Living the Blues with Canned Heat

By Lorraine Kay

 Drummer Fito de la Parra and bassist Larry Taylor are all that remains of the original 5 members of the Woodstock Generation Blues Band known as Canned Heat. Taylor joins the band now and again on stage and on tour, but De la Parra has been the drummer and superglue that has held the band together for nearly 40 years and kept it going through countless personnel changes after the untimely deaths of three of the original five members. But now, after 38 years of recording music de la Parra isn’t just playing the music, he’s talking about it.

Original Drummer Fito de la parra from 2009 concert in Tehachapi, CA

Recently friends of de la Parra’s T.W. and Marlane McGarry talked him into telling his story about the band and life on the road. So together they wrote, “Living the Blues – Canned Heat’s Story of Music, Drugs, Death, Sex and Survival.” Without apologizing for the recklessness and rowdiness of the reputation of the bad boys of the blues, this book tells the story of the band from its beginnings’ in 1966 to the seasoned band that still rocks stages all over the world. It explores the foundation of the band from its founders, blues historians and record collectors Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson and Bob “The Bear” Hite, both whose untimely deaths all but stopped the blues and Henry “The Sunflower” Vestine, another ardent record collector capable of fretboard fireworks at a moment’s notice who also left this world too early and Larry “The Mole” Taylor on bass who still joins the band on occasion and is expected to participate in a future reunion version of the band.

In the book, de la Parra does not hold back at all as he tells about the abuses of he and his band mates as they soared to the top of the charts and later plummeted to obscurity in the world of music. He tells how they created their Top-40 blues-rock songs like “On The Road Again,” “Let’s Work Together,” and “Going Up The Country,” from the 60s, songs still loved by the fans, became rock anthems throughout the world with the latter being adopted as the unofficial theme song for the film Woodstock.  But he also painstakingly tells how he and the band struggled to regain their place on the charts and in the hearts of the fans, all the while continuing to abuse drugs, alcohol and wild, wild women, but never abandoning the music they loved.

Even from the very beginning, de la Parra tells how the band’s commitment to purity in their music and the true blues art form drove them at times to near madness, striving for that perfection. In the words of de la Parra “We are the apostles of the Boogie.” But it was because of that commitment and unwillingness to compromise that they were able to create music that raised above all the rest and has enabled them to still draw a crowd, worldwide.

“When we started this band,” says Fito, “we never thought we were going to become very popular… it just happened.  It was just a very natural thing.  It happened along with the 60s renaissance of music – part of an explosion that happened in the late 60s and we were a part of it.”

“Canned heat was never meant to be a pop band,” he continued. “We got lucky that we recorded a type of music that we did and it was accepted and we managed to put three blues oriented singles on the charts worldwide and that’ s what made the band very famous. But we never really even expected that to happen. And that has been pretty much our policy.”

“We do music that we like,” he explains, “and that makes us feel good.  But we don’t do music only thinking that it’s going to sell or it’s not going to sell. We do it because we like it. We believe if we like it, they are going to like it too. So pretty much we play for our fans now.  We have a strong fan base all over the world.”

“Besides,” he continued, “it’s not like we are scratching to jump in some kind of new trend or something.  It would be stupid for a band this old to try to be trendy.  It’s foolish.  It is better to stay authentic and to deliver a good punch with our music. You could go crazy if you are only trying to be famous.  You have to just be a musician. You have to enjoy music for music’s sake and then you will never be disappointed.”

“Fito”, which is short for Adolfito, tells in his book how he came to America from Mexico, seeking an opportunity to play the blues as he had heard it on records his sister brought from the United States. Already a successful musician in Mexico, his ambition drove him north to play the music he had grown to love. He relates his struggles with immigration and deportation in the early days, never giving up hope of playing the blues in America. As luck would have it, shortly after returning to America with his new American bride in the 60s, be was given the opportunity to play with a local blues band in Topanga Canyon known as Canned Heat.  The rowdy bad boys of the blues liked his style and eventually asked him to join the band and the rest is history.

