Alan Wilson grew up in Boston, Massachusetts, where he became a music major at Boston University and a frequent player at the Cambridge coffeehouse folk-blues circuit. He also found time to write two lengthy, analytical articles on bluesmen Robert Pete Williams and Son House for “Broadside Of Boston”, a Massachusetts music paper, which Downbeat Magazine described as “among the most significant contributions to modern blues scholarship, representing the first important musicological analysis of blues style.” In fact, when Son House was “rediscovered” in 1964 by Phil Spiro, Dick Waterman and Nick Perls, Wilson ended up spending hours with the elderly bluesman helping him recall how to play his own songs again, as House had not owned a guitar for several years and was suffering from what was later diagnosed as both Alzheimers and Parkinsons. Waterman managed House and got him a recording contract with Columbia Records and Wilson assisted House in recording his 1965 album, Father of the Delta Blues, and provided harmonica and second guitar on three songs (two of which, “Empire State Express” and “Levee Camp Moan”) were included on the album.
Wilson was an excellent harpist, slide guitarist and vocalist with a unique tenor style. His friend, Mike Bloomfield introduced him to Charlie Musselwhite as “The best goddamn harp player there is. He can do things that you’ve never heard before.” Wilson occasionally worked for his father’s construction firm laying bricks but, thankfully, he preferred laying down unforgettable riffs to hard physical labor. Wilson’s nickname, “Blind Owl,” was bestowed upon him by friend John Fahey during a road trip in 1965 from Boston to Los Angeles and was a reference to the extra-thick lenses Wilson wore to compensate for his poor vision. Later Fahey, while researching a book on bluesman Charlie Patton for his degree in Folklore at UCLA, invited Wilson out to California to help with the project. Wilson was a music major at Boston University, and Fahey needed someone who could transcribe, chart and notate Patton’s material correctly.
Through Fahey, Wilson (a blues scholar) met Hite (a record collector) which led to the collectors’ meeting at Hite’s house where Canned Heat originated in 1965. The group decided to take their name from “Canned Heat Blues,” an obscure 1928 track by bluesman Tommy Johnson that described the drug high achieved through drinking the household product Sterno.
Sterno is a cooking fuel that has been used since the turn of the century, and while it was intended to be used for keeping food warm, it was consumed by the early bluesman as a cheap way to get “high” during prohibition. Sterno was originally made from methyl alcohol which, if ingested, the user risked blindness or even death. The contents of the container was strained through slices of bread or a nylon sock to separate the alcohol from the paraffin, and mixed with seltzer or soft drinks. These were desperate times; a tin of Sterno was 7 cents as opposed to a quarter for an illegal bottle of wine. In Mississippi, it was subsequently nicknamed “Canned Heat”. Tommy Johnson died of severe alcohol poisoning directly related to his consumption of the product.
Collectors Hite, Mike Perlowin, John Fahey and Alan Wilson were present and by the meeting’s end, these blues devotees had decided to form their own jug band, with the first rehearsal soon to follow. The initial configuration was comprised of Perlowin on lead guitar, Wilson on bottleneck guitar, Hite on vocals, Stu Brotman on bass and Keith Sawyer on drums. Perlowin and Sawyer dropped out within a few days of the rehearsal, so guitarist Kenny Edwards (a close friend of Alan Wilson) stepped in to replace Perlowin, and Ron Holmes agreed to sit in on drums until they could find a permanent drummer.
The new group quickly landed a gig at the Ash Grove on Melrose Avenue in Hollywood, and Hite invited his friend Henry Vestine to attend. Vestine liked what he heard and asked if he could join the band, so Vestine was added while keeping Edwards on temporarily.
They all soon realized that three guitars were overkill, so they let Edwards go. (He went on to form the Stone Poneys with Linda Ronstadt.) At around the same time, Frank Cook came in to replace Holmes as their permanent drummer.
Johnny Otis produced the group’s first full-length album in 1966. It featured Hite, Wilson, Cook, Vestine, and Brotman in his studio off of Vine Street in Los Angeles. The record was not actually released until 1970; and “Vintage Heat” as it was titled, has since become the most re-packaged and bootlegged record in Canned Heat’s discography. Otis ran the board for two versions of “Rollin’ And Tumblin’” (with & without harmonica), “Spoonful” by Willie Dixon, and “Louise” by John Lee Hooker.
