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Canned Heat

In an era in the mid-to-late 60s when psychedelic-rock ruled the globe, CANNED HEAT chose instead to bend the blues back into the conscientious minds of the American youth; mining and fermenting similar terrain excavated by revivalists PAUL BUTTERFIELD, JOHN MAYALL/BLUESBREAKERS and The ROLLING STONES. Massively popular for around half a decade, and influenced by legends HOWLIN’ WOLF, MUDDY WATERS, JOHN LEE HOOKER et al, the blues carried on in real life when, in their prime, the band lost Alan Wilson to a drug-related death on September 3, 1970 (a fortnight before HENDRIX) and, much later, Bob Hite, who died of a heart attack on stage on April 6, 1981.
Formed in Topanga Canyon, a suburb of Los Angeles, California, singer Bob Hite (nicknamed “The Bear” due to his massive 300lb frame) and guitarist/singer/harmonica-player Alan Wilson (nicknamed “Blind Owl” because of his thick-lensed glasses), the pair shared a passion for collecting the blues; Wilson had studied music at Boston University and did a thesis on blues music before he accompanied SON HOUSE on his “Father Of Folk Blues” LP, while Hite had an archive of blues 78s that numbered in the thousands.
Taking their moniker from a TOMMY JOHNSON number, Hite and Wilson initially roped in bassist Stuart Brotman, guitarist Mike Perlowin and drummer Keith Sawyer for rehearsals, until the latter pair dropped out after a few weeks – superseded by Kenny Edwards and Ron Holmes respectively. Guitarist Henry “The Sunflower” Vestine (ex-MOTHERS OF INVENTION) was an addition until he finally took the berth of Edwards (who formed STONE PONEYS), while jazz drummer Frank Cook settled into the 5-piece when star-turn JOHNNY OTIS produced their first batch of songs in 1966; later to be issued as “Vintage Heat”.
Mark Andes (future SPIRIT bassist) filled in when Brotman chose to join KALEIDOSCOPE (alongside DAVID LINDLEY) and then, in early ’67, up stepped Larry “The Mole” Taylor (brother of The VENTURES’ Mel Taylor), who’d been a renowned session player for CHUCK BERRY, JERRY LEE LEWIS and The MONKEES. CANNED HEAT were now complete.
Their eponymous CANNED HEAT {*7} debut album was released July ‘67 and proved without doubt why they’d showed some promise at the previous month’s Monterey Pop Festival. Although it only offered imitations of 12-bar standards such as MUDDY WATERS’ `Rollin’ And Tumblin’’, ELMORE JAMES’ `Dust My Broom’, SONNY BOY WILLIAMSON’s `Help Me’, WILLIE DIXON’s `Evil Is Going On’, EDDIE “GUITAR SLIM” JONES’ `The Story Of My Life’ among others, it also offered up a couple of home-grown compositions in Vestine’s `Big Road Blues’ and the group’s `Bullfrog Blues’ (a flop 45).
Adopting Mexican-born drummer Adolfo “Fito” de la Parra (ex-Bluesberry Jam) to replace Cook (who joined PACIFIC GAS & ELECTRIC), things took a decidedly commercial upsurge when second album BOOGIE WITH CANNED HEAT (1968) {*8} started on its rise into the Top 5 (UK Top 20). This was an impressive selection which included an 11-minute finale, `Fried Hockey Boogie’ (a number destined to become a concert favourite) and the hypnotic `On The Road Again’ (originally a re-shaped track “Dark Road” by FLOYD JONES from 1953), which gave CANNED HEAT a Top 20 (UK Top 10) hit. Turning over Larry Weiss’ `Evil Woman’, a handful of songs were developed from other notable songs: an update of `Whiskey Headed Woman’ from TOMMY McCLENNAN, `World In A Jug’, `Turpentine Moan’ and the Creole-based Vestine cut `Marie Laveau’ also seemed sourced from inspiration rather than procurement.