For Fito, who was a somewhat straight-laced young man from a well-to-do Mexican family when he joined Canned Heat, the wild life of Canned Heat seemed somewhat uncomfortable and otherworldly. Not so interested in getting high on illegal drugs just to play and endless nights of sex and partying just to have a good time and all the other abuses of his band mates, Fito mentions more than once that he wished they could have just focused on the music.  For him that was what it was all about, the music. Even though the entire band was fixated on delivering a pure blues product, Fito was concerned that all the abuses would be their undoing, and how nearly right he was.

On the third of September in 1970, the band was shattered by the suicide of Alan Wilson. His death sparked reconstruction within the group and member changes have continued throughout the next three and a half decades. On April 5th, 1981, vocalist, Bob “the Bear” Hite, collapsed from a drug overdose during a concert at the Palomino Club in Los Angeles, dying later that night of a heart attack, and on October 20th, 1997, Henry Vestine died in Paris, France from lung cancer and other related respiratory illnesses following the final gig of a European tour.

Now after all the years, the band is still a favorite of biker events, closely tied to the Hells Angels and other biker clubs from the band’s early days ever promising to preserve the integrity of the original sound and energy of the band and its music. Even though much of their public thought they had just gone away in the 70s, the band has never disbanded and has never stopped performing or recording in their 38 year history, having recorded 38 albums in that time. Although, due to the untimely deaths of three of its original members, there have been many personnel changes over the years, the music has remained the same thanks to Fito and his faithfulness to the vision of the original band.

“Living the Blues” also, tells about the many changes the band has gone through in personnel, always looking for the right people to maintain the integrity and vision of the music. “Canned Heat is more than just a nostalgic 60s band. Number one we are also a blues band. So we fit in the blues festivals and all that and we’re also a biker band. So a lot of biker festivals and biker reunions and rallies hire Canned Heat. Canned Heat has played more biker festivals than any band on earth,” shares de la Parra. “So you see we appeal to those three elements.  We’re not just a nostalgia thing. And I’m glad about that because -to be honest with you – I see some of my colleges going on the stage and playing the same hits every night and I almost feel sorry for them – because they have to go out there and play everything the same every night. At least we don’t.  We always keep the challenge to bring new music. And that’s hard because people sometimes don’t want to hear that. Remember what Stravinsky said – he said, “People don’t know what they like, they like what they know.” You have to sort of educate the people.  Turn them on to new things.

Meeting de la Parra today, or even speaking to him on the telephone, hardly conjures up the picture of a drugged out blues drummer from the hippy generation. The well educated (Fito has a degree in psychology) musician looks and sounds more like a successful businessman when you meet him, not someone you would pick out of a crowd to be a 60s blues musician. An avid history buff, especially when it comes to military history, the drummer relates the history of Canned Heat with textbook clarity but with a lot of color and flavor thrown in and more than it’s share of heartache and frustration at the loss of close friends. He said, thinking about his life in Canned Heat and all the wonderful musicians he has had the opportunity to know and play with, “Musicians don’t retire. They just die,” and in this case it is true.

On a personal note, for Fito he just loves playing. We say the music is free. What we charge for is to get there. For touring and hotels and travel. At this point in my life – I hate traveling – but I still love playing music. I love entertaining people so I will go through the discomfort and inconvenience of traveling and leaving my home to entertain, to get off, to sweat on stage.  I like that. I think that keeps me young in a way.”

LIVING THE BLUES“, now in its third version, is available through the band’s website at www.cannedheatmusic.com and at most popular book outlets. And it truly is the complete and outrageous Canned Heat story of “Music, Drugs, Death, Sex and Survival” along with over 100 captivating pictures from their past. So I recommend wholeheartedly that if you are a music lover or just like to read about the people who make the music – read this one. And, as The Bear would say: “Don’t Forget To Boogie!”