The blues has a proud tradition of younger players going out of their way to not just acknowledge but collaborate with genre’s reigning giants. Canned Heat set a fine example of that by parlaying its late 1960s crossover appeal to turn its audience on to one of the group’s deepest influences, John Lee Hooker.
So when Hooker decades later contacted Fito de la Parra about going on the road with him, the drummer didn’t ask “how much?" or "how long?" He just went and participated in the final concerts before Hooker died in June 2001 at his Bay Area home at age 83.
De la Parra recalling those events to me in an interview a few years back made it clear he lost more than a friend with Hooker's death. Canned Heat had not only toured and recorded with the blues legend over the years, but Hooker also provided the model for the band's blues-boogie sound.
"John Lee Hooker's music was the biggest influence in Canned Heat," de la Parra said. "We loved John Lee Hooker even before we met him, even before we knew him. I always thought he was the God of Boogie, as they called him in Spain one time."
Blues fans can expect Hooker to be present in spirit this weekend at the Emerald Cup, the world’s longest running outdoor organic cannabis competition. The musical lineup at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds also includes Jefferson Starship and Big Brother and the Holding Company.
Canned Heat’s durability is particularly sweet for de la Parra, who single-handedly kept the act together during the lean years in the 1970s and '80s. De la Parra acknowledges that when he joined in 1967 he appeared an unlikely candidate for leader.
"I was the punk, the young kid ... in many ways, I was the least important in the band," he said. "But to survive in a band you need to have more than just talent. You need to be a human being and deal with all sorts of problems.
"Somehow, as the time went by, I guess some of my qualities showed up besides just playing drums. I sort of shined. I can't really explain it."
There were other factors as well, most notably the deaths of frontmen Alan Wilson and Bob "Bear" Hite. It was Wilson (guitar) and Hite (vocals, harmonica) who transformed the Los Angeles jug band into a blues act. Along with Henry Vestine (guitar), Larry Taylor (bass) and Frank Cook (drums),
the group cut its self-titled debut in 1967. The album didn't sell well, but Canned Heat emerged as a critical favorite in an era when rock 'n' roll fans were being introduced to blues via the music of John Mayall's Bluesbreakers and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Canned Heat not only played the Monterey Pop Festival that year, but also went on to perform at both Woodstock and its English equivalent, the Isle of Wight.
With Cook's departure soon after the album's release, Canned Heat went looking for a drummer. They found him in de la Parra, a Mexico City native who had been turned on to blues in Southern California.
With the release of "Boogie with Canned Heat" (1967), the band entered its most creative period. Over the next three years, Canned Heat emerged as one of the world's most popular bands, scoring pop hits with "On the Road Again," "Going Up the Country" and "Let's Work Together." The songs helped introduce a new generation to blues.
"That's one of the most important aspects to this band," de la Parra said, "the fact that Canned Heat ... made blues palatable for white audiences. We actually accomplished that dream."
But Canned Heat would live the blues as much as sing about it. In late 1970, Wilson – who was partially blind and prone to depression – died of a drug overdose. As the decade progressed and music industry changed, the band's commercial fortunes faltered, and members began to leave. That disappointment fueled the excesses that led to Hite's death onstage in Los Angeles in 1981. Vestine died after a Paris show in 1997.
It was when the band began disintegrating that de la Parra stepped in.
"We were starting to go down in popularity, and that was affecting Bob," de la Parra said. "He just could not be a good leader. He was extremely talented and he was a wonderful person, but he didn't have a certain business savvy."
It's more than that, however. De la Parra notes that, as an immigrant to the United States, he prized more the opportunities that Canned Heat presented.
"I always thought, this is my train, my direction in this life, and make the best of it," he said. "I just never left.”
Likewise, Canned Heat's classic sound endures. The band's songs have turned up in movies from "Flashback" to "Forrest Gump" and been used to sell products from Levi's to 7-Up. Its vintage albums have been repackaged for the digital era, including its Hooker collaboration "Hooker 'n' Heat" (1971). Indeed, Canned Heat's ups and downs only serve to identify the band more with the blues tradition Hooker represented.
"We've gone from a time when we were very famous ... (to a time) when we couldn't get a gig if we paid for it," de la Parra said. "I didn't really let it affect me and I just continued trucking along.”
Want to keep up with the best in Bay Area jazz and blues?
Subscribe to us: Have our jazz and blues Examiner columns sent to your inbox. Click the SUBSCRIBE button on this page. It's free. (And we won't spam you or give out your information.) Bookmark us: http://www.examiner.com/jazz-music-in-oakland/brian-mccoy. CONTACT ME FOR YOUR JAZZ AND ARTS GRANT WRITING NEEDS