For the third album, LIVING THE BLUES (1968) {*6}, Wilson adapted a HENRY THOMAS cut, `Bull Doze Blues’, by keeping the tune and rewriting the lyric; the result being the transatlantic Top 20 smash, `Going Up The Country’, a monumental delivery that highlighted Wilson’s trademark falsetto – seemingly mimicked from listening to SKIP JAMES – as well as being one of the successes on the soon-to-be Woodstock concert/movie. Also in disguise was BLIND LEMON JEFFERSON’s `See That My Grave Is Kept Clean’ (here as `One Kind Favour’), while CHARLEY PATTON’s `Pony Blues’, JIMMY ROGERS’ `Walking By Myself’ (starring JOHN MAYALL) and L.T. Tatman III’s `Boogie Music’ (with DR. JOHN), seemed somewhat overshadowed by the marathon `Parthenogeneis’ suite, clocking in at nearly 20 minutes and intro’d by JOHN FAHEY; disc two was fully booked, or indeed overcooked, by parts 1 & 2 of an exhaustive live improv hoedown of `Refried Boogie’.
CANNED HEAT’s new-found chart status allowed them to bully their record company (Liberty) into giving ALBERT COLLINS a deal with its subsidiary, Imperial Records. For 1969’s HALLELUJAH {*6}, Wilson’s `Time Was’ and `Change My Ways’ had the cool factor next to covers of blues/R&B staples such as BUKKA WHITE’s `Sic ‘Em Pigs’, FATS DOMINO’s `Big Fat (The Fat Man)’ and that T. JOHNSON-scribed `Canned Heat’ title piece. With Woodstock around the corner, the patchy Top 40 album was able to cash-in a little on the inevitable glorious aftermath.
Vestine parted company with the quintet after tensions came to a head with Taylor, and as a result membership alternated for a few years – and more. Harvey Mandel was found in time for the band’s near UK chart-topping `Let’s Work Together’ (a re-vamp of a WILBERT HARRISON number), while CANNED HEAT ’70 CONCERT {*7} soared into the charts; later to be re-titled “Concert: Recorded Live In Europe” for the Yankee dollar. Introduced by a reading of ARTHUR “BIG BOY” CRUDUP’s `That’s All Right Mama’ and WILLIE DIXON’s `Bring It On Home’, their cross-Atlantic sojourns had paid off without much fuss.
Back on home-soil terra firma, studio set FUTURE BLUES (1970) {*8} hosted the hit cover of “Let’s Work…” and an un-Cajun-like/CAPTAIN BEEFHEART-esque `Sugar Bee’ (originally penned by Eddie Shuler for Cleveland Crochet), a modest hit in the UK. Augmented by the odd appearance from DR. JOHN, `That’s All Right, Mama’ made its studio entrance back to back with CHARLEY PATTON’s `Shake It And Break It’, while Wilson’s `My Time Ain’t Long’ turned out to be a prophetic title as the blues band – landing the Stars n Stripes on the Moon as depicted on the sleeve! – were sliding stylistically into a long decade.
A depressed and troubled man into drugs (he attempted suicide when he drove off a freeway), the globe was still in shock by the suicide of Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson, whose body was found in Hite’s backyard that September; and it should’ve come as a warning to JIMI HENDRIX, JANIS JOPLIN and Jim Morrison, who died within the year, also aged 27!
Wilson’s death brought about a major reshuffle; Henry Vestine had already returned to replace Mandel (who joined JOHN MAYALL’s BLUESBREAKERS with Taylor); their berths were taken by Antonio De La Barreda and fresh guitarist Joel Scott Hill. This was not the line-up that was presented on their self-financed collaboration with JOHN LEE HOOKER, `Hooker ‘N Heat’ (1971) {*7}, which still had Wilson at the helm, as it was recorded the previous May. The said new line-up completed their last Top 100 entry, HISTORICAL FIGURES AND ANCIENT HEADS (1972) {*6}, another nod to the past with its inclusion of their collaborative single with LITTLE RICHARD: `Rockin’ With The King’. Whether rock’n’roll, blues or boogie, only the 8-minute `Utah’ or the opening Jesse Mae Robinson cut `Sneakin’ Around’, had any clout.
The passing of Blind Owl had curtailed CANNED HEAT’s vision and, when Barreda and Hill had moved aside for Bob’s brother Richard Hite (bass), and individual songwriters James Shane (guitar) and Ed Beyer (piano) for the woeful THE NEW AGE (1973) {*3}, things had taken a plunge into a commercial abyss; even ALEX HARVEY would probably have baulked at their version of Leiber & Stoller’s `Framed’.
