Two and a half months after the Woodstock Festival where Canned Heat was one of the headline groups they appeared on Halloween 1969 at the Eastown theater in Detroit, Michigan. I was in love with Henry Vestine’s guitar playing and wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to see him perform at one of my favorite venues. I didn’t attend “Woodstock” because of a friend’s wedding that weekend so I didn’t know that Vestine quit the band before the festival and was replaced by Harvey Mandel who was also an excellent guitarist. Four years later I was living in L.A. and working out at Bill Pearl’s Pasadena Health club when Harvey Mandel became my weightlifting partner when we spotted each other on the bench press. Fast forward to Fall 1997 and I’m living in Salem, Oregon and hanging out with guitarist John Fahey who told me that his childhood friend Henry Vestine just died and then he tells me the story of how he helped put together Canned Heat.
Fahey, Henry Vestine, Alan Wilson, and Bob Hite were all avid 78rpm record collectors, musicologists, and historians that religiously studied the blues. Blues scholars and musicians Larry Taylor on bass and Adolfo “Fito” de la Parra on drums filled out the rhythm section and completed the band’s lineup. They took their name from Tommy Johnson’s 1928 recording “Canned Heat Blues” that described a cheap way of getting drunk by using an alcohol based heating product called “Sterno,” during the depression. Over its 55 year history Canned Heat released over 50 albums including studio, live, collaborations, and compilations along with helping to revive the careers and notoriety of forgotten bluesmen like Skip James, Johnny Shines, and Robert Johnson. Drummer Adolfo “Fito” de la Parra is the only surviving member of the band and still leads it as it continues its historic legacy into the post COVID twenty-first century.
10. “Long Way From L.A.”
“Long Way From L.A.” appears on Historical Figures and Ancient Heads released in 1971. It was the first album that was released after the Death of Alan Wilson and the absence of original bassist Larry Taylor. The band was now comprised of Bob Hite on vocals, Adolfo “Fito” de la Parra on drums and the return of Henry Vestine on guitar along with the addition of Joe Scott Hill on rhythm guitar along with Antonio de la Barreda on bass. The album title was a hats off to the hippie movement and the reference to “ancient heads” was a euphemism that was commonly used to refer to drug users. If you were a head you at least smoked pot and you were considered cool. The song begins with the line “Sniffin’ cocaine way down on Malibu beach” and ends with the “things go better with Coke” jingle.
9. “Poor Moon”
“Poor Moon” was recorded on July 2, 1969 and was released as a 45 rpm single. It was the same recording session that produced the Hallelujah album but it wasn’t until 2001 that it was included as a bonus track on updated CD releases. The song was written by Alan Wilson who also sang lead on the recording. The song is distinctly different in delivery than normal and delivers an ecological message.
8. “Dust My Broom”
“Dust My Broom” appeared on “Canned Heat’s” 1967 eponymous debut album that was recorded just after the Monterey Pop Festival and was a cover of a song originally titled “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom.” It was recorded by Robert Johnson in 1936 and later by Elmore James in 1951. The melody of the song was traditional and common but Johnson’s complex finger picking made it uniquely his own. It’s believed that he was inspired by earlier recordings that he borrowed lyrics from, which has always been common with the blues. Jack Kelly’s “Believe I’ll Go Back Home” and Carl Rafferty’s “Mr. Carl’s Blues” contain similar lyrics with lines like “I believe I’ll dust my broom” and “I’m going to call up China, see if my baby’s over there.”
7. “Amphetamine Annie”
“Amphetamine Annie” is a classic song about the scourge of the hippies, “speed,” written by Canned Heat and appearing on Boogie With Canned Heat in 1968. Using a hallucinogenic like marijuana, LSD, mescaline, psilocybin or peyote was cool but when you crossed the line and used hard drugs like methamphetamines and heroin it was frowned upon in the hippie community. Some people criticized the band of hypocrisy since members were known to use drugs but it was a common subject for blues bands to sing about since that was part of the blues.
If there ever was a composition that reflected the influence of entheogenic drugs in its inspiration it would be “Parthenogenesis.” The word itself is the biological term that refers to asexual reproduction but the convoluted path that the cut takes is a nineteen minute “tour de force.” It appears on their third album Living the Blues and uses over eighty percent of one side of the two vinyl discs. It’s an experimental cut that opens with a drone that was produced under the direction of their manager, Skip Taylor. The selection is comprised of nine parts that include multiple genres from blues to raga and honky-tonk along with electronic effects. The album became the first successful double album after its release in 1968.
5. “ Let’s Work Together”
“Let’s Work Together” was credited as a cover originally written and recorded by Wilbert Harrison as an R&B song titled “Let’s Stick Together” in 1962. Harrison had a #1 hit a decade earlier with his own cover of “Kansas City” by Leiber and Stoller. The band recorded it on Future Blues, the fifth and last album to have the lineup that was the classic Canned Heat. After the album was recorded and shortly before it was released in August 1970, Harvey Mandel and Larry Taylor left the band and joined John Mayall’s “Blues Breakers.” Then in September, Al Wilson accidentally overdosed on barbituates and became the second member of the “27 club” over a year after Brian Jones and two weeks before Jimi Hendrix.
4. “Rollin & Tumblin’”
“Rollin & Tumblin’” was performed at Canned Heat’s landmark performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 when it initiated San Francisco’s “Summer of Love.” It first appeared on their eponymous debut album released soon after the festival in July 1967. It was credited as a cover of the original 1929 recording by Hambone Willie Winter that was later popularized by Muddy Waters. In 1970 it appeared on the Vintage album in two versions, one with and one without Al Wilson singing and playing harmonica.
3. “On the Road Again”
Boogie With Canned Heat was Canned Heat’s second and most commercially successful album that was released in 1968 between their killer performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 and their equally impressive set at Woodstock in 1969. Not to be confused with Willie Nelson’s 1980 Country & Western hit song with the same name the lyrics for “On the Road Again” were adapted by Al Wilson from the one’s penned by Floyd Jones in 1953. Jones reshaped Tommy Johnson’s lyrics from his 1928 recording of “Big Road Blues.” Wilson’s eerie sounding falsetto voice sings “And my dear mother left me when I was quite young” to a new melody using a tambura to create the psychedelic sound. The band never collected a penny on royalties for the song because they sold the rights to their music for bail money to get out of jail when they were busted for drugs in Denver in 1967.
2. “Fried Hockey Boogie”
John Lee Hooker was the “father of Boogie,” which Canned Heat adopted as one of their favorite musical vehicles. In 1971 a collaboration with John Lee Hooker appeared that was recorded before Al Wilson’s demise. “Fried Hockey Boogie” appeared on 1968’s Boogie With Canned Heat and was written by Larry Taylor. At over 11 minutes long it features solos from all the band members and was the reason why some hippies left side two on the turntable in repeat mode while tripping on acid.
1. “Going Up the Country”
“Going Up the Country” became the theme song of the Woodstock festival after it was used in the soundtrack of the film when it was released in 1970. The song was from their third album Living the Blues, which was released in 1968 as a double album. It peaked at #19 in 1969 on Billboard’s Hot 100 and became their biggest hit. Henry Thomas’s 1928 release “Bulldozer Blues” was plagiarized nearly note for note with re-written lyrics and unfortunately, the cutoff date for “Public Domain” was 1926 just two years earlier.