Canned Heat - Biography
By Nick Castro
Canned Heat is one of the most famous blues rock bands from the 60's. They managed to maintain a sense of authenticity far above their peers, due in large part to the musical savvy of group founders Bob Hite and Alan Wilson, who were both historians of the blues genre as well as avid collectors of 78s. Hite would host, while still a teen, meetings of record collectors at his Topanga Canyon home. Many of the friends who hung out there would soon start jam sessions as well, experimenting with jug band music and blues. Many of people who would rotate through the ranks of the Hite house were associated with seminal bands of the era, such as Henry Vestine, who played with Mothers of Invention, and Kenny Edwards, who played with the Stone Poneys.
Formed in Los Angeles in 1965, it was only a year into their creating before r&b pianist and bandleader, Johnny Otis, would record their first album, which unfortunately remained unreleased at the time, for four years. It was finally released as Vintage Heat (1970 - Janus), after the band had already gained huge fame and success. This recording also featured Mexican born Adolfo de la Parra on drums, who had already had played with artists like Chet Baker and The Platters.
In 1966, Stuart Brotman left the group to form Kaleidoscope, which concentrated on mixing folk rock with middle eastern and celtic influences, with David Lindley and Chris Darrow. Brotman also spent a year playing belly dance music in the Los Angeles area. After a short term replacement with Mark Andes, who left to form the band Spirit, Canned Heat acquired bassist Larry Taylor, brother of Mel Taylor, drummer of the Ventures. Taylor also had previously played with groups like Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis. Canned Heat released their first album, Canned Heat (1968 - Liberty) for the Liberty Label, which became famous for groups like the Bonzo Dog Band and The Seachers. This album came out not long after their famous appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival, which to a large extent, introduced the band to the world outside of Los Angeles, where they had already cultivated a reputation as a top notch boogie rock outfit. Their most famous tune on the album was a reworking of the blues song, "Rollin' and Tumblin", which is very similar to the Muddy Waters version. They followed up this album with Boogie with Canned Heat (1968 - Liberty), which produced their hit, "On the Road Again", one of their originals amongst the traditional blues material, such as "Whiskey Headed Woman". It was at this time that they also recorded a song with the cartoon group, the Chipmunks.
Canned Heat's third album Living the Blues (1968 - Liberty) was an ambitious double LP, which solidified their position as a giant in the hippie electric blues scene. People began referring to the band as the kings of boogie. This album also featured their 20 minute version of a blues medley, which was one of the first of its types. Their main success from the album was their version of "Going Up the Country", which shot them to superstardom with its catchy falsetto vocals and back to nature theme which was popular at the time. It became a number one hit around the world. The song also later would become the ad hoc theme of the Woodstock film from 1970.
1968 was a very productive year for the band and they released the album Hallelujah (1968 - Liberty) before the year was out. This album saw much more of an original take on the blues and featured many of the band's original compositions such as "Sic 'em Pigs", a critique of the Los Angeles police, and the song "Song All Over". The band had garnered a reputation as the finest white blue guitar duo of their times.
In 1969 Canned Heat appeared at the famed Woodstock festival and also appeared in the documentary film as well. This would ultimately become one of the most famous moments of 60's rock on film. The band would perform 10 songs on the second day of the festival, during sundown, including "Woodstock Boogie" and "On the Road Again". The band's energy is electrifying and the stage under Hite's massive weight was looking as if it would collapse when he danced. Two days before the concert the band lost their guitarist, Vestine, when he quit after an onstage argument with guitarist Taylor. Vestine was replaced by Harvey Mandel, who also played with John Mayall and The Rolling Stones.
The next year the band recorded the album Future Blues (1970 - Liberty). The album was considered by many, their best, but perhaps was not pushing the musical envelope by the band as much as their previous efforts. Famed New Orleans pianist Dr. John played on the record as well. The band supported the record by touring in Europe that same year. Many of their shows there were recorded and later used for the live release Canned Heat '70 Concert Live in Europe (1970 - Liberty). By summer, once the group had returned, they lost two of their members, Mandel and Taylor, who left to join John Mayall. Vestine then returned to the fold and they hired Antonio de la Barreda on bass. Barreda was an old friend of Parra's from Mexico City.
With their new lineup in place, Canned Heat, went into the studio to record with blues legend, John Lee Hooker, for the double album Hooker 'N' Heat (1971 - Liberty), which was sadly the last of the album's to feature Wilson, who would soon commit suicide on a hill behind Hite's house, by overdosing on pills. Canned Heat mainly serve as a backing band to Hooker, and sound glad to do it. Hooker pens most of the tunes on the albums, like the album's opener "Messin' with the Hook" and "Meet Me in the Bottom". The album was not groundbreaking for either of the parties involved but is still a fine example of the group's adaptability and helped to validate them as worthy of playing with some of blues' originators, like Hooker.
With Wilson dead, Canned Heat hired Joel Scott Hill to replace him. Hill would on to play with Moby Grape but would first tour and record with Canned Heat and helped them to fulfill their contractual obligations. With Hill now onboard the band left to tour Europe and Australia. they released the album Historical Figures and Ancient Heads (1971 - United Artists), which included an appearance by Little Richard. It would not be long though before the band would face problems amongst its ranks once again. This time they lost two members, Hill and Barreda. They added James Shayne and Ed Beyer to replace them. This new lineup released the album The New Age (1973 - United Artists), which featured a song by Beyer called "You Can Run, But You Sure Can't Hide". It also contained the song "Harley-Davidson Blues", which has become a hit with bikers in the United States. Although the genre Canned Heat occupied was beginning to wane, the band decided to press on in full force and embarked an yet another tour of Europe. While there they recorded an album with Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown. Together they record the Brown album Gate's on the Heat (1975 - Barclay), which has been widely criticized as lacking the original charisma of ether artist's early works.
This period for the band became difficult and Parra has written that the band would become involved drug smuggling to make extra money between whatever musical jobs they could find. The band already had a legendary drug habit and had had run ins with the law in the past, requiring their manager to bail them out of jail. The band was becoming further and further in debt and, on their manager's insistence, they sold their royalties to United Artists and moved to Atlantic Records. It was their that they released the album One More River to Cross (1974 - Atlantic), which they recorded at the famed Muscle Shoals Sound Studios. The band added a horn section to their lineup and took this new show on the road again. The went to Europe and this time without their longtime manager Skip Taylor, who had left when they signed to Atlantic.
With a slight resurgence in their popularity in the late 70's, Canned Heat continued to get work. Unfortunately though, Hite suffered a fatal heart attack in 1981 after overdosing on heroin in Los Angeles. The band was barely being held together at that point by Hite and he even attempted to hire a biker manager to help them in marketing themselves to the biker crowd. Although this seemed like an obvious end to the band, Parra assumed the role of leader and kept the group together. Canned heat continue to play to this day and can be found touring the festival circuit, even having played a concert in 2008 with Little Richard, Strawberry Alarm Clock, Badfinger, Big Brother & The Holding Company and Elvin Bishop. They will forever be one of the most iconic groups to have emerged from the 60's electric blues scene.