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The blues will be there forever: an interview with Fito de la Parra

Canned Heat is a band that not only became the unofficial voice of Woodstock, but also put the blues at the top of the charts. By phone, drummer Fito de la Parra discussed his book, his experience at Woodstock, and the role Canned Heat played in reviving the careers of some legendary blues musicians.

See Canned Heat at the Simi Valley Cajun & Blues Festival
Courtesy of Conqueroo

So much of Woodstock has become mythology. What was your experience like playing Woodstock, and what is your favorite memory of it?

There are several favorite memories. I have to pitch my book (Livin' the Blues). The first chapter of my book has the complete Woodstock story with details. Anybody who wants to know exactly what happened in my experience at Woodstock should read the book. That's why I decided to write that part of the book because of that question. That's the question I get asked the most. Woodstock was no myth. It was real. A lot of the things that you hear about it are real. The fact that two people were born, three people died. The fact that we created sort of a nation there for a few days. All of those things happened.

I'll tell you one funny tale because it involves journalists like yourself. When we finally got to the airport, we were supposed to get a helicopter to take us to the stage. We'd already been trying to get to the site for a couple of hours. We're tired, we're in a bad mood. We see this helicopter full of your colleagues with cameras and all that going into the helicopter. We jumped after them and Big Bear Bob Hite, our frontman, 300-pound Big Bear, he goes to the guys and says, "What are you guys doing?"
The journalists say, "We're going to Woodstock. We're going to report the news."
He goes and grabs one of them, pulls him out of the helicopter, and says, "We are going to MAKE the news!"

What is the key to the longevity of Canned Heat?

I have to say that one of the reasons is myself. I kept it going all this time because I always found a lot of ability and honesty in this band. I came as an immigrant. I joined the band when I was 20 years old. That was my train. When you're at the train station and you see the trains go by, you have to jump on one of them. Canned Heat was the answer. It was one of the great things - if not the greatest thing - that happened in my life. That's why I decided to keep it going despite the great tragedy. This band has been very brilliant, but it has also been very tragic. You have to look at the situation in a way like what band has lasted 45 years without some losses? What family doesn't have that? I still see a lot of honesty in the music we play - our love for music and our love for performing.

After my audition, Skip Taylor - the manager - asked, "Do you want to join the band?" I was already involved in blues music, but I looked at him and said, "I was born to play in Canned Heat." That was a good answer that got me the job. I kept going until now.

You mentioned your love for the blues. What were some artists you listened to that drew you to the blues?

I started listening to the blues with Jimmy Reed. I always recommend that if you want to turn someone on to the blues, Jimmy Reed is one of the first avenues to take. He's so simple, primitive, and wonderful. But I was already a professional drummer. I started playing when I was 13 years old. By the time I was 14 or 15, I already had record contracts and was in some of the most famous bands over there. We were copycats of American music, playing the top 40 stuff. Late at night, we would get the Wolfman Jack show and some other stuff that came from the northern Mexican stations. That's when I started getting turned on to the blues. Besides, I met this American girl and she gave me my first Jimmy Reed record and my first Ray Charles record, and James Brown. Once I got into the blues in Meixco, I never wanted to play pop or pop-rock again. Thank God I haven't done it since.

Then I came to the US and I met these guys who were as crazy about the music as me. Not only that, they were experts at musicology. Bob Hite, Alan Wilson, Henry Vestine - the three of them had big record collections and an amazing amount of musical knowledge. It was wonderful for me to meet these people and we all loved the same kind of music. We never expected to be famous. That was never the purpose of this band. We wanted to make something that was important. We happened to have hit records, but it wasn't like now where that's all they think about. That was not our thing. We became popular because we had integrity.

I read on the website about how the band found Sunnyland Slim driving a cab and Skip James in a hospital.

That was part of the revival of the old masters that Canned Heat had a lot to do with. Henry Vestine took a trip to the south and rediscovered those guys. Alan Wilson rediscovered Son House. One of the two was so sick with alcoholism that he didn't even remember his own songs. Before we took him to the Newport Festival, Alan had to sit down with him and teach him his own songs. I think this was Son House. To make the record clear, we had a lot to do with the recognition of Son House, Skip James, and then later Albert Collins and John Lee Hooker. Those are four people that we had a lot to do with them getting their proper recognition.

I know you were already well established when you played with Albert Collins and John Lee Hooker, but what was it like playing with them, and what did you learn from playing with them?

We learned not only from playing with them, but from listening to their records. I became very close friends with Hooker. We learned about life, their philosophies, and their way of looking at things. With Albert Collins, we didn't play too much with him. We helped him with his career. We brought him to Los Angeles and introduced him to Al Bennett. We recommended that he get out of Texas. When we saw him in Texas, he was playing at a small club in Houston called the Ponderosa Club. It had about 10 tables and maybe five of them were occupied. This great guitar player is playing in a place where no one really cared. We brought him to the west coast, and got him to a point where he became recognized. That's what he deserved. We found John Lee Hooker at an airport in Portland. He was picking up his guitar. We ran towards him. We were so excited. We were the groupies. We told him, "John, we have always loved your music, and we admire you." He turned and said, "Who are you." We said, "We're Canned Heat." He says, "Canned Heat. I like the way you boys boogie." He knew about us, and of course we knew about him. That's how the relationship started. It ended up with us doing three records together: Hooker 'n Heat, live Hooker 'n Heat. We also played on his best-selling album The Heater.

It's great to hear these stories and how important blues history is to you.

The blues is never going to be as big as some people would like it to be. It's not going to be a mainstream thing or a pop thing. The blues has already reached its climax, and it will be there forever. That's what we wanted. We wanted blues to be recognized as a true American art form just like jazz was. In the 60s, for a band of white musicians to play blues, people were scared. The blues was accepted, but not really that popular. Our mission and our desire was to propagate the blues throughout the world and to make it palatable for white audiences. I think we did a very good job of that.

"On the Road Again" we did in a Mississippi style. "Goin' Up the Country" was inspired by a Texas singer. It was Top 5 worldwide. Then we did "Let's Work Together," which was written by Wilbur Harrison, and again it became another Top 5 record. Putting blues music on the top of the pops - we helped propagate the blues. Now, as you see with the Simi Valley Cajun & Blues Festival, there are all sorts of blues societies, blues bands, blues festivals, blues cruises. That is wonderful even if it has been politicized. Sometimes it's not as friendly as it should be. But it's a real happening thing. Now that we're in our 60s, we see the blues being recognized all over the world.

What would you be doing if you weren't making music?

I have a Bachelors Degree in Humanities. I would probably be a psychologist or a philosopher or something. That would be my thing. I got this degree because my father always insisted that I get an education and not depend on music. At the same time, he was the one that took me to see all these movies about Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa, and Glenn Miller. He was crazy about swing music and about American music in general. I got myself in education. I got help from my teachers, who recognized my talent as a drummer and pretty much passed me and gave me a degree even if I wasn't that good at it. I was already working late nights and I would go to sleep in the classroom. They let me go to sleep because they figured I would be a drummer and they'd help me out with my father. That's a funny tale, and I also talk about it in my book. It's funny that my teachers saw my talent and helped me out to get my father off my back.

Fito de la Parra's book Livin' the Blues is the complete story of Canned Heat and is available on the Canned Heat website (cannedheatmusic.com). Canned Heat plays the Simi Valley Cajun & Blues Festival on Saturday 24 May.