Woodstock Performers: Canned Heat
"Ah," went the crowd. "Some boogie-rock on the main stage!"
While the Incredible String Band had performed a set that received polite applause, what this crowd really wanted was some solid rock. They were about to get that in spades. And, if you aren't already singing one of the two songs that Canned Heat made famous at Woodstock, you will be by the end of this article.
This series of articles—32 in all—covers each of the artists who performed at the original Woodstock festival August 15-18, 1969. Appearing on Day 2 before Canned Heat was the Incredible String Band, who were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Next up after Canned Heat would be a smokin' set from Leslie West and Mountain.
Canned Heat had its start in 1965 in Topanga Canyon, California, a place that became home to many artists of the day. A thriving community of blues devotees called the canyon home, and a few of these fellows, led by Alan Wilson and Bob Hite, decided to start their own jug band. Wilson and Hite were hard core record collectors and blues aficionados, whose knowledge of the blues and the original blues artists bordered on encyclopedic. Hite was born in Torrance, California, to parents who were amateur musicians. A born showman with a big personality, he cut his singing chops by singing along to the blues records he owned. Wilson was Hite's polar opposite, an introvert and Boston University music major with a natural songwriting ability, who had moved to California in 1965 to help a friend write a thesis about Delta bluesman Charley Patton.
The most solid lineup in those early jug band days included Bob Hite (vocals), Henry Vestine (ex of Zappa's Mothers of Invention (guitar)), Stu Brotman (bass), Alan Wilson (bottleneck guitar) and Frank Cook (drums). Cook already had professional experience as a drummer with jazz greats Chet Baker and Charlie Haden.
Talent scout and producer Johnny Otis, who had discovered Etta James and Jackie Wilson, recorded the band's first tracks in his Los Angeles studio, though these weren't actually released until 1970 as the "Vintage Heat" LP. Songs recorded by the band during that session included covers of John Lee Hooker and Willie Dixon. Brotman left the band in 1966, only to be replaced temporarily by Mark Andes, who went on to co-found Spirit. Larry Taylor finally signed on as the band's permanent bass player in March of 1967. Like Cook, Taylor already had some professional experience, having backed both Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis, and had also worked as a session musician for The Monkees.
The band recorded an album for Liberty Records in the spring of 1967 that produced their first single, "Rollin' and Tumblin'," with the full-length album "Canned Heat" being released in July 1967. They appeared at The Monterrey Pop Festival in June 1967, opening the festival on the second day with blues covers that included "Rollin’ and Tumblin’" and "Bullfrog Blues." The festival, coupled with the well-timed release of their LP, really busted things open for the band. And speaking of busted, another lineup change came about as the result of a drug bust in 1967 that saw drummer Frank Cook replaced. The "classic" Heat lineup was now in place.
The year 1968 was a big one for the band. Their sophomore album was released in January 1968, and featured more original material than their first outing had, with four songs credited to the entire band. It was a song on this album, adapted by Wilson from a blues tune written by Floyd James in the '50s, that became one of the band's signature tunes. "On the Road Again" was played as blues should be played—from the heart—and introduced a touch of grunge before anyone even knew what that was. They also embarked on their first-ever tour of Europe after appearing at The Newport Pop Festival in Costa Mesa, California in August. In October, they released their third album "Living the Blues," which gave them their first major hit and gave the upcoming Woodstock festival an anthem. "Going Up the Country" was also an adaption of an earlier blues song, this one by Henry Thomas, with Wilson changing the lyrics to reflect the back-to-nature theme so loved by hippies everywhere. There is a re-mastered version of available that is really very good. The sound quality is excellent and the tunes really shine a light on the great songwriting ability within the band. Living the Blues
Canned Heat Performing "Going Up the Country"
"I'm goin' up the country, baby don't you want to go?
I'm goin' up the country, baby don't you want to go?
I'm goin' to some place, I've never been before
I'm goin' I'm goin' where the water tastes like wine
I'm goin' where the water tastes like wine
We can jump in the water, stay drunk all the time"
Canned Heat's Woodstock
Canned Heat's fourth album "Hallelujah" was released July 8, 1969, and mere days after this, Vestine left the group after a heated argument with Taylor, and was replaced by Harvey "The Snake" Mandel. Two warmup dates at The Fillmore East, where they shared the stage with Santana, Three Dog Night and Sha Na Na, allowed Mandel to settle in, and they were off to Woodstock.
Exhausted with touring at this point, the guys each had about one nerve ending left among them. Due to a shortage of hotel space, they were sleeping in the cargo area in an airplane hanger, and when their helicopter ride to the festival site didn't materialize, they decided to take matters into their own hands. They commandeered a helicopter full of news reporters, deciding they were going to be the ones to "make the news."
The Woodstock lineup featured Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson (guitar, harmonica and vocals), Adolfo “Fito” de la Parra aka Ojos de Gatos, or "Cat’s Eyes" (drums), Bob “The Bear” Hite (harmonica and vocals), Larry “The Mole” Taylor (bass) and the new guy, Mandel on guitar. These crazy blues’n’boogie evangelists were about to deliver the show of their lives.
