Heroes of Woodstock; A Sit-down with Canned Heat

By Stephen Wilt

 

It was a night that would go on to change not only his life but a generation of music fans as 21-year drummer Adolfo de la Parra stepped into the Magic Mushroom November 20, 1967, in Studio City, CA, to perform with his boogie blues band, Bluesberry Jam.

“That’s one of the first bands I had the privilege of playing with when I recently arrived in the United States,” Parra reminisced on what would become one of the most important nights of his life. “It was a wonderful little band, we had an amazing singer, and a great guitar player called Ted Green which became quite a legend later on,” Fito added.

 

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Parra and Bob Hite 

The Magic Mushroom which was home to The Firesign Theater Troup as well as frequented by Iron Butterfly, Taj Mahal, Clearlight and psychedelic rock stars, billed up and coming jam band Canned heat with Bluesberry Jam as a Monday night Blues Jam. In a bit of a rut, newly joined Manager Skip Taylor asked Parra to audition the next day as the drummer for Canned Heat to replace Frank Cook as the band was hitting a rocky point in their career.

 

“That is the band we were playing with when I auditioned for the drumming part in Canned Heat,” Parra noted about Bluesberry Jam. “The managers of canned heat, I guess the band as well was already talking about replacing Frank Cook, the original drummer,” Fito added. “And then they came to see me at a place called the Tom Cat Club, then they booked a gig with Canned Heat and Bluesberry Jam for the band to be able to see me play and make up their minds.”

Parra remembers quite fondly that night as although Canned Heat remained undiscovered, Parra knew the opportunity to play with seasoned musicians and musicologists was a chance he couldn’t pass up.

“It was a wonderful night, the Magic Mushroom, one of those old hippie psychedelic places where people used to go sing, dance and have a good time,” Parra recalled on the night. “We played together, Bluesberry Jam opened for Canned Heat, and Canned Heat wasn’t doing that great at the time, they just got out of jail, and I guess they weren’t that good, Bluesberry Jam was a better band, that particular night” he added.

Although Blueberry Jam’s career was short-lived, their impact on the psychedelic blues scene was impeccable, with various musicians spending time in the band, including Frank Cook who Parra replaced in Canned Heat.

“Next, at three o’clock in the morning they called me up and they asked me if I wanted to come audition just by myself with the band, and of course I said yes. I stayed up all night just thinking to myself, “My God!” I’m going to audition for this great band.” What would become their “Classic” lineup was then formed as Parra joined, Bob Hite, Henry Vestine, Larry Taylor and Alan Wilson.

Parra explains that Canned Heat was not famous at the time by any means, but added, “They were a great blues band and the West Coast answer to Paul Butterfield in Chicago and John Mayall in England.” Even though they were not famous nor making money at the time, this left the young drummer quite thrilled to be auditioning for them at the time.

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Canned Heat Classic Lineup ’60s 

When the next day came by, Parra headed to the audition knowing they had already seen him play and was welcomed fondly into Canned Heat.

It would later come to Parra’s attention that a key possession he had on him at the time may have been the key to entering Canned Heat. “On my way to the audition, I stopped at the record store and I bought a Jr. Wells and Buddy Guy album, “Live in Pepper’s Lounge,” Parra remembered on recalling a conversation with Bob Hite. “It was one of those southside Chicago live records, and I had that record underneath my arms when I went to see the guys and auditioned. I didn’t know they were musicologists, blues experts, and record collectors themselves,” he went on to explain, “one thing that Bob Hite told me later when we were alone was, “I’ve seen you play already the night before, but when I opened the door the next day and say you with that record under your arm, I said to myself this is the drummer for Canned Heat.”

Not only did an old blues album secure his place drumming for Canned Heat, but he remains in his massive record collection to this day. Parra still avidly collects records and music memorabilia including the few records he owned since he was a child growing up in Mexico City. Some of his most prized albums include his original Little Richard Album that his father gave him on his thirteenth birthday, and the famous yellow vinyl titled, “Here is Little Richard.” “Those were my roots,” Parra exclaimed, “Very similar to any other kid who grew up in the U.S.”

The name, Canned Heat, has a much heavier meaning than most ordinary fans may be aware of. Parra recalls the times of the destitute consuming a beverage, Canned Heat, that left some dead and others sickly. “During prohibition, the poor people of the south white or black used to buy Sterno cans what was canned heat,” Parra told. “It was industrial alcohol that they used in the hotels and the restaurants to keep the food warm. They would buy the cans and squeeze the industrial alcohol with a handkerchief and mix it with Coca Cola or Orange Crush and drink it. They caught a real good buzz on that but, it was a very dangerous thing to do,” he added.

This practice oftentimes left people blind or dead, causing a redesign of the can as well as bootleg liquor in its place. “Canned Heat was the drink of the despite,” Parra added. Although Sterno cans are still in use today, the drink is gone as more lax liquor laws formed and ingredients were changed.

 

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Sterno Canned Heat Original Can

Although the drink is forgotten, the name went on to outlive the test of time. Parra describes the name as one of the greatest blues names anyone could have. “Even if my band hadn’t of said it, right now a brand-new band would come out and call themselves, Canned Heat,” Parra noted on the unique name. “It still would be a fantastic name, it’s a great name for a band to have,” he added.

 

It was August 15, 1969, however that would take Canned Heat from an underground boogie blues band to a household name. Days before performing a headline show at what would become to be known as the cultural event of the century, Woodstock, Canned Heat was in turmoil and minutes away from calling it quits. It was a fight at the Filmore West between bassist Larry Taylor and Henry Vestine that left Parra in his dressing room refusing to perform at Woodstock contemplating the end of his career.

“I was very upset,” said Parra, “Canned Heat was the best thing ever happened in my life. I could see it disintegrating within itself already after just two years.” Parra’s feeling was shared between Hite as well as Wilson not being able to understand how such a powerful union of musicians could fall apart in front of their eyes.

“For something as stupid as Henry getting too loaded and Larry getting intolerant about it, the band started falling apart,” Parra noted. “Right before Woodstock, we hired Harvey Mandel. The night of the fight Mike Bloomfield was there, and Harvey Mandel was there and when Henry quite the band we invited Mike Bloomfield to sit in with us, and we offered him the gig. But he said he was tired of being on the road, sick of traveling so the next set we invited Harvey who was such a great guitar player and accepted the offer and stayed with Canned Heat.”

Mandel, a profound psychedelic guitarist of the time had already made a career for himself before joining Canned Heat, but his fit within the band turned into a union that would last decades. Although not considered their classic lineup, Mandel would join the band granting him into a rare club considered the heroes of Woodstock.

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Parra in Studio mid-’60s 

Parra’s thoughts on the band were that they were unplayable and in shambles just days before playing the festival. “We didn’t have time to rehearse or to do anything,” said Parra. Vestine’s departure just three days before the festival left one gig before Woodstock and the exhausting travels were too much for the blues group.

“I didn’t know what Woodstock was, what it meant, and I didn’t want to go,” Parra recalled. “My manager physically wrestled me out of bed. He got a copy of my room key went into my room and started ragging with me, “Come on Fito! Turn the Radio on! This is going to be the biggest gig you’ve ever played. There are a half of million people out there!” Barely waking up I thought, ah, you know, I didn’t care and just didn’t want to go.”

The persistent work of manager Skip Taylor convinced Parra to get dressed grab his bag and lucky towel, and off they went. At the time not the band nor the fans realized that they would be entering the festival of its time. Woodstock not only defined a generation but still is glorified half a century later.

It’s one story that Parra recalls about the event that stands out to the rest. “There was a little airport in Whitehills NY,” Parra reminisced. “We were just laying there on the asphalt hoping someone would come to get us and take us to the festival, and we see a Helicopter that says press on the side. There were a couple of kids running to the helicopter with their cameras so we go running after them and Bob Hite and all 300lbs of him grabs the kid and says, “Where do you think you’re going?” the kid responded they’re going to report the news. Bob grabbed him by the neck pulling him from the helicopter and said, “No you’re not, we’re going to make the news.”

 

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Canned Heat Live at Woodstock 1969

Leaving the two men from the press Canned Heat with the help of Hite flew over the half-million in attendance making their time slot. “No one wanted to get in a fight with five dangerous hippies, so they just let us go,” Parra said. “Three of the guys took LSD and it was starting to kick in, but I didn’t, and Larry didn’t. But flying up there, I couldn’t believe this was the gig I didn’t want to play.”

 

The band soon realized this was not only the biggest festival ever but the largest performance they would ever have in their life. Woodstock may have perhaps healed the band, allowing all their negative feelings to drift away and for the first time, the excitement of the future was all they could think about. Canned Heat, priding itself as one of the loudest live bands, cared less about hearing themselves but played to reach the people.

“1969 we claimed to be one of the loudest most violent bands, if not the loudest band,” said Parra. “It was the perfect band for festivals.” Although Woodstock might have been one of the most famous festivals, Parra noted that Canned Heat played every major festival of the time. Noting that even that same week and year, the band played multiple performances spanning the globe. “There was the Atlanta Pop Festival, Atlantic City Pop Festival, the Texas Pop Festival, in England there was the Isle of White, Bath Pop Festival, Stomping Ground in the Netherlands, and Woodstