Canned Heat is a blues-rock/boogie band that formed in Los Angeles in 1965. The group has been noted for its own interpretations of blues material as well as for efforts to promote the interest in this type of music and its original artists. It was launched by two blues enthusiasts, Alan Wilson and Bob Hite, who took the name from Tommy Johnson's 1928 "Canned Heat Blues", a song about an alcoholic who has desperately turned to drinking Sterno, generically called "canned heat". After appearances at Monterey and Woodstock, at the end of the '60s the band acquired worldwide fame with a lineup consisting of Bob Hite, vocals, Alan Wilson guitar, harmonica and vocals, Henry Vestine (or Harvey Mandel) on lead guitar, Larry Taylor on bass, and Adolfo ('Fito') de la Parra on drums.
The music and attitude of Canned Heat afforded them a large following and established the band as one of the popular acts of the hippie era. Canned Heat appeared at most major musical events at the end of the '60s and they were able to deliver on stage electrifying performances of blues standards and their own material and occasionally to indulge into lengthier 'psychedelic' solos. Two of their songs - "Going up the Country" and "On the Road Again" - became international hits; both were re-workings of obscure blues. At the time all their albums were released for worldwide distribution.
Since the early '70s numerous personnel changes have occurred and today, in the fifth decade of the band's existence, Fito de la Parra is the only member from the "classic" 1960s lineup. He has written a book about the band's career. Larry Taylor, whose presence in the band has not been steady, is the other surviving member from the earliest lineups. Harvey Mandel, Walter Trout and Junior Watson are among the guitarists who gained notoriety for playing in later editions of the band. British blues pioneer John Mayall has frequently found musicians for his band among former Canned Heat members.
Another of Bob's friends, Henry Vestine (who had been expelled from Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention for excessive drug use), asked if he could join the band and was accepted while keeping Edwards on temporarily. Soon Edwards departed (he went on to form the Stone Poneys with Linda Ronstadt) and at same time Frank Cook came in to replace Holmes as their permanent drummer. Cook already had a substantial professional experience, having performed with such jazz luminaries as bassist Charlie Haden, trumpeter Chet Baker or pianist Elmo Hope and had also collaborated with black soul/pop artists as Shirley Ellis and Dobie Gray.
Producer Johnny Otis recorded the band's first (unreleased) album in 1966 with the ensemble of Hite, Wilson, Cook, Vestine, and Brotman; but the record was not actually released until 1970 when it appeared as, Vintage Heat, released by Janus Records. Otis ran the board for a dozen of tracks, including two versions of "Rollin' and Tumblin'" (with & without harmonica), "Spoonful" by Willie Dixon, and "Louise" by John Lee Hooker all from his studio off of Vine Street in Los Angeles. Over a summer hiatus in 1966 Stuart Brotman signed a union contract with an Armenian belly-dancer and soon his interests in exotic music prompted him to form the world-music band Kaleidoscope with David Lindley and Chris Darrow, effectively leaving Canned Heat. His first replacement, Mark Andes, lasted only a couple of months before he returned to his former colleagues in the Red Roosters, who adopted the new name Spirits Rebellious, later shortened to Spirit.
After joining up with managers Skip Taylor and John Hartmann, Canned Heat finally found a permanent bassist in Larry Taylor, who joined in March, 1967. He was a former member of The Moondogs and the brother of Ventures’ drummer, Mel Taylor, and already had experience backing Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry in concert and recording studio sessions for The Monkees.
In this format (Hite, Wilson, Vestine, Taylor, Cook) the band started recording in April 1967 for Liberty Records. "Rollin’ and Tumblin’" backed with "Bullfrog Blues" became Canned Heat’s first single; the first official album, Canned Heat, was released three months later in July, 1967. All tracks were re-workings of older blues songs. The Los Angeles Free Press reported : “This group has it! They should do very well, both live and with their recordings.” Canned Heat fared reasonably well commercially, reaching #76 on the Billboard chart.