The band took the stage just before sunset and brought the party back to Woodstock with a one-hour set that included "Going Up the Country" and "Woodstock Boogie," which was basically a 30-minute jam. They wrapped up their frenzied set with an encore of "On the Road Again" to rapturous applause.
Canned Heat Performing "On the Road Again"
“We were very bad. Extremely bad. Bob Hite used to say, ‘If I hadn’t been a musician, I’d have been a criminal.’ We were proud to be outlaws.”— Canned Heath drummer Adolfo "Fito" de la Parra in an interview with Loudsound, October 2018
Life After Woodstock
In January 1970, Canned Heat released a version of the Wilbert Harrison song "Let's Work Together," featuring Hite on vocals. The single was released as a lead-up to their next European tour, and went on to become the band's biggest hit in the UK, reaching the number two spot on the UK Singles chart. The European tour lasted through May 1970, and though it produced enough live recordings for the band's first official live LP, touring had worn real thin on all the guys. It was after the tour was done that Taylor left the band, followed in short order by Mandel.
And so, with another new line-up, the band went into the studio once again to record an album with their good friend John Lee Hooker. So many early rock bands—The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds and Led Zeppelin, to name just a few—owed a massive debt to the blues masters they tried to emulate, often not even according the original blues artists a mention in passing on an album cover. Canned Heat was different. These guys loved the blues, which always meant they would never be at the top of the pop charts, and they were always careful to point out when their songs had been adapted from original blues songs. They adored Hooker and his music, and wanted to do right by him. Released January 15, 1971, the double-LP was the first album in Hooker's long career to make the charts, peaking at #73 in February 1971. This is a fantastic album featuring full-on blues and boogie rock. The harp playing by Wilson is arguably his best, and The Hook simply shines. Hooker 'N Heat
Sadly, before the album was released, Alan Wilson was dead. Wilson, who had previously been admitted to a psychiatric hospital, had begun to withdraw more and more in the months leading up to his death. His song lyrics had taken on a paranoid nature and hinted at his leaving. In August 1970, Canned Heat played a gig in Miami, Florida, and their old friend Jim Morrison happened to be in the audience. Morrison joined the band onstage, jamming to songs like "Back Door Man." Wilson seemed in better spirits after this encounter, and the band continued with preparations for another European tour in September. When Wilson didn't show up at the airport, longtime manager Skip Taylor went looking for him, and discovered his body in a sleeping bag behind Hite's house. Wilson was dead of a barbiturate overdose. A portrait of Wilson can be seen hanging on the wall behind the band on the album cover of "Hooker 'N Heat."
The next decade was pretty bleak for the band. The lineup continued to be a revolving door, and even Skip Taylor deserted them in 1973. They kept filling spots as individuals left and continued to tour and cut records they were under contract to complete. Disaster struck again when "The Bear," Bob Hite, died of an overdose. It was April 4, 1981, and the band had just finished their first set at the Palomino Club in North Hollywood. They were all high already, but Hite, who never was one to refuse any sort of drug, snorted a vial of something, and crashed to the floor of the dressing room. This certainly wasn't the first time Hite had passed out, so the other members of the band returned to the stage to resume the gig, figuring The Bear would eventually come around and join them onstage. He didn't.
The band decided to soldier on, but the revolving door continued. They changed record labels and managers—again—and continued to tour and release records. Vestine, who had been diagnosed with cancer, was found dead in a Paris hotel room in October 1997, just after the latest incarnation of the band had finished the last gig of another European tour.
Canned Heat was a powerhouse of a band back in the day. The members of the original lineup were such blues purists and possessed such musical integrity and respect for the blues genre and the artists who had gone before them, but their personal lives were a mess. They were ultimately undone by some bad luck and bad choices, including their prodigious use of drugs.
The band continues to tour, with the current lineup including de la Parra and Taylor, who both played at Woodstock.
Five Musical Facts
- Alan "Blind Owl" Wilson was so passionate about the blues, that when bluesman Son House was "rediscovered" in 1964, it was Wilson who helped House relearn the songs he had had originally recorded in 1930 and 1942. In 1965, House recorded "Father of the Delta Blues" on the Columbia label, and Wilson played harmonica and guitar on a couple of tracks.
- The Newport Pop Festival, where Canned Heat appeared in 1968, is widely believed to be the first ever pop festival to have over 100,000 paid attendees.
- The band didn't appear in the original 1970 Woodstock movie due to a dispute over royalties, though "Going Up the Country" became the title track.
- Alan "Blind Owl" Wilson died on September 3, 1970 at the age of 27. His name appears on the list of artists in the forever "27 Club."
- Bob "The Bear" Hite amassed a huge record collection over many years, including a couple of thousand 78s and several thousand 45s, among them many pre-WWII recordings and a near-complete library of blues artists like Muddy Waters. Much of the collection was lost when an earthquake caused a flood in Hite's home.
© 2019 Kaili Bisson