. His slide guitar is so loaded with energy that blows you out of your seat. So now we had a line-up that included "Fito" and Henry, Robert Lucas and a new bassist called Greg Cage. Cage is also a pleasure, very hip in appearence, has a fine singing voice and plays a mean bass. A definite contrast to that crank Taylor. Now, for some odd reason, Canned Heat is ultra popular in Europe, but not nearly as popular here in the U.S. This drives "Fito" up a wall, this Mexican gentleman is a proud American, and always points out that Canned Heat's music is American music, and it is. So why then are they touring mostly Europe and not the States? Because Americans are hung up with top forty corporate manufactured bullshit. We are the home of the blues yet we don't want to hear them. We'd rather watch a bimbo in a mini-skirt sing about her boyfriend than get into the heart and soul of what music is about, the fucking blues!!! And if you don't think that this drives "Fito" crazy, your wrong about that, it does.
On a live recording of a 1997 performance from Vancover that I have, Canned Heat plays an exceptional set. Henry, who was dying from all the abuse he had given his body over the years, starts off very weak but by the end of the show turns in a blistering performance. In fact, whenever he is supposed to solo, one of the band members usually screams out "Henry" to remind him it was time to join in. There is truly a sense of desperation in their voices, almost as if they expected him to drop dead right there on the stage. He didn't that night, but he would die in France at the end of the tour in '97.
Since then, Canned Heat has continued on with a different line-up. In fact, it's way too annoying trying to remember the names of every musician who played with this group, and I've given up trying to follow the changing players. Two consistants are "Fito" of course, and Greg Cage, but others have come and gone. None have duplicated the sound of the original Canned Heat, and the line-ups since Lucas left haven't been too impressive. That said, last word I heard was that Lucas was coming back to the group, so that really raises my hopes regarding their future. But, even if "Fito" decided to call it quits, we'll still always have a fantastic legacy of music from this vastly underrated blues giant. It's been a long time since 1979, the day I sat in my living room and heard what I thought was a song being sung by a muppet about the joys of the country, but not for one second has that sound been lost to me in all those years of living my own blues. Long live Canned Heat!
Editors Note: Turns out that Robert Lucas did return to Canned Heat in 2005. I finally got to see Lucas with the Heat at Hippie Fest on Long Island, September 2006 (hence the audio exerpt above in article). Time was limited for each group and they only got to do three songs (Going up the Country, Let's Work Together and a boogie). They were fantastic! However, it's my sad duty to report that Robert Lucas passed away in December '08 from a drug overdose. I'm not sure if Canned Heat is cursed or not, but I've never seen such shit luck in my life. At last look they are continuing on with another singer/guitarist, perhaps Fito should consider taking out life insurance on the group members...
Hey, are you looking for some rare, live Canned Heat audio and video? Well look no further, hop on over to my Sound & Vision page, all you could possibly want is right there. If you don't see what your looking for simply ask me, I have tons of stuff not even listed!
Hey, if your a Canned Heat fan, you certainly need to pick up Fito's book Living The Blues, which you can get by going to the Canned Heat website or Amazon. Also, your going to want to pick up Rebecca Winters biography on Alan Wilson, and you can do that by going here: http://blindowlbio.com . Also, check out her blogs over here: http://wordworkshop.blogspot.com/ .