The first big live appearance of Canned Heat was at the Monterey Pop Festival on June 17, 1967. A picture of the band taken at the performance was featured on the cover of Down Beat Magazine where an article complimented their playing: “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.” D.A. Pennebaker's documentary captured their rendition of "Rollin and Tumblin" and two other songs from the set, "Bullfrog Blues" and "Dust My Broom", found place later in a boxed CD set in 1992.
Canned heat also began to garner their notoriety as "the bad boys of rock" for being jailed in Denver, Colorado after being stool pigeoned by the Denver Police for drugs (an incident recalled in their song 'My Crime'). Band manager Skip Taylor was forced to obtain the $10,000 bail by selling off Canned Heat's publishing rights to Liberty Records President Al Bennett.
After the Denver incident, Frank Cook was replaced with Fito de la Parra, who had been playing the drums in Bluesberry Jam (the band which evolved into Pacific Gas & Electric). As an official member of Canned Heat, de la Parra played his first gig on December 1, 1967, sharing top billing with the Doors at the Long Beach Auditorium. This began what Fito refers to as the classic and perhaps best known Canned Heat line-up, who together recorded some of the bands most famous and well-regarded songs. During this "classic" period, Skip Taylor and John Hartmann introduced the use of band member nicknames:
Their second released album, Boogie with Canned Heat, included "On the Road Again", an updated version of a 1950's composition by Floyd Jones. 'On the Road Again' became the band's break-out song and was a worldwide success, becoming a number one hit in most markets and finally put a blues song on the top charts. The album also included a twelve-minute version of "Fried Hockey Boogie", (credited to Larry Taylor, but rather obviously derived from John Lee Hooker’s "Boogie Chillen" riff) allowed each member to stretch out on his instrument while establishing them with hippie ballroom audiences across America as the “kings of the boogie”. Hite’s "Amphetamine Annie" (a tune inspired by the drug abuse of an acquaintance), became one of their most enduring songs and the first “anti-drug” song of the decade. Although not featured on the album's artwork, this was the first Canned Heat Album to featured drummer Fito de la Parra.
With this success Skip, John and new associate Gary Essert leased a Hollywood club they named the Kaleidoscope on Sunset Boulevard east of Vine in which Canned heat essentially became the house band; hosting others such as Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, Buffalo Springfield and Sly & The Family Stone. Also in 1968, after playing before 80,000 at the first annual Newport Pop Festival, in September, Canned Heat left for their first European tour. It entailed a month of concert performances and media engagements that included TV appearances on the British show Top of the Pops. They also appeared on the German program Beat Club, where they lip-synched "On the Road Again" as it rose to #1 in both countries and practically in all of Europe.
In October the band released their third album, Living the Blues, which included their most well-known song, "Goin’ Up the Country". Alan's Wilson's incarnation of Henry Thomas’ "Bull-doze Blues" was almost a note-for-note copy the original, down to Thomas's instrumental break on the quills which Jim Horn duplicated on flute. Wilson rewrote the lyrics with a simple message that caught the “back-to-nature” attitude of the late ‘60s. The song went to #1 in 25 countries around the world (only reached #11 on the U.S national chart) and would go on to become the unofficial theme song of the Woodstock Festival as captured in Michael Wadleigh's 1970 documentary. The album also included a 19-minute experimental track "Parthenogenesis", which was a nine-part sound collage of blues, ragas, jaw-harp sounds, guitar distortion and other electronic effects; all pulled together under the direction of manager/producer, Skip Taylor. Longer still is 'Refried Boogie' clocking in at over 40 minutes, recorded live at the Kaleidoscope.
Also recorded live at the Kaleidoscope around this time was the album which would find later 1971 release with the deceptive title, Live At Topanga Corral (later renamed Live at the Kaleidoscope), under Wand Records; as Liberty Records didn’t want to release live album at the time and manager Skip Taylor did not want a lawsuit. The band would end 1968 in a big way at a New Year's show in L.A.'s Shrine Auditorium with Bob Hite riding a painted purple dayglo elephant to the stage.
