Although they came together in the crucible of Topanga Canyon and recorded in Los Angeles Canned Heat weren’t entirely a product of the Californian dream. Alan Wilson gravitated West from Boston with his friend, sometime mentor and fellow musicologist John Fahey, both men sharing a devout love for the blues of Skip James, Son House, Charley Patton and Tommy Johnson, the man whose song “Canned Heat” – a woe filled warning to those poor folks who drank the cheap ethanol the title referred to – would give them their name.
Bob Hite was another avid music collector with unmatched taste whose travels through the Deep South in search of vintage vinyl allowed him to amass an unmatched and priceless warehouse full of important 78s. Vestine was also well versed in the blues and had played briefly in an early incarnation of The Mothers of Invention. Legend has it that Frank Zappa asked him to leave because Henry was too freaky! That may be apocryphal but it probably isn’t since Vestine was a very drastic and somewhat unhinged individual, but still a mighty guitarist.
Earliest recordings were made with Johnny Otis in 1965, blues standards all. At that time the rhythm section was Frank Cook on drums, more of a jazz cat really, and Avant Garde bassist Stuart Brotman who hung around for the sessions before departing to join Kaleidoscope. He was replaced by future Spirit stalwart Mark Andes. The young Canned Heat Blues Band, a jug ensemble with a lot more going on besides, played at the Human Be-In in 1966.
Managers Skip Taylor and John Hartmann left the William Morris Agency – West Coast branch, to look after the group once Skip had seen them mesmerise a crowd at a UCLA frat party where they co-headlined with The Doors. In June 1967 Canned Heat were a big hit at the Monterey Pop Festival (June 17) and Down Beat magazine decided they had seen the future of white blues genius is the shape of Wilson and Vestine. Part of their set is available to view on D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary of the event so seeing is believing.
Their first album proper, simply Canned Heat (1967) was produced by Cal Carter and followed the formula of only playing blues covers. Signed to Liberty Records Canned Heat suffered the first of their long line of internally afflicted disasters when they were busted in Denver, Colorado and made the local news for all the wrong reasons.
But that debacle began to lend them the outlaw chic that was both a boon – in that they attracted a hard-core biker crowd – and a liability once record company execs came face to face with their entourage.
The actual album is wonderful with excellent versions of “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” (Muddy Waters), “Dust My Broom” (Robert Johnson/Elmore James) and a lengthy take on Robert Petway’s “Catfish Blues” that gives them their boogie on template.
While this album sold well enough in California it was the ensuing Boogie with Canned Heat that rewarded them with household name status in 1968 since it featured original material like Alan Wilson’s reworking of Floyd Jones’ “On the Road Again”: that went top ten. With guests Dr. John and Sunnyland Slim adding piano (Dr. John also gets the credit for his horn arrangements) this record became an ultra hip artefact of the time and sold well in Europe as well in America.
With Larry Taylor and Fito de la Parra now holding down the backbeat they went from strength to strength on the double Living the Blues (1968), Wilson again hitting pay dirt with his brilliant “Going Up the Country" intoned in his trademark spectral falsetto. This song would become the unofficial anthem of the Woodstock festival the following year. Side one of this epic item is comprised of formally perfect blues but the second side soars away on a suite called “Parthenogenesis”, rollicking, psychedelic and exciting, and then offers another 40 minutes plus of Canned Heat live at the Kaleidoscope, Hollywood (they were that club’s house band for most of 1968), blowing up a storm on their “Refried Boogie (Parts 1 & 2).
Again the specialists are top notch. Jazz Crusader Joe Sample is on piano, Dr. John struts his stuff, John Fahey adds guitar and John Mayall delivers some crisp keyboards. Most striking of all is the double tracked flute played by Jim Horn on “Going Up the Country” that helps give this classic single an immediately euphoric impact.
Hallelujah (1969) and Future Blues are progressive blues discs of the first order and cry out to be discovered today. Vestine left after the former but was replaced by another mercurial guitarist in Harvey Mandel. Hallelujah contains Canned Heat favourites like Wilson’s “Get Off My Back” and Hite’s anti-cop anthem “Sic ‘em Pigs", while “Future Blues” returns them to the charts thanks to a spirited reworking of Wilbert Harrison’s “Let’s Work Together” which is arguably the definitive reading of this often covered tune. Dr. John was on hand for the third album running and the Heat hombres also came to the production fore with Skip Taylor, revealing a more sophisticated sound that boded well for the new decade.
