Formed: 1965 in Los Angeles CA
Few bands have done more to popularize blues music with a rock audience, and received so little love in return. Founded by a pair of died-in-the-wool blues fans, Canned Heat was the American equivalent of the British blues-rock bands of the 1960s. Although the band had a strong frontman in Bob Hite and a guitarist/harp player firmly seeped in the blues like Al Wilson, Canned Heat would be consistently plagued by poor business decisions; bad management and label deals; battles with drugs and alcohol; and an ever-revolving roster that would prevent the band from achieving the success it deserved.
Born Into The Blues
Named after a classic late-1920s Mississippi Delta blues tune by Tommy Johnson, blues-boogie rockers Canned Heat was formed by record collectors Bob "The Bear" Hite and Al Wilson in 1965. Both Hite and Wilson were enthusiastic blues fans, and they originally envisioned the band as a 1930s-styled jug band. As Canned Heat's roster changed, however, the band's sound evolved into the boogie-based, blues-rock trademark that it still performs today.
Canned Heat first recorded in 1966 with notable R&B producer and bandleader Johnny Otis behind the board. With a line-up that included vocalist Hite, guitarists Al Wilson and Henry Vestine (a Mothers of Invention alumnus), bassist Stu Brotman, and drummer Frank Cook, the band put a dozen songs to tape, including classic blues tunes from artists like Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, and John Lee Hooker. The album, later titled Vintage Heat, would remain unreleased until 1970.
Boogie With Canned Heat
Brotman left the band in 1967 to join Kaleidoscope with David Lindley, to be replaced by bassist Larry Taylor. It was this line-up that recorded the band's self-titled debut, which would be released during the summer of '67. The band's performance at the Monterey Pop Festival that summer would earn them a growing audience, and several songs from their set would subsequently be included in D.A. Pennebaker's documentary film of the festival.
When Cook left at the end of the year, to be replaced by drummer Fito de la Parra, Canned Heat entered into what fans consider to be the band's "classic" era. This is the band that would record 1968's Boogie With Canned Heat, an inspired mix of original material and classic blues tunes that yielded a hit in the song "On The Road Again" and propel the album to number 16 on the Billboard magazine Top 200 album chart. The band would follow up later that year with its third album, Living the Blues, which would feature Canned Heat's biggest hit, "Going Up The Country."
Hooker 'n' Heat
Canned Heat released Hallelujah just prior to their appearance at the Woodstock Festival in the summer of 1969. Vestine left the band before the festival, replaced by guitarist Harvey Mandel, who would perform with the band at Woodstock. The band's set would be represented by several songs on the festival soundtrack, but would not be visually represented until they were included in the director's cut of the Woodstock film. In 1970, they released their fifth disc, Future Blues, from which "Let's Work Together" would become the band's first (and last) Top Ten hit single.
Mandel and Taylor left to join John Mayall's band, and former guitarist Vestine would return, joined by bassist Antonio de la Barreda. The band members, sans vocalist Hite, would go into the studio with blues legend John Lee Hooker in 1970 to record the acclaimed Hooker 'n' Heat album. With Wilson's high-flying harpwork - praised effusively by the blues legend - backing Hooker's deep vocals and blues-boogie guitarplay, the album would be the first of Hooker's to hit the Billboard pop charts, eventually rising to #73 in early 1971. Members of Canned Heat would later back Hooker on his acclaimed 1989 album The Healer.
The Lost Years
Shortly after the Hooker sessions, Al "Blind Owl" Wilson would die from an overdose of barbiturates that many in the band considered suicide, his death coming just weeks before those of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. Although he was initially replaced with former Moby Grape member Joel Scott Hill, Canned Heat would be thrown into chaos, and Hite would break up the band, to reform it later with drummer de la Parra.
The band would soldier on, releasing several albums through the end of the 1970s, as well as recording with artists like Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown and Memphis Slim...but its brief commercial peak was in its past, and the band made very little memorable music during this time.
Drummer de la Parra has admitted that the band began smuggling drugs from Mexico to earn some cash between dwindling show bookings, while Hite's excessive use of drugs and alcohol made it difficult to keep a steady line-up of musicians. Hite finally succumbed to his addictions, dying from a heart attack after experiencing a heroin overdose onstage in April 1981. Fito de la Parra, the band's last longstanding member, would take the reins of Canned Heat and bring the band into the subsequent decades with a modicum of success.
Canned Heat Today
Leading an ever-evolving Canned Heat line-up that, at times, included guitarists Walter Trout and Junior Watson; Henry Vestine, Larry Taylor, and Harvey Mandel would also be taken back into the fold during the ensuing years. Canned Heat continued to tour and record throughout the 1980s and '90s, and as blues music once again grew in popularity, the band found itself considered blues-rock elder statesmen. Canned Heat would be particularly revered in Europe and Australia, leading to lucrative festival appearances and further recording.
Tragedy continues to haunt Canned Heat, however, as volatile on-again/off-again guitarist Henry Vestine would die of cancer in Paris in 1997, and vocalist/harp-player Robert Lucas would OD in 2008. Fito de la Parra and Canned Heat carry on, releasing the acclaimed Boogie 2000 album in 2000, and Friends In The Can, recorded with guests like Taj Mahal and Corey Stevens as well as former members like Trout, Taylor, and Mandel in 2003. The band continues to be a popular festival draw in 2009, touring regularly and recording when they feel like it.
Recommended Albums: Unfortunately, much of Canned Heat's early catalog is available only as high-priced imports, but blues fans wanting an introductory taste of the band can enjoy the nineteen-track The Very Best Of Canned Heat, which includes several of the band's best-known songs as well as performances with John Lee Hooker and Little Richard. Of the band's later-day work, Friends in the Can not only features several significant guest performances, but captures Canned Heat's timeless boogie-rock sound.