Surviving members keep Canned Heat cooking
September 20, 2012
As a rock ‘n’ roll band in the 1960s, Canned Heat went to extremes with sex, drugs and lip synching.
Bob “The Bear” Hite was hilarious when he pretended to play the flute on a musical variety television program and on another occasion the band members traded instruments with each other.
“We didn’t want to go there and lip synch,” drummer Fito de la Parra said. “I mean, come on, we’re a blues band, gimme a break.”
Emulating the Who, Canned Heat smashed its instruments during a song on British TV, which offended the wrong person.
“The TV station in France had gotten permission to bring this famous American band to play there, but the manager of the Versailles Palace saw the show in England the night before,” de la Parra said. “So he said, ‘Absolutely not. These guys will not walk inside the palace.’ He wouldn’t even let us in. So we played outside freezing our asses off. He said no way these savages are coming inside my palace.”
With the songs “Goin’ Up the Country,” “Let’s Work Together” and “On the Road Again,” Canned Heat was the first American band which played blues songs to have singles high on the rock charts. It also had drug-related tragedies with the deaths of Hite and Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson.
De la Parra details his life and career with Canned Heat in his candid book “Living the Blues,” which also is the title of Canned Heat’s third album. A native of Mexico City, he said his background helped him survive the ’60s.
“I really appreciated being in America and achieving the American dream, and to me Canned Heat was the greatest thing that ever happened,” he said. “I look at life like standing in train station and different opportunities go by, different trains go by. It’s a matter of recognizing which train you are going to jump on and stay on it and to me it was the Canned Heat experience.”
At the urging of his book’s co-writers, de la Parra included his salacious experiences and he described the first time he became high on marijuana. He happened to be in bed with a groupie at the time.
“I enjoyed (marijuana for) the very first time very much but she was expecting wild sex and all that stuff but I guess that was not in the program for me,” he said. “I was all spaced out, saying, “Wow. This Coca Cola tastes great.”
The woman abruptly got out of bed and left the room. De la Parra has since changed his ways.
“I don’t drink Coke anymore,” he said.
Canned Heat’s two singers had distinct voices: a falsetto from Wilson and gravel from Hite. Both were musicologists but when the band formed only novice performers. Guitarist Henry “The Sunflower” Vestine also was a serious record collector. They added de la Parra, who had played professionally since he was 13 and bassist Larry “the Mole” Taylor, who also began playing professionally as a young teen with Jerry Lee Lewis.
“They figured if they were going to have a strong band they were going to need some pros,” de la Parra said.
The tracks on Canned Heat’s first album were all traditional blues songs, similar to Paul Butterfield’s note-for-note covers. Vestine urged for something more, and after a performance a music writer said Canned Heat had married blues and rock ‘n’ roll.
“That’s where the idea came,” de la Parra said. “We said, ‘Let’s play harder, let’s play louder. Let’s play with more distortion and more intensity just like other bands like Hendrix and Cream were doing.
“The idea was already boiling in Henry’s head and in Bob’s head. Not as much with Alan. Alan was more traditional but he went for it. He went for a free music approach and a little bit of jazz and rock ‘n’ roll approach. We were the first blues-oriented band to have hits worldwide. Neither John Mayall or Alexis Korner or Paul Butterfield had a No. 1 record all over the world and we had three in the top five.”
While Canned Heat had an unprecedented commercial success and a sensational performance at Woodstock, it was shortchanged on royalties.
A zealous law official determined to rid Denver of its “longhairs,” set the band up, de la Parra wrote in his book. Marijuana was planted in a hotel room and all but one of the band members spent a weekend in jail. Police also arrested Canned Heat’s manager, Skip Taylor, who was in bed with a woman in a different room, and he really did have an illegal substance. An officer unaware of hashish hauled Taylor away and told the woman she would have to eat a bedside candy bar by herself.
A company gave the band $10,000 for legal fees to exonerate itself from the trumped up charges in exchange for publishing rights to its music.
“We still don’t get a penny from any of those songs,” de la Parra said.
Canned Heat continues to perform and will be in Harrah’s Lake Tahoe’s South Shore Room on Saturday, Sept. 22. The lineup is de la Parra, Taylor, guitarist Harvey Mandel and Dale Spalding. (Vestine died of cancer in 1997.)
“Right now the band is doing great,” de la Parra said. “We’re making more money and are more desirable than we ever were. I guess people see our quality now that we are gonna die pretty soon. I hope not pretty soon.
“Larry is 70, Skip is 70 and I’m 66. So this is it for us. Our last gigs. We do 60-70 shows a year. I always say, ‘Musicians don’t retire. Musicians just die,’ which is what most of my idols have done.”
