Posted by: kubiakl | December 22, 2009

Canned Heat

Bombastic vocals, searing dual-guitar work, and what John Lee Hooker described as “the greatest harmonica player ever”.  That was Canned Heat.

Canned Heat started when Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson (vocals, guitar and harmonica) and Bob “The Bear” Hite (vocals) met and discovered they both loved blues music.  They rounded up Henry Vestine for lead guitar, Larry Taylor for bass, and Adolfo de la Parra for drums.  Later Vestine was replaced with Harvey Mandel shortly before the Woodstock Festival.

What I hear in Canned Heat is a deep and sincere love for blues music.  It’s an honest tune.  (And yes, I’m pirating that phrase.  It’s the best one I’ve heard to describe true music, music without detachment or irony.)  The name comes from the Tommy Johnson song “Canned Heat Blues”, and is a reference to Sterno – a cooking fuel that desperate alcoholics would sometimes drink.

Their first big show was the Monterey Pop Festival in June of 1967.  (The Monterey Pop Festival was also the show that broke The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Ravi Shankar in the U.S.)  At this time Frank Cook was still on the drums but was replaced by de la Parra in December.

Their eponymous debut album was released shortly after Monterey Pop.  It was a collection of blues standards that showcased Heat’s love for the source material.  Their second album, “Boogie With Canned Heat” was mostly original material with the exception of a reworked “On The Road Again”.  Later in 1968 they released “Living The Blues”, which contained their biggest hit “Goin’ Up The Country”

“Goin’ Up The Country” became their signature tune and many call it the anthem for the 1969 Woodstock Festival.  In between the release of the song and their appearance at Woodstock Henry Vestine exited the group after an on-stage blowup.  Harvey Mandel stepped in and played two shows at the Fillmore before Woodstock.

Their Woodstock show remains a high water mark in Canned Heat’s career.  Following a European tour in 1970, Larry Taylor and Harvey Mandel left the band.  Vestine returned, and a friend of de la Parra stepped in on bass to record with John Lee Hooker.  The album “Hooker ‘n’ Heat” was John Lee’s first charting album, bolstered by the association with the popular Canned Heat.  And speaking for myself, it’s nice to see that they could turn around and give one of their heroes a helping hand.  Hooker’s music (and that driving Mississippi sound) is evident in many Canned Heat songs.

Before the album could be released things went dark for Alan Wilson.  A member of the “27 Club” (the age where Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones, Jim Morrison, and Robert Johnson died), his barbiturate overdose was ruled as a suicide.

The band continued on but in a state of disarray.  Bob Hite and Alan Wilson had been the backbone of the band, and now Hite had lost his partner and friend.  Ten years later a heroin overdose would fell The Bear.

Canned Heat soldiered on as a unit but never recovered from the loss of their two founding fathers.  They even played this past summer as members of the Heroes Of Woodstock tour.

Which is good, I guess.  Bands this amazing shouldn’t be forgotten.

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Responses

  1. Thanks for remembering Canned Heat and Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson! I enjoyed your blog post and the videos.

    One thing that should be noted: Wilson’s death was not “ruled as a suicide”. The coroner’s report, which can be found in my biography of Wilson, rules his death as an “accidental” barbiturate overdose. His death was *presumed* to be a suicide by some of his colleagues; this does not constitute a “ruling” and the theory of a successful Wilson suicide is neither provable nor universally accepted.

    The rest of your essay is spot on; thanks for remembering the Tommy Johnson angle! I will enjoy perusing the rest of your blog as well.

  2. Rebecca, thank you so much for stopping by! And a big thank you for clarifying the details on Wilson’s death – I’m not always the best researcher, so corrections are welcome.
    The dedication you have put into Blind Owl’s legacy is impressive. I’ll definitely be reading your blog more thoroughly during my holiday break.
    Hope you enjoy the rest of the blog as well!


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