In July, 1969, just prior to Woodstock, Hallelujah, their fourth album was released. The Melody Maker wrote: “While less ambitious than some of their work, this is nonetheless an excellent blues-based album and they remain the most convincing of the white electric blues groups.” The album contained mainly original compositions with lyrics relating to the band such as Alan Wilson's 'Time Was' and a few re-worked covers like 'Sic 'em Pigs' (Bukka White's 'Sic 'em Dogs') and the original Canned Heat by Tommy Johnson.
Within days of the album's release, Henry Vestine left the group after an on-stage blow up at the Fillmore West between himself and Larry Taylor. The next night after jamming with Mike Bloomfield and Harvey Mandel, both were offered Vestine's spot in the band's line-up and Mandel accepted. The new lineup played two dates at the Fillmore before appearing at Woodstock in mid-August.
Arriving via helicopter at Woodstock, Canned Heat played their most famous set on the second day of the festival at sunset. The set included "Going Up the Country" which became the title track in the documentary, even though the band's performance was not shown. The song was included in the first (triple) Woodstock album; while the second album, Woodstock 2, contained "Woodstock Boogie". The expanded 25th Anniversary Collection added "Leaving This Town" to the band’s collection of Woodstock performances and "A Change Is Gonna Come" was included on the director's cut of the documentary film; leaving only "Let's Work Together" to be released.
Before their European tour in early 1970, the band recorded Future Blues, an album containing five original compositions and three covers. Wilbert Harrison song "Let’s Work Together" was chosen for the single released in Europe to coincide with the tour. At the band's insistence the US release was delayed in order to offer a chance to the author's version. Canned Heat had a big hit with "Let's Work Together" and was the bands only top ten hit to feature the vocals of Bob "The Bear" Hite. The album featured also piano by Dr. John and an atypical jump blues style. Some controversy was sparked by the moon landing/Iwo Jima album cover and the upside down American flag. The upside down flag was Alan Wilson's idea and was a response to his love of nature, growing environmentalism and concern that humankind would soon be polluting the moon as well as the Earth (as reflected in his song "Poor Moon").
Material from their 1970 European tour provided the tracks for, Canned Heat '70 Concert Live In Europe, later retitled Live In Europe. It was a live album that combined tracks from different shows throughout the tour, put together to make-up one continuous concert for the listener. While the album garnered some critical acclaim, it had limited commercial success in the U.S., but did well in the UK, peaking at #15. Returning from Europe in May 1970, an exhausted Larry Taylor left the band to join John Mayall (who had relocated to Laurel Canyon) and was followed by Harvey Mandel.
With Taylor and Mandel gone, Henry Vestine returned on guitar, accompanied by bassist Antonio de la Barreda who had played with Fito de la Parra for five years in Mexico City and was previously a member of the groups Jerome and Sam & The Goodtimers.
This lineup went into the studio to record with John Lee Hooker the tracks that would yield the double album, Hooker 'N' Heat . The band had originally met Hooker at the airport in Portland, Oregon and discovered they were fans of each other's work. Hooker and Canned Heat became good friends and Hooker had stated that Wilson was "the greatest harmonica player ever. The planned format for the sessions called for Hooker to perform a few songs by himself, followed by some duets with Alan Wilson playing piano or guitar. The rest of the album featured Hooker with some backing by the group, sans Bob Hite), who co-produced the album along with Skip Taylor. The album was finished after Wilson’s passing and became the first album in Hooker's career to make the charts, topping out at #73 in February 1971. Hooker N' Heat would unite again in 1978 and record a live album at L.A.'s Fox Venice Theatre, released in 1981 as, Hooker'n'Heat, live at the Fox Venice Theatre, under Rhino Records. Also in 1989 Canned Heat (and many others) guested on John Lee Hooker's album The Healer.