Just as they should have become massive however Canned Heat were dismayed by Wilson’s death in 1970. On the eve of a prestigious return to Europe for a German engagement and then England to play at Hyde Park Wilson’s body was found in the undergrowth of Hite’s Topanga home. The Heat had already been seen on British shores earlier in the year at the Bath Festival and many who witnessed their performance rated them at the zenith of blues-rock, and this during the era when the revival of that form was all the rage.
For confirmation of their ranking check out Canned Heat ’70 Live in Europe, recorded at London’s Royal Albert Hall and other UK venues; a five star summary of some of their work, it’s only too bad it isn’t a double disc or more. What you get to hear is Wilson’s slide guitar skill, Hite at his vocal peak and Mandel’s splintering lead. The Taylor/De La Parra axis also holds the centre together brilliantly on “That’s All Right Mama”, “London Blues” and the dizzy “Back Out on the Road” medley.
Hooker’n’Heat (1971) still features Alan Wilson, albeit posthumously. Another double album, this time helmed by Bob Hite, it dates back to Wilson’s final spring and is an evocative and poignant document that allows the great John Lee Hooker room to do his thing while the Heat cook behind him. It was also John Lee’s first charting disc, reaching #78 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Rave reviews for Hooker’n’Heat were obviously tempered by despair at Wilson’s demise: aged 27 he became yet another victim of that particular number – Brian Jones, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Gram Parsons, Tim Buckley and Kurt Cobain being other members of that unfortunately blighted club.
But maintaining their usual the show must go on work ethic Canned Heat regroup for Historical Figures and Ancient Heads with new personnel and the returning Vestine. The title references the way the band saw themselves in late 1971 – as known musicians who might be about to drop off the radar. There was a prescient moodiness in the fringes that backed this notion up but The New Age (1973) located their more optimistic gene with Hite returning to the songwriting chair.
For a career overview we recommend that the interested listener discovers Let’s Work Together: The Best of Canned Heat where you get to hear them in ‘classic' line-up. Also Uncanned! The Best of Canned Heat which features a much longer and unreleased alternate take of “On the Road Again” as well as gems from the catalogue such as “Human Condition”, “An Owl Song” and “Amphetamine Annie”.
Not so much maligned, more overlooked or consigned to the history books it’s now blindingly apparent that Canned Heat were the equal of many of their more successful peers and a damn sight better than most of them. One of those groups who like The Doors always sounded transcendental when heard crackling across the airwaves; their recorded artefacts are well worth another look. As country blues bands go they are amongst the very elite. In terms of boogie power they are unrivalled.
Words: Max Bell
Canned Heat's second long-player, Boogie With Canned Heat (1968), pretty well sums up the bona fide blend of amplified late-'60s electric rhythm and blues, with an expressed emphasis on loose and limber boogie-woogie. The quintet -- consisting of Alan "Blind Owl" Wilson (guitar/harmonica/vocals), Larry "The Mole" Taylor (bass), Henry "Sunflower" Vestine (guitar), Aldolfo "Fido" Dela Parra (drums), and Bob "The Bear" Hite (vocals) -- follow up their debut effort with another batch of authentic interpretations, augmented by their own exceptional instrumentation. One development is their incorporation of strong original compositions. "On the Road Again" -- which became the combo's first, and arguably, most significant hit -- as well as the Albert King inspired anti-speed anthem, "Amphetamine Annie," were not only programmed on the then-burgeoning underground FM radio waves, but also on the more adventuresome AM Top 40 stations. Their love of authentic R&B informs "World in a Jug," the dark "Turpentine Blues," and Hite's update of Tommy McClennan's "Whiskey Headed Woman." The Creole anthem "Marie Laveau" is nothing like the more familiar cut by Bobby Bare, although similarities in content are most likely derived from a common source. The side, as rendered here, is arguably most notable for the driving interaction between guitarists Wilson and Vestine as they wail and moan over Hite's imposing leads. Saving the best for last, the Heat are at the height of their prowess during the lengthy audio biography on "Fried Hockey Boogie." Each member is introduced by Hite and given a chance to solo before they kick out the jams, culminating in Hite's crescendo of " ... Don't forget to boogie!" In 1999 the French label, Magic Records, issued an expanded edition of Boogie With Canned Heat supplemented by half-a-dozen sides, such as the 45 RPM edits of "On the Road Again," "Boogie Music" and "Goin' Up the Country." Also included are the once difficult-to-locate 45-only "One Kind Favor," as well as the seasonal offering "Christmas Blues" and "The Chipmunk Song" -- with guest shots from none other than Alvin, Simon, Theodore, and David Seville of the one and only Chipmunks. For enthusiasts as well as listeners curious about the oft-overlooked combo, this is an essential, if not compulsory platter.
Words: Lindsay Planer
Canned Heat's third collection, Living the Blues (1968), was likewise their first double-LP, heralding the rural hippie anthem "Going Up the Country" as well as the nearly three-quarter-hour "Refried Boogie." However, rather than distracting their audience, it became one of rock & roll's first two-LP sets to make a substantial showing on the charts, reaching the Top 20. Not surprising as the rest of the album -- essentially all of disc one -- is as solid (if not arguably more so) than their previous long player Boogie With Canned Heat (1968). Featured is the "classic" Heat lineup of Alan "Blind Owl" Wilson (guitar/harmonica/vocals), Larry "The Mole" Taylor (bass), Henry "Sunflower" Vestine (guitar), Adolfo "Fido" de la Parra (drums), and Bob "The Bear" Hite (vocals), who unleash another batch of strong originals and engaging overhauls of a few blues staples -- including the solid cover of Charley Patton's "Pony Blues" that commences the effort. Right out of the gate, the formidable team of Wilson and Vestine explore their musical passions with a focused drive that would significantly diminish in the years and on the records to follow. One of the primary factors in the package's commercial success was their update of Henry Thomas' "Going Down South," which they turned into the breezy "Goin' Up the Country." The song not only became one of their biggest hits, it was also used in the Woodstock (1970) documentary and a live version -- from the actual concert -- was presented on the soundtrack. Canned Heat are joined by one of their contemporaries as Brit bluesman John Mayall contributes to the compact reading of Jimmy Rogers'"Walking By Myself," not on guitar, but rather piano. He also tosses around the '88s during the "Bear Wires" movement of the side-long "Parthenogenesis" suite. While on the subject of guest keyboardists, Mac Rebbenack (aka Dr. John) joins in on the groovy ode to "Boogie Music." "One Kind Favour" (aka "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean") drives hard with Hite belting out behind the ensemble's propelling rhythms. Aside from the slightly indulgent "Refried Boogie," Living the Blues (1968) stands as a testament to Canned Heat's prowess as modernizers of the blues and recommended as one of the most cohesive works from this incarnation.
Words: Lindsay Planer
This debut long-player from Canned Heat was issued shortly after their appearance at the Monterey International Pop Music Festival. That performance, for all intents and purposes, was not only the combo's entrée into the burgeoning underground rock & roll scene, but was also among the first high-profile showcases to garner national and international attention. The quartet featured on Canned Heat (1967) includes the unique personnel of Alan "Blind Owl" Wilson (guitar/vocals), Larry "The Mole" Taylor (bass), Henry "Sunflower" Vestine (guitar), Bob "The Bear" Hite (vocals), and Frank Cook (drums). Cook's tenure with the Heat would be exceedingly brief, however, as he was replaced by Aldolfo "Fido" Dela Parra (drums) a few months later. Although their blues might have suggested that the aggregate hailed from the likes of Chicago or Memphis, Canned Heat actually formed in the Los Angeles suburb of Topanga Canyon, where they were contemporaries of other up-and-coming rockers Spirit and Kaleidoscope. Wilson and Hite's almost scholarly approach created a unique synthesis when blended with the band's amplified rock & roll. After their initial studio sessions in April of 1967 produced favorable demos, they returned several weeks later to begin work in earnest on this platter. The dearth of original material on Canned Heat was less of a result of any songwriting deficiencies, but rather exemplifies their authentic renderings of traditionals such as the open-throttled boogie of "Rollin' and Tumblin'" -- which is rightfully recognized as having been derived from the Muddy Waters arrangement. Similarly, a rousing reading of Robert Johnson's "Dust My Broom" is co-credited to Elmore James. Blues aficionados will undoubtedly notice references to a pair of Howlin' Wolf classics -- "Smokestack Lightning" as well as "I Asked for Water (She Gave Me Gasoline)" -- as part of the rambling "Road Song." While decidedly more obscure to the casual listener, Eddie "Guitar Slim" Jones "Story of My Life" is both a high point on this recording, as well as one of the fiercest renditions ever committed to tape. Until a thorough overhaul of Canned Heat's catalog materializes, this title can be found on the Canned Heat/Boogie With Canned Heat (2003) two-fer that couples this title with their 1968 follow-up.
Words: Lindsay Planer
When this two-LP set was initially released in January 1971, Canned Heat was back to its R&B roots, sporting slightly revised personnel. In the spring of the previous year, Larry "The Mole" Taylor (bass) and Harvey Mandel (guitar) simultaneously accepted invitations to join John Mayall's concurrent incarnation of the Bluesbreakers. This marked the return of Henry "Sunflower" Vestine (guitar) and the incorporation of Antonio "Tony" de la Barreda (bass), a highly skilled constituent of Aldolfo de la Parra (drums). Sadly, it would also be the final effort to include co-founder Alan "Blind Owl" Wilson, who passed away in September 1970. Hooker 'n Heat (1971) is a low-key affair split between unaccompanied solo John Lee Hooker (guitar/vocals) tunes, collaborations between Hooker and Wilson (piano/guitar/harmonica), as well as five full-blown confabs between Hooker and Heat. The first platter focuses on Hooker's looser entries that vacillate from the relatively uninspired ramblings of "Send Me Your Pillow" and "Drifter" to the essential and guttural "Feelin' Is Gone" or spirited "Bottle Up and Go." The latter being among those with Wilson on piano. Perhaps the best of the batch is the lengthy seven-minute-plus "World Today," which is languid and poignant talking blues, with Hooker lamenting the concurrent state of affairs around the globe. "I Got My Eyes on You" is an unabashed derivative of Hooker's classic "Dimples," with the title changed for what were most likely legal rather than artistic concerns. That said, the readings of the seminal "Burning Hell" and "Bottle Up and Go" kept their familiar monikers intact. The full-fledged collaborations shine as both parties unleash some of their finest respective work. While Canned Heat get top bill -- probably as it was the group's record company that sprung for Hooker 'n Heat -- make no mistake, as Hooker steers the combo with the same gritty and percussive guitar leads that have become his trademark. The epic "Boogie Chillen No. 2" stretches over 11 and a half minutes and is full of the same swagger as the original, with the support of Canned Heat igniting the verses and simmering on the subsequent instrumental breaks with all killer and no filler. The 2002 two-CD pressing by the French Magic Records label is augmented with "It's All Right," with a single edit of "Whiskey and Wimmen."
Words: Lindsay Planer
For all but the completists, this anthology should more than suffice as an apt compact-disc retrospective of Canned Heat's releases on Liberty Records. To that end, it's a more or less chronological overview of the combo's LPs, commencing with a trio of tunes from a spring 1967 studio session that predates their self-titled debut (1967). Primary is an extended, seven-plus-minute "On the Road Again," losing the trippy pretensions of the more popular version. Rather, it churns and steadily burns throughout, displaying Canned Heat's primordial boogie-fused R&B delivery. The remainder of disc one focuses on the aforementioned Canned Heat (1967), the follow-up Boogie With Canned Heat (1968), and a half-dozen previously unreleased sides, this time from the fall of 1967 with a slightly different lineup that included Alan "Blind Owl" Wilson (guitar/vocals), Larry "The Mole" Taylor (bass), Henry "Sunflower" Vestine (guitar), and Bob "The Bear" Hite (vocals). Frank Cook (drums), who had contributed to the band's first effort, was replaced by Adolfo "Fido" de la Parra (drums). It is this aggregate that is considered the core of the "classic" incarnation. They are thoroughly solid, especially on John Lee Hooker's "Whiskey and Wimmen" (sic), a title that would resurface several years later when they faced off with Hooker on Hooker 'n' Heat (1971). Another not-to-be-missed rarity is the nearly ten-minute "Gotta Boogie" jam building off of Hooker's familiar rambling "Boogie Chillen" riff, as it explores some of Canned Heat's trademark instrumental interaction. This is most prominent between Wilson and Hite, and predates "Fried Hockey Boogie," although the vibe is undeniably the same. Disc one ends with two vintage radio adverts for Levi Strauss & Company and Boogie With Canned Heat, respectively. Disc two picks up with the singles "Evil Woman" and "Amphetamine Annie," among the other anticipatory tracks. Also included are "Going Up the Country," "Time Was," a take of the seasonal release "Christmas Blues" with Dr. John, as well as a 1968 vocal-less reworking of Robert Johnson's "Terraplane Blues" -- the latter pair being offered here for the first time. The same is true of the Hooker 'n' Heat outtake "It's All Right" and the poignant reading of "Human Condition," featuring Wilson on lead vocals. While those are the only hard-to-find recordings on this disc, there are two radio ads at the tail end. Otherwise, the albums Living the Blues (1968), Hallelujah (1969), Future Blues (1970), Historical Figures & Ancient Heads (1971), as well as The New Age (1973), are given their due, though most casual listeners and/or purists may see these to be filler rather than killer. The accompanying 28-page liner booklet is filled with discographical information and a great historical essay from noted music journalist Greg Russo.
Words: Lindsay Planer