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Al Wilson of Canned Heat Profile

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Blues-Rock Band Canned Heat

Al Wilson (second from right) & Canned Heat

Photo courtesy Canned Heat

Born: July 4, 1943 in Boston MA

Died: September 3, 1970 in

Guitarist and harp player Alan "Blind Owl" Wilson is one of the lost heroes of the blues. A founding member of boogie-rockers Canned Heat, and an important element of Delta bluesman Son House's 1960s-era comeback, Wilson's contributions to blues and blues-rock music are often overlooked and disregarded. Make no mistake, if Wilson had lived until the blues revival of the mid-80s, he would have been rightfully considered an influential elder statesman instead of the footnote that he has unfairly become.

Rediscovering Son House

Alan Christie Wilson was born in Boston, Massachusetts and would go on to major in music at Boston University. Wilson's first music biz experience would come as a folk-blues guitarist playing in Cambridge-area coffeehouses. Wilson was also an enthusiastic blues record collector, which would open many doors of opportunity through the years. Nicknamed "Blind Owl" because of his severe nearsightedness, Wilson was considered to be legally blind.

When Mississippi Delta bluesman Son House was "rediscovered" in the Rochester, New York area in 1964, it was Wilson who re-taught House how to play many of the songs he had recorded during the 1930s and '40s that he had subsequently forgotten. Wilson would subsequently back the blues legend during his acclaimed 1965 recording sessions, later released on vinyl as the The Legendary Son House: Father of the Folk Blues album.

Canned Heat

Wilson would relocate to the West Coast and Los Angeles, where he would meet fellow blues fan and record collector Bob "The Bear" Hite. Wilson and Hite would form Canned Heat in 1965. Wilson's technical expertise would find the perfect foil in Hite, whose knowledge of pre-war blues music was exhaustive. Canned Heat was originally designed to be a 1930s-styled jug band, but would soon evolve into a boogie-based blues-rock band.

Canned Heat found a modicum of success during Wilson's tenure with the band, the period 1967-1970 considered by many fans to be the band's "classic era." Wilson was a sturdy songwriter, a skilled guitarist, and a phenomenal harp player who would contribute greatly to the band's sound, and appear on albums like the band's self-titled 1967 debut and 1968's Boogie With Canned Heat and Living The Blues. During this period, Wilson and Canned Heat performed at both the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 and the Woodstock Festival in '69.

Hooker 'N' Heat

In 1970, Wilson and other members of Canned Heat would back blues legend John Lee Hooker for the recording of the landmark Hooker 'n' Heat album. Wilson's harp playing made a strong impression on Hooker, who praised him as "the greatest harmonica player ever." Hooker's effusive hyperbole notwithstanding, Wilson was an underrated talent that recorded with blues legends like Hooker, Son House, and Sunnyland Slim as well as with Canned Heat.

A strident conservationist, Wilson studied books on botany and ecology and frequently slept outdoors to be closer to nature. Wilson's environmental concerns often showed up in his lyrics, and would lead to growing depression over the state of the world. Shortly after finishing the recording sessions with Hooker, Wilson would overdose on barbiturates in September 1970, a tragedy that many of his bandmembers would consider suicide.

In 2007, music journalist Rebecca Davis Winters published Blind Owl Blues, a biography of the late guitarist, and she presents a different take on Wilson's death. In an email Davis writes, "regardless of what some surviving bandmates may believe, the fact is that Wilson's death was officially ruled accidental by the investigating coroner. This conclusion is logical based on the circumstances of the death scene, whose specific facts are delineated in the final chapter of my bio, Blind Owl Blues. It's also noteworthy that while Wilson did suffer from depression, he had been actively seeking psychiatric care, and unlike many suicidal people, he had positive plans for the future which included a charitable organization to benefit the environment."

Recommended Albums: Wilson's underrated fretwork can be heard on Son House's The Legendary Son House: Father of the Folk Blues album, while his harp playing is best displayed by the Hooker 'n' Heat collaboration. Any of Canned Heat's early albums showcase Wilson's guitar and songwriting skills, but if you had to choose one, Boogie With Canned Heat is a sure bet.

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