Shortly after the original Hooker N' Heat sessions, the eccentric Alan "Blind Owl" Wilson, who had always suffered from depression, was said by some to have attempted suicide by driving his van off the road near Bob Hite's home in Topanga Canyon. Unlike other members of the band, Wilson did not have much success with women and was deeply upset and frustrated by this. His depression also worsened with his increasing environmental concern over the deteriorating health of the earth; all themes which were often reflected in his lyrics. On September 3, 1970, just prior to leaving for a festival in Berlin, the band was shattered when they learned of Alan Wilson's death by barbiturate overdose; found on a hillside behind Bob Hite’s Topanga home. Believed by Fito de la Parra and other members of the band to have been a suicide, Wilson died at the age of 27, just weeks before the deaths of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix.
Joel Scott Hill, who had previously played with The Strangers and later Moby Grape was taken to fill in the void left by Alan Wilson's death. The band still had a touring contract for September and later studio dates. That fall they toured Australia and Europe; including a show in playing in Baarn, Holland and the following summer they appeared at the Turku Festival in Finland. These performances were recorded, but were not released until much later with the albums, Live at Turku Rock Festival in 1995, and Under the Dutch Skies 1970 - 74 in 2007 (which encompassed three separate tours). At the end of 1971 a new studio album, Historical Figures and Ancient Heads, was released. The album included Bob Hite’s vocal duel with Little Richard on the Skip Taylor written track, "Rockin’ with the King" featuring the guitar playing of both Henry Vestine and Joel Scott Hill.
This line up of Hite, Vestine, Scott-Hill, de la Barreda and de la Parra did not last, as the band was in disarray; Scott-Hill and de la Barreda's attitudes were not fitting in with the rest of the band, and drummer de la Parra decided to call it quits. He was stopped by Bob Hite, and it was Scott-Hill and de la Barreda who left the band instead.
New additions to the group were James Shane on rhythm guitar and vocals, Ed Beyer on keyboards, and Bob Hite's brother Richard Hite on bass. This "New Age" line-up recorded what would become the last album for Liberty/United Artists Records, The New Age, released in 1973. This album featured the popular biker themed anthem written by James Shane, entitled "The Harley-Davidson Blues". The era of the late-sixties was changing; but nonetheless the band embarked on another European Tour, in which they recorded a session with Memphis Slim in Paris, France for the album, Memphis Heat. They also recorded with Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, while still in Paris, for the album, Gates On The Heat (both were released by Blue Star Records).. Footage from this era can be seen on the DVD release of Canned Heat Live at Montreux released in 2004.
Met with hard times, Fito de la Parra writes that the band resorted to importing drugs from Mexico to make ends meet between shows. . Over $30,000 in debt, manager Skip Taylor advised the band to sign away their future royalties to their previous Liberty/United Artists material and jump to Atlantic Records. After a bad introduction to Atlantic Records, which included a brawl between Hite and Vestine over a vending machine, the band released the album, One More River To Cross in 1974. Produced by Roger Hawkins and Barry Beckett this album had a different sound and featured the Muscle Shoal Horns.
On a subsequent promotional tour of Europe, this new "Horn Band" sound included the talents of Clifford Solomon and Jock Ellis. Absent from Canned Heat at this time, after growing ever more distant, was long time manager Skip Taylor, who had left after the band joined Atlantic. Atlantic producer Tom Dowd tried to get one more album out of Canned Heat, but drugs and heavy drinking had taken their toll. Even though an album was recorded in 1974 (featuring some collaboration from former member Harvey Mandel); Atlantic had ended their relationship with Canned Heat, and The Ties That Bind, did not see the light of day until 1997.
Soon after, new manager Howard Wolf, got the struggling band a gig at California's Mammoth Ski Resort. Bob Hite, in a foul rage, went off on the crowd; much to the disapproval of Henry Vestine, James Shane and Ed Beyer, who quit the band as a result.
Taking the place of the departed were guitarist Chris Morgan and pianist Gene Taylor. Taylor, however, quickly departed after an argument during a tour of Germany, and after a brief fill-in by Stan Webb (of Chicken Shack), Mark Skyer came in as the new guitar player. In the meantime the band had worked out a deal with Takoma Records and this "Human Condition/Takoma" line-up recorded the 1977 album, Human Condition. Despite the appearance of the Chambers Brothers on the album, it was met with very little success; largely due to the growing popularity of Disco music in the late 70s. Before long, more arguments ensued and Mark Skyer, Chris Morgan and Richard Hite all quit the band, effectively reducing it to just the Bear and Fito.