Canned Heat’s first year was marked by infrequent gigs and public indifference. Al Wilson later told Melody Maker, “The first year we were together, we worked for three weeks. We’d get a gig, play three days and get fired… because we refused to be a human jukebox.” After a particularly disastrous engagement (surprisingly, this was at what became the hip Whiskey A Go Go) the group disbanded in August, 1966 for the next three months.
During this period, Alan Wilson, and Henry Vestine moved on to join the Electric Beavers, an ensemble featuring a full horn section which lasted for only a short time on a rehearsal basis only. Eventually, Canned Heat re-formed in November, 1966 for a one-off gig at a Mothers concert at UCLA. Two agents from the world renowned William Morris talent agency, were in the audience that night and, following their performance, offered to meet with the band the next day.
Even though prospects were now looking good, the previous unsteadiness of the group prompted Stuart Brotman to sign a union contract with an Armenian belly-dancing troupe in January, 1967 over the summer hiatus of ‘66, and he was obligated to keep his commitment. His developing interests in Arabic and various other types of ethnic music prompted him, a year later, to form the acclaimed world-music band Kaleidoscope with David Lindley and Chris Darrow. So Canned Heat replaced Brotman with bassist Mark Andes, who lasted only a couple of months because he preferred to play in a rock ’n’ roll band. (Andes rejoined his former colleagues in the Red Roosters, who adopted a new name… Spirits Rebelious, later shortened to Spirit.)
Before their first album “Canned Heat”, which Liberty released, the band appeared at the Monterey Pop Festival on June 17, 1967. Downbeat Magazine complimented their performance in an article appearing in the August 10th issue (which featured a picture of the band at Monterey on the magazine cover): “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.”
Canned Heat’s self-titled debut was released in July, 1967. The straightforward traditional blues effort was highlighted by covers of blues standards, including Willie Dixon’s “Evil Is Going On,” Muddy Water’s “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” and a take of the Sonny Boy Williamson classic “Help Me,” with vocals by Wilson. 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.
Following a one week gig at the Ash Grove from August 22-26, the band went on their first national tour. Disaster struck when the group was arrested in Denver for marijuana possession. Only Wilson, a pioneer eco-warrior who had been out collecting leaves at the time, escaped arrest. Upon returning to L.A., the group held a press conference to announce that their bust had been orchestrated and that the Denver Police Department had planted evidence to use against them as part of an ongoing campaign of harassment waged against the owners and promoters of the Family Dog (a hippy ballroom) and its patrons.
Right from the start, Canned Heat has been at the forefront of popularizing blues music. Their second album, “Boogie With Canned Heat,” included the worldwide hit “On The Road Again,” the crown jewel of the set. It revealed Wilson in six different capacities, three tamboura parts, harmonica, vocal and guitar, all recorded at different times. His unconventional falsetto and the song’s Eastern textures made the recording an instant classic. A twelve-minute version of “Fried Hockey Boogie,” (credited to Larry Taylor, but 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. Another well-known track, “My Crime,” had lyrics inspired by the Denver drug bust.
In the spring of 1968, Al Wilson, Bob Hite, and Fito de la Parra took a cab in Chicago to a blues performance after one of their gigs. The cab driver was none other than Albert Luandrew, whom the musicologists recognized by his a.k.a. Sunnyland Slim; Muddy Waters piano player during the Chess Records days in the late 40’s and early ‘50s. Slim had taken a six-year break from recording to pay the bills driving a taxi, and was convinced by the aspiring trio to go back into the studio. After a session in June with Shakey Horton, Johnny Shines, and Willie Dixon on Blue Horizon Records, Slim was convinced by Bob and Alan to cut an album for the “Bluesmakers” series on World Pacific Records (a subdivision of Liberty). The album, “Slim’s Got His Thing Goin’ On”, featured the tracks “Going Back To Memphis”, “Unlucky One”, and “Dust My Broom” with Slim fronting Canned Heat and Hite acting as co-producer. Slim also did them the honor of playing the piano on “Turpentine Moan” for the album “Boogie With Canned Heat”
The press began, universally, acclaiming Canned Heat as blues innovators. The influential jazz magazine, Downbeat, ran a glowing article about the group in their June 13, 1968 issue, calling them “probably the best band of its type in the world today, playing with a power and conviction, and generating an excitement which has been matched by only the finest of the Negro bands in this idiom, early postwar blues music. One would, in fact, have to go back to the great innovators of the genre… Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Elmore James, Little Walter, and the like… to find groups comparable to Canned Heat in mastery, ease and inventiveness.”