Superb drumming is not what clinched Fito de la Parra’s Canned Heat audition. It was the Buddy Guy-Junior Wells record he had brought along.
“Bob (‘the Bear’ Hite) told me years later, ‘When I opened that door and I saw that record under your arm, I knew you were the drummer for Canned Heat,’ ” de la Parra said.
The band members appreciation for blues contributed to the careers of Skip James, Son House, Albert Collins and John Lee Hooker, and they collaborated with Gatemouth Brown, Memphis Slim, Sunnyland Slim, Taj Mahal, Javier Batiz and Roy Rogers.
De la Parra’s love for the blues motivated him to come to the United States.
“I was enjoying fame and fortune already in Mexico with the pop bands and the rock bands I played with down there with,” he said. “I was living a good life in Mexico City but there was something missing in the music. It was too poppy. Too bubble gum.”
De la Parra learned blues from an American girlfriend’s record collection and from Batiz, who was Carlos Santana’s mentor.
“By the time I came to the U.S. I knew what they were talking about when they said, ‘Let’s play some Elmore James or this or that.’ I knew everything they were playing.”
Hite and Henry Vestine had voluminous record collections and Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson was an astute musicologist with a falsetto singing tone much like that of James.
Wilson is credited with helping House relearn his own songs after the pioneering bluesman was “rediscovered” in 1964 and recorded the album “Father of the Delta Blues.”
Hite and Wilson met at a collectors’ meeting and when they started a band it was named after Tommy Johnson’s 1928 song “Canned Heat Blues.”
Vestine was part of a group of blues record collectors who found James in Tunica, Miss., revitalizing his career with an appearance at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival.
Before its legendary Woodstock appearance, Canned Heat played the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. Afterwards, Downbeat Magazine wrote, “Technically, Vestine and Wilson are quite possibly the best two-guitar team in the world and Wilson has certainly become our finest white blues harmonica man. Together with powerhouse vocalist Bob Hite, they performed the country and Chicago blues idiom of the 1950s so skillfully and naturally that the question of which race the music belongs to becomes totally irrelevant.”
While the British Invasion is credited with teaching white America about its own music, Canned Heat played a role from Southern California. And de la Parra made a one-man invasion from Mexico.
“In Canned Heat I learned to love primitive music,” de la Parra said. “Mariachi music is very much like the blues. It’s based on three changes and it’s simple and easy to digest. We don’t believe music should be so ambitious or demanding. We like to play for the gut, not the brain.
“Bob used to say jazz died in 1947 and rock and roll died in 1959. He was a purist record collector and musicologist. He said rock and roll died when the crooners started to take over. Then the British came over and took the blackness out of rock and roll.”
Canned Heat’s greatest hit, “Goin’ Up The Country” was inspired by Henry Thomas’ “Bulldoze Blues,” recorded around 1927. It was a No. 1 hit in Britain and all across Europe.
Canned Heat fame helped Collins, the “Master of the Telecaster,” get a big break.
“We found him in a little club with four or five tables and less than 10 people, playing in a place called the Ponderosa Club in Houston, Texas,” de la Parra said. “We convinced him to come to LA and he did and he got his first record deal with Liberty Records and he became quite famous.”
Early in his career De la Parra played with guitarist T-Bone Walker, who was clearly the inspiration for Chuck Berry’s style.
“T-Bone Walker was one of the greatest but not one of the best known but his influence on most guitar players is undeniable,” he said. “Most guitarists that play blues music are playing a little bit of T-Bone Walker at least, including Chuck Berry.”
Who was the greatest blues player?
“Albert King played the fewest notes but the way he played them there was nobody in the world that could match him,” de la Parra said. “He was probably the greatest when it comes to feeling and the way that he approached those few notes that he played. Sometimes in music less is more and Albert King can prove it.
“For drummers it’s Al Jackson. A very simple laid back drummer. Albert King himself used to tell us that Al Jackson was his favorite.”
De la Parra is an avid biker, which also has its own demographic of fans. Canned Heat often plays motorcycle and rock festivals but only occasionally to blues festivals.
“In the blues society, Canned Heat is considered too rock and rollish and in the rock and roll society Canned Heat is considered too bluesy,” de la Parra said. “Larry (Taylor) has played with everybody – Lightning Hopkins and B.B. King and Buddy Guy and Junior Wells. And even though he’s one of the best blues bass players around, he’s never been mentioned or given recognition.
“On the blues scene there is a lack of acceptance with really angers me because … me and Alan and Bob were really some of the pioneers. Our main goal was to propagate blues and make it palatable for white audiences and we did it. We went to Europe over 100 times.”