The popularity of the Blues genre would rise in the late 70s with the release of The Blues Brothers movie starring Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi. During this time Canned Heat drummer Fito de la Parra had bought a partnership in an East Hollywood recording studio in which he was again working with former bandmate Larry "The Mole" Taylor. Taylor had been associating with virtuoso guitar player Mike "Hollywood Fats" Mann and virtuoso piano player Ronnie Barron and before long Taylor, Barron and Hollywood Fats were in the band. This version referred to by Hite and Mann as the "Burger Brothers" lineup, was soon joined by blind piano player Jay Spell, as Ronnie Barron walked out of the band after a blow-up between himself and The Mole.
The Burger Brothers played the 10th Anniversary of Woodstock in 1979. A recording of the performance eventually surfaced through King Biscuit Flower Hour's Barry Ehrmann as, Canned Heat In Concert, in 1995 (de la Parra considers this to be Canned Heat's best recorded live album). Another recording made around this time was for Cream Records, who desired a more R&B-style sound than what Canned Heat was currently offering. This upset Hollywood Fats and Mike Halby was brought in to finish the project; which would not find commercial release until 1981 when former band member Tony de la Barreda put it out under RCA as a tribute album called, In Memory Of Bob "The Bear" Hite 1943-1981 - "Don't Forget To Boogie". Taylor and Mann were increasingly unhappy with the musical direction of the band and eventually left after a falling out with de la Parra and Hite to focus more attention on their Hollywood Fats Band. Nevertheless, Jay Spell was still on board and brought in bass player John Lamb; Mike Halby was now a full time member and long time guitarist Henry Vestine once again made his return to Canned Heat, with The Bear and Fito as its' leaders.
No longer managed by Howard Wolf, Eddie Haddad set the band up touring military bases across the U.S., Europe and Japan non-stop. Returning with little pay after the hellacious tour, Jay Spell and John Lamb (lacking the outlaw roots of the others) quit the band; but by then even The Bear was starting to lose it. He had attempted to give it another try by hiring a large enthusiastic biker known as "The Push" as their manager; hoping that the band's popularity with the biker community would give them renewed energy. With new bass player Ernie Rodriguez joining the ranks, Canned Heat recorded the 1981 album, Kings of the Boogie, the last album to featured Hite on a few of the tracks.
The death of frontman Bob "The Bear" Hite was a devastating blow that most thought would end the career of Canned Heat; however Fito de la Parra kept the band alive and would lead it back into prosperity over the next few decades. An Australian tour had been set up before The Bear's death and harmonica player Rick Kellog had joined to finish off the Kings of the Boogie album. This first incarnation of Canned Heat without Bob Hite was nicknamed the "Mouth Band" by Henry Vestine and was a huge hit in Australia, especially with the biker crowd. Under the management of "The Push", the band toured the states playing biker bars and began work on video known as, "The Boogie Assault", starring Canned Heat and various members of the San Francisco chapter of the Hells Angels.
As production for "The Push's" video dragged on, a drunken Henry Vestine got into a brawl with Ernie Rodriguez and was once again out of the band; this time replaced by talented guitarist Walter Trout. After a tour with John Mayall, as the production for "The Boogie Assault" continued on, Fito was forced to fire "The Push" as the bands manager; but did eventually finish the video and a live Album of the same name recorded in Australia in 1982 (also re-released as Live In Australia and Live In Oz). This version of Canned Heat would also soon dissolve with a dispute between Mike Halby and de la Parra after the recording of the Heat Brothers '84 EP.
