The group has been noted for its own interpretations of blues material as well as for efforts to promote the interest in this type of music and its original artists. It was launched by two blues enthusiasts, Alan Wilson and Bob Hite, who took the name from Tommy Johnson's 1928 "Canned Heat Blues", a song about an alcoholic who had desperately turned to drinking Sterno, generically called "canned heat". After appearances at the Monterey and Woodstock festivals at the end of the 1960s, the band acquired worldwide fame with a lineup consisting of Bob Hite, vocals, Alan Wilson, guitar, harmonica and vocals, Henry Vestine (and later, Harvey Mandel) on lead guitar, Larry Taylor on bass, and Adolfo de la Parra on drums.
The music and attitude of Canned Heat afforded them a large following and established the band as one of the popular acts of the hippie era. Canned Heat appeared at most major musical events at the end of the 1960s and they were able to deliver on stage electrifying performances of blues standards and their own material and occasionally to indulge into lengthier 'psychedelic' solos. Two of their songs – "Going Up the Country" and "On the Road Again" – became international hits. "Going Up the Country" was a remake of the Henry Thomas song "Bull Doze Blues" recorded in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1927. "On the Road Again" was a cover version/re-working of the 1953 Floyd Jones song of the same name, which is reportedly based on the Tommy Johnson song "Big Road Blues" recorded in 1928.
Since the early 1970s, numerous personnel changes have occurred and today, in the fifth decade of the band's existence the band includes all three of the surviving classic lineup members: de la Parra (who has permanently remained in the band since first joining in 1967), Mandel, and Taylor. For much of the 1990s and 2000s, de la Parra was the only member from the band's 1960s lineup. He has written a book about the band's career. Larry Taylor, whose presence in the band has not been steady, is the other surviving member from the earliest lineups. Mandel, Walter Trout and Junior Watson are among the guitarists who gained fame for playing in later editions of the band. British-blues pioneer John Mayall has frequently found musicians for his band among former Canned Heat members.
Origins and early lineups
Canned Heat was started within the community of blues collectors. Bob Hite had been trading blues records since his early teens and his house in Topanga Canyon was a meeting place for people interested in music. In 1965 some blues devotees there decided to form a jug band and started rehearsals. The initial configuration comprised Bob Hite as vocalist, Alan Wilson on bottleneck guitar, Mike Perlowin on lead guitar, Stu Brotman on bass and Keith Sawyer on drums. Perlowin and Sawyer dropped out within a few days, so guitarist Kenny Edwards (a friend of Wilson) stepped in to replace Perlowin, and Ron Holmes agreed to sit in on drums until they could find a permanent drummer.
Another of Bob's friends, Vestine (who had been expelled from Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention for excessive drug use), asked if he could join the band and was accepted while keeping Edwards on temporarily. Soon Edwards departed (he went on to form the Stone Poneys with Linda Ronstadt) and at the same time Frank Cook came in to replace Holmes as their permanent drummer. Cook already had substantial professional experience, having performed with such jazz luminaries as bassist Charlie Haden, trumpeter Chet Baker, and pianist Elmo Hope and had also collaborated with black soul/pop artists such as Shirley Ellis and Dobie Gray.
Producer Johnny Otis recorded the band's first (unreleased) album in 1966 with the ensemble of Hite, Wilson, Cook, Vestine, and Brotman; but the record was not actually released until 1970 when it appeared as Vintage Heat, released by Janus Records. Otis ran the board for a dozen tracks, including two versions of "Rollin' and Tumblin'" (with and without harmonica), "Spoonful" by Willie Dixon, and "Louise" by John Lee Hooker all from his studio off of Vine Street in Los Angeles. Over a summer hiatus in 1966 Stuart Brotman effectively left Canned Heat after he had signed a contract for a long engagement in Fresno with an Armenian belly-dance revue. Canned Heat had contacted Brotman, touting a recording contract which had to be signed the next day, but Brotman was unable to make the signing on short notice. Brotman would go on to join the world-music band Kaleidoscope with David Lindley, replacing Chris Darrow. Replacing Brotman in Canned Heat was Mark Andes, who lasted only a couple of months before he returned to his former colleagues in the Red Roosters, who adopted the new name Spirits Rebellious, later shortened to Spirit.
After joining up with managers Skip Taylor and John Hartmann, Canned Heat finally found a permanent bassist in Larry Taylor, who joined in March 1967. He was a former member of The Moondogs and the brother of Ventures' drummer, Mel Taylor, and already had experience backing Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry in concert, and recording studio sessions for The Monkees.
In this format (Hite, Wilson, Vestine, Taylor, Cook) the band started recording in April 1967 for Liberty Records. "Rollin' and Tumblin'" backed with "Bullfrog Blues" became Canned Heat's first single. The first official album, Canned Heat, was released three months later in July 1967. All tracks were re-workings of older blues songs. The Los Angeles Free Press reported: "This group has it! They should do very well, both live and with their recordings." Canned Heat fared reasonably well commercially, reaching #76 on the Billboard chart.
Rise to fame and formation of the classic lineup
The first big live appearance of Canned Heat was at the Monterey Pop Festival on June 17, 1967. A picture of the band taken at the performance was featured on the cover of Down Beat Magazine where an article complimented their playing: "Technically, Vestine and Wilson are quite possibly the best two-guitar team in the world and Wilson has certainly become our finest white blues harmonica man. Together with powerhouse vocalist Bob Hite, they performed the country and Chicago blues idiom of the 1950s so skillfully and naturally that the question of which race the music belongs to becomes totally irrelevant." D.A. Pennebaker's documentary captured their rendition of "Rollin and Tumblin" and two other songs from the set, "Bullfrog Blues" and "Dust My Broom", found place later in a boxed CD set in 1992. Canned Heat is also included on an album called Early LA.