Atlantic Records were willing to give the sextet another chance on ONE MORE RIVER TO CROSS (1973) {*5} (the title track penned by Daniel Moore), but although there was room to brew and ferment, the tried and tested formula of old and new, borrowed and blues was wearing thin among their audience; sibling Richard was afforded a good chunk of their repertoire, while staple Leiber & Stoller number, `I’m A Hog For You Baby’ and a FATS DOMINO medley `We Remember Fats’, were run of the mill. Subsequent live work-outs with CLARENCE “GATEMOUTH” BROWN and MEMPHIS SLIM respectively, resulted in a collaborative French-only LP with the latter bluesman on MEMPHIS HEAT (1975) {*5}.
Throughout the next decade, Bob, Richard and Adolfo tried to keep the band ticking over, although there were struggles indeed to garner a permanent record deal. A fresh impetus came with 1978’s HUMAN CONDITION {*5}, with side-kicks Chris Morgan and Mark Skyer (guitars), although Gene Taylor on keyboards (ex-Poppa Hop) had left in 1976; in guest form, Harvey Mandel, and backing vox from The CHAMBERS BROTHERS, were greeted with usual enthusiasm by blues fans by way of one of two covers, `House Of Blue Lights’.
Richard Exley (bass) replaced Richard Hite, Morgan and Skyer, in 1978. In the meantime, Bob Hite, Parra and Taylor were joined by Ronnie Barron (keyboards) and Mike “Hollywood Fats” Mann (guitar), until 1980, when Vestine, plus Mike Halby (guitar), Jay Spell (keyboards) and Jon Lamb (bass), walked in through the door; bassist Ernie Rodriguez superseded Lamb up to the recording of KINGS OF THE BOOGIE (1981) {*5}.
Years of inner turmoil had taken its toll on Bob Hite, who collapsed between sets and died a day later of an accidental drugs overdose in April 1981; the aforesaid LP was to be his swansong outing. With only de la Parra keeping the show on the road, alongside Halby (up to 1984) and Rodriguez (up to 1985), vocalist/harmonicist Richard Kellogg and guitarist Walter Trout were stalwart alumni until after the live `The Heat Bros. 84’ 12-inch EP, and the 1985-recorded THE BOOGIE ASSAULT (GREATEST HITS LIVE IN AUSTRALIA) (1987) {*5}.
As WALTER TROUT was destined to become a solo star in his own right, Vestine returned, while Skip Jones (bass) and James Thornbury (slide guitar, vocals, harmonica) were part of the conveyor-belt CANNED HEAT’s manoeuvres until Taylor turned up, bringing in Junior Watson for Vestine; RE-HEATED (1989) {*4} and BURNIN’ (1991) {*4} – live in Australia once again – slid out without much ado; the inevitable switch of Taylor for Vestine resulted in bassist Ron Shumake joining for the first half of the 90s (on the back of 1994’s INTERNAL COMBUSTION {*4}), while a series of guitarists floated through their ranks until stalwart Robert Lucas (vocals, guitar, harmonica) was found in 1995.
When Harvey Mandel returned (next to newbie Greg Kage on bass), a sense of urgency was required when Vestine died from heart failure on tour in Paris on October 20, 1997. The following year’s CANNED HEAT BLUES BAND {*3} kept the motor running, while a replacement for both himself, Junior and Taylor was acquired, when filler Paul Bryant fitted in for BOOGIE 2000 (1999) {*4}. Another shake-up was the order of the day, as frontman Dallas Hodge came in for Lucas. Meanwhile, guitarist John Paulus and the addition of Stanley “Baron” Behrens (sax, flute) suggested there was precious little pre-millennial tension within the CANNED HEAT ranks for FRIENDS IN THE CAN (2003) {*5}, a patchy record which found the likes of WALTER TROUT, TAJ MAHAL and even the late JOHN LEE HOOKER guesting on set – the latter on `Little Wheel’, a track resurrected from sessions for the late, great bluesman’s 1989 album, `The Healer’. Overall, it contributed to an infectiously upbeat vibe missing from many of their most recent sets.
With no sign of Hodge, Behrens and Paulus on the horizon, guitarist Barry Levenson and a reunited Robert Lucas were part of the shower that released the festive CHRISTMAS ALBUM (2007) {*3}; the band sitting around the fireside with esteemed party-goers The Chipmunks, DR. JOHN, and ERIC CLAPTON and JOHN POPPER. When Lucas was yet another leading light to pop his clogs (on November 23, 2008), Dave Spalding filled the vacancy aside Taylor, Mandel and de la Parra (Levenson and Kage left in 2010). CANNED HEAT were going strong, although Mandel was in hospital for surgery and medical procedures in 2014.
© MC Strong 1994-2006/GRD // rev-up MCS Aug2015

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