During the '80s the interest in the type of music played by Canned Heat was revived and, despite the past tragedies and permanent instability, the band appeared to be revitalized. In 1985 Trout had left to join John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, so Henry Vestine was once again back in the band and he brought with him new musical talent from Oregon in James Thornbury (slide guitar and lead vocals) and Skip Jones (Bass). They were dubbed the "Nuts and Berries" band by Fito, due to their love of organic food. It wasn't long before former members Larry Taylor (replacing Jones) and Ronnie Barron returned to round out the group. Versions of this lineup would record the live album, Boogie Up The Country, in Kassel, Germany in 1987 and also appear on the, Blues Festival Live in Bonn '87 Vol 2, compilation. Barron, just as before did not last long in this lineup, nor did Vestine, who was once again ousted from the band due to pressure from Larry Taylor. Replacing Vestine on lead guitar was Junior Watson; his style emulated Hollywood Fats (who died in late 1986) and was perfectly suited for the band as witnessed by the well regarded album, Reheated. Unfortunately the album was released only in Germany in 1988 due to disagreements with the Chameleon Music Group Record label. The "Would-Be" lineup of James T, Taylor, Watson and de la Parra also recorded a sequel live album in Australia in 1990, entitled Burnin' Live.
The lineup dissolved in the early 90s as Junior Watson went his own way and Harvey Mandel came back into the fold, bringing along Ron Shumake on bass to take some of the load off of Larry Taylor. Mandel, however, left the band after a few tours, so female singer and guitarist Becky Barksdale was brought in for a tour of France, Germany and Hawaii; but lasted no longer. Smokey Hormel was also considered, but only played one gig before friction between Fito and Larry Taylor caused Taylor to bitterly go his separate way with Hormel in tow.
The revolving door that was Canned Heat continued as Vestine and Watson made their returns to the lineup as the "Heavy Artillery" band. Several former members including Mandel, Barron and Taylor joined up in de la Parra's effort for the album, Internal Combustion, which was released in 1994, but saw only limited release due to the returning manager Skip Taylor's falling out with Red River Records. In 1995 James Thornbury left the band with no hard feelings after 10 years of service to live the married life in New South Wales, Australia and new front-man Robert Lucas came in to take his place. Greg Kage took the reins as the bass player and after a reconciliation with Larry Taylor the band released, Canned Heat Blues Band, in 1996. On October 20, 1997, a tired and cancer stricken Henry Vestine died in Paris, France following the final gig of a European tour.
Canned Heat's popularity has endured in some European countries and Australia. In Belgium they have a particularly devoted following thanks in great part to Walter de Paduwa, aka Dr. Boogie, considered by the band as their "official historian" . He has assisted Fito de la Parra in compiling and producing, The Boogie House Tapes Vol. 1 in 2000, The Boogie House Tapes Vol. 2 in 2004, and Dr. Boogie Presents Rarities from the Bob Hite's Vaults in 2008; all collected from unreleased and rare Canned Heat recordings. Dr. Boogie's weekly Sunday evening radio show on Radio Classic 21, has for over a decade invariably started with a Canned Heat song.
By the year 2000 Robert Lucas had departed and the lineup was completed by John Paulus, Dallas Hodge (guitar) and Stanley Behrens (sax, flute). Canned Heat’s more recent studio albums include, Christmas Album (2007), Boogie 2000 (1999), and Friends In The Can (2003), which features various guests including John Lee Hooker, Taj Mahal, Walter Trout, Corey Stevens, Roy Rogers, Harvey Mandel, Larry Taylor and Henry Vestine. Canned Heat has also released recent compilations such as, Gamblin' Woman, Then & Now - 40 Years of Boogie, and Instrumentals 1967-1996. Lucas returned to Canned Heat in late 2005 but left again in the fall of 2008. The band still tours and currently consists of Dale Spalding (guitar, harmonica and vocals), Barry Levenson (lead guitar), Greg Kage (bass), and classic lineup hold-over and band leader Adolfo "Fito" de La Para on drums.
In July 2007, a documentary, Boogie with Canned Heat: The Canned Heat Story, was released, as was music historian Rebecca Davis Winters' biography of Alan Wilson, "Blind Owl Blues".