Canned Heat also began to garner their notoriety as "the bad boys of rock" for being jailed in Denver, Colorado after a Denver Police informant provided enough evidence for their arrest for drugs (an incident recalled in their song 'My Crime'). Band manager Skip Taylor was forced to obtain the $10,000 bail by selling off Canned Heat's publishing rights to Liberty Records President Al Bennett.
After the Denver incident, Frank Cook was replaced with de la Parra, who had been playing the drums in Bluesberry Jam (the band which evolved into Pacific Gas & Electric). As an official member of Canned Heat, de la Parra played his first gig on December 1, 1967, sharing top billing with the Doors at the Long Beach Auditorium. This began what de la Parra refers to as the classic and perhaps best known Canned Heat line-up, who together recorded some of the band's most famous and well-regarded songs. During this "classic" period, Skip Taylor and John Hartmann introduced the use of band member nicknames:
- Bob "The Bear" Hite
- Alan "Blind Owl" Wilson
- Henry "Sunflower" Vestine (and later Harvey "The Snake" Mandel)
- Larry "The Mole" Taylor
- Adolfo "Fito" de la Parra
Their second released album, Boogie with Canned Heat, included "On the Road Again", an updated version of a 1950s composition by Floyd Jones. "On the Road Again" became the band's break-out song and was a worldwide success, becoming a number one hit in most markets and finally put a blues song on the top charts. The album also included a twelve-minute version of "Fried Hockey Boogie", (credited to Larry Taylor, but rather obviously derived from John Lee Hooker's "Boogie Chillen" riff) allowed each member to stretch out on his instrument while establishing them with hippie ballroom audiences across America as the "kings of the boogie". Hite's "Amphetamine Annie" (a tune inspired by the drug abuse of an acquaintance), became one of their most enduring songs and one of the first "anti-drug" songs of the decade. Although not featured on the album's artwork, this was the first Canned Heat Album to have featured drummer de la Parra.
With this success Skip, John and new associate Gary Essert leased a Hollywood club they named the Kaleidoscope on Sunset Boulevard east of Vine in which Canned Heat essentially became the house band; hosting others such as Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, Buffalo Springfield and Sly and The Family Stone. Also in 1968, after playing before 80,000 at the first annual Newport Pop Festival in September, Canned Heat left for their first European tour. It entailed a month of concert performances and media engagements that included television appearances on the British show Top of the Pops. They also appeared on the German program Beat Club, where they lip-synched "On the Road Again" as it rose to number one in both countries and practically in all of Europe.
"Going Up The Country" and Woodstock
In October the band released their third album, Living the Blues, which included their best known song, "Going Up the Country". Wilson's incarnation of Henry Thomas's "Bull-Doze Blues" was almost a note-for-note copy of the original, down to Thomas's instrumental break on the quills which Jim Horn duplicated on flute. Wilson rewrote the lyrics with a simple message that caught the "back-to-nature" attitude of the late 1960s. The song went to #1 in 25 countries around the world (#11 on the U.S national chart) and would go on to become the unofficial theme song of the Woodstock Festival as captured in Michael Wadleigh's 1970 documentary. The album also included a 19-minute experimental track "Parthenogenesis", which was a nine-part sound collage of blues, ragas, jaw-harp sounds, guitar distortion and other electronic effects; all pulled together under the direction of manager/producer, Skip Taylor. Longer still is "Refried Boogie", clocking in at over 40 minutes, recorded live at the Kaleidoscope.
Also recorded live at the Kaleidoscope around this time was the album which would find later 1971 release with the deceptive title, Live At Topanga Corral (later renamed Live at the Kaleidoscope), under Wand Records because Liberty Records did not want to release a live album at the time and manager Skip Taylor did not want a lawsuit. The band would end 1968 in a big way at a New Year's show at the Shrine Auditorium, in Los Angeles, with Bob Hite riding a painted purple dayglo elephant to the stage.
In July 1969, just prior to Woodstock, Hallelujah, their fourth album was released. The Melody Maker wrote: "While less ambitious than some of their work, this is nonetheless an excellent blues-based album and they remain the most convincing of the white electric blues groups." The album contained mainly original compositions with lyrics relating to the band such as Wilson's "Time Was" and a few re-worked covers like "Sic 'em Pigs" (Bukka White's "Sic 'em Dogs") and the original "Canned Heat" by Tommy Johnson.
Within days of the album's release, Vestine left the group after an on-stage blow up at the Fillmore West between himself and Larry Taylor. The next night after Mike Bloomfield and Mandel jammed with Canned Heat, both were offered Vestine's spot in the band's line-up and Mandel accepted. The new lineup played two dates at the Fillmore before appearing at Woodstock in mid-August.
Arriving via helicopter at Woodstock, Canned Heat played their most famous set on the second day of the festival at sunset. The set included "Going Up the Country" which became the title track in the documentary, even though the band's performance was not shown. The song was included in the first (triple) Woodstock album; while the second album, Woodstock 2, contained "Woodstock Boogie". The expanded 25th Anniversary Collection added "Leaving This Town" to the band's collection of Woodstock performances and "A Change Is Gonna Come" was included on the director's cut of the documentary film; leaving only "Let's Work Together" to be released.
Material from their 1970 European tour provided the tracks for, Canned Heat '70 Concert Live In Europe, later retitled Live In Europe. It was a live album that combined tracks from different shows throughout the tour, but was put together in such a way as to resemble one continuous concert for the listener. Although the album garnered some critical acclaim and did well in the UK (peaking at #15), it had only limited commercial success in the U.S.; Returning from Europe in May 1970, an exhausted Larry Taylor left the band to join John Mayall (who had relocated to Laurel Canyon) and was followed by Mandel.