Their third album, “Living The Blues,” included a 19-minute tour de force, “Parthenogenesis” which displayed the quintet at their most experimental. This song, was a nine-part sound collage and fusion of blues, raga, sitar music, honky-tonk, guitar distortion and other electronic effects, all pulled together under the experimental direction of manager/producer, Skip Taylor. This album included their incarnation of Henry Thomas’ “Bulldozer Blues” where singer, Wilson, retained the tune of the original song, rewrote the lyric and came up with “Goin’ Up The Country,” whose simple message caught the “back-to-nature” attitude of the late ‘60s, providing Canned Heat with another smash single on both sides of the Atlantic. It reached only #11 on the U.S national chart because it took months to spread across the country (going to #1 in almost every city) but went to #1 in 25 countries around the world.
In early 1969, Canned Heat’s tour took them to Houson where a record collector friend of Bob’s casually mentioned that guitar legend Albert Collins (“The Master of the Telecaster”) was playing a little joint called the Ponderosa Club in the city’s Black neighborhood. After sitting down for ribs and admiring his odd D-minor tunings and unorthodox style, the band introduced themselves after the gig and found that Albert had too heard of them, commenting “Damn… You guys cook!” After advising him to move to LA to boost his career, the Heat got him an agent and introduced him to the executives for United Artists. To show his appreciation, Collins’ first record title for UA, “Love Can Be Found Anywhere” was taken from Bob Hite’s lyric in the “Fried Hockey Boogie”. Collins developed an amazing career after that, and became well known in blues circles around the world until his death in 1994.
Canned Heat’s appearance at the Fillmore West in San Francisco in late July, 1969 was hampered by severe tension between Larry Taylor and Henry Vestine. Taylor finally refused to perform on the same stage as Vestine, and soon after this quarrel, Henry quit to form a band of his own, the short-lived Sun. In the first set of the Fillmore gig, Mike Bloomfield filled in for Vestine and was asked to join the band but declined due to his dislike of touring. Harvey Mandel sat in during the next set, played well and readily accepted the offer to become a member of Canned Heat. Mandel was a veteran Chicago musician, having played with both Barry Goldberg and Charlie Musselwhite and the South Side Sound System. His own first album, Cristo Redentor, was released earlier in the year.
With Mandel as guitarist, the group played two days at the Fillmore East in New York before appearing at the legendary Woodstock Music Festival in mid-August. “Going Up The Country,” which became the festival anthem, was included on the Woodstock triple album and “Woodstock Boogie” was part of Woodstock II, while Woodstock: The Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Collection added “Leaving This Town” to the band’s previously released Woodstock performances. Unfortunately, the day before the release of the Woodstock movie, Warner Brothers shortened the film by twelve minutes, eliminating performances by Canned Heat and Jefferson Airplane, both non-Warners’ acts. Certainly, Canned Heat would have risen to much greater stardom if their dynamic performance had remained in the original film. It can, however, be seen in Woodstock, The Directors Cut, which was issued a few years later.
In May, 1970, both Harvey Mandel and Larry Taylor defected from Canned Heat to join John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. With Taylor gone, Henry Vestine returned on guitar, accompanied by bassist Antonio de la Barreda. De la Barreda had played with Fito de la Parra for five years in Mexico City and was previously a member of the group Jerome. The new lineup immediately went into the studio to record with John Lee Hooker on sessions that would yield the double album Hooker ‘N Heat. The 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 and finally, Hooker with some sympathetic backing by the group sans Bob Hite, who co-produced the album along with Skip Taylor. It turned out to be a major landmark in Hooker’s recording career: an artistic and commercial triumph of resounding proportions which recaptured and re-created the authentic early Hooker sound of the Bernie Besman era and managed to shine on the pop album charts.
In July, 1970, the band cut a superb Alan Wilson boogie, “Human Condition,” which unfortunately remained unissued in its original form until it showed up on the 1994 compilation Uncanned! “Human Condition” featured some especially good guitar work by Vestine and was Wilson’s last work in the studio.
The sweep of releases in 1970 continued with Future Blues in August. Lyrically, the band had moved away from traditional blues topics in favor of current issues, such as the earth’s fragile ecology. Controversially, the album cover depicted five astronauts on the moon, in the famous Iwo Jima pose, planting an upside-down American flag to signal distress as the earth was plainly immersed in pollution in the background. Some segments of the public viewed the upside-down flag as a serious affront, causing major retailers K-Mart, Sears and Woolworth’s to refuse to stock the album. The row over the cover art (ironically, not the cover’s socio-ecological message) threatened to overshadow the music, which was hailed by the New York Times as being “as magnificent a blues-rock album as has ever been made!”
Canned Heat was touring Europe in the summer of 1970, and June 30th was an off night for them in Britain. Alan Wilson went to go see his old friend Son House, who was performing at London’s nearby 100 Club. The evening was being recorded, and Alan sat in for “Between Midnight And Day” and “I Want To Go Home On The Morning Train”. Originally released as the Liberty LP “John The Revelator” in 1970, The session was a concept album with House narrating through his last European performance in a biblical format. It was re-issued in 1995 with extensive liner notes by David Evans as “Delta Blues And Spirituals” on Capitol Records. The album was posthumously dedicated to Wilson, who would be gone in just two months time.
On September 3rd, 1970, the band was shattered when they learned of the suicide** of Alan Wilson on a hillside behind Bob Hite’s Topanga Canyon home. His band mates knew Wilson as a sensitive, devoted environmentalist and ecologist who, with Skip Taylor, established the Music Mountain Foundation, an organization formed with the goal of preserving redwood trees in an area called Skunk Cabbage Creek in northern California. In this context, they understood how his being distraught over L.A. smog and the destruction, not only of redwood forests, but the environment in general, coupled with strife in his own personal relationships, had pushed him to attempt suicide on several previous occasions. He had recently undergone psychiatric care in a hospital and, upon his release, had been placed under Hite’s care.
Alan Wilson’s premature death at age 27, just like Hendrix, Joplin and Morrison who all died at 27, robbed music of one of its unsung geniuses. Though praised by John Lee Hooker as “the greatest harmonica player ever,” multitalented Wilson never received the recognition on the world stage that he so assuredly deserved. In February, 1971, the album recorded with Hooker entitled Hooker ‘n Heat was finally released. The collaborative effort was widely praised throughout the world and became Hooker’s biggest charting album at the time and is credited with revitalizing Hooker’s career and, to the end of his great life, it remained his personal favorite of all of his recordings.
And then came “Memphis Heat”. Just a few days after the loss of their spiritual and musical leader, Joel Scott Hill had stepped into the gigantic task of fulfilling The Blind Owl’s duties. They completed half of their tour, and on September 18, 1970 they went into the studio at the request of French music producer Phillipe Rault to record with blues legend Memphis Slim, the expatriate barrelhouse piano player. “Boogie Duo” features de la Parra in prime form, and “Mother Earth” is wonderfully reworked as the crème of the project. Three years later and after an overdubbing session with the Memphis Horns of Stax Records fame, “Memphis Heat” was finally released on the French record label, Barclay, and was re-released in 2006 on Sunnyside Recordings.
Wilson’s passing sparked constant reconstruction within the group. In December, 1971, the band brought out Historical Figures and Ancient Heads. The album received very positive reviews and contained some special moments including Bob Hite’s vocal duel with legendary rocker Little Richard on the Skip Taylor written track, “Rockin’ With The King” and some sizzling guitar work by both Henry Vestine and Joel Scott Hill.
Member changes continued throughout the next two decades while they toured Europe, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico and the United States.
Taken (in excerpts with permission) from the Biography on the Canned Heat Webpage
Written and edited by Skip Taylor & Brett Lemke; 2006
** At blindowl.net, we’ve conducted our own investigation:
Although Alan Wilson’s death was ruled a suicide by the press at the time; the fact remains that in many instances, the statistics surrounding his passing were mis-reported. The police officer listed the cause as “accidental”. The music tabloids in Europe, where Canned Heat was on tour, reported several incorrect drug-related scenarios (we have copies of at least 4) that were debunked by documents in the public record. In addition, The LA times article from September 4, 1970 reported that Alan was found with 4 “reds” (phenobarbitol) and that it was an “overdose of barbituates”.
Regardless of what anyone believes about what happened to this brilliant musical innvator, we are now 38 years removed from the situation. It’s time to start the healing
We would like to celebrate Alan’s memory. He was an amazing genius, a defining Bluesman in his Genre and a top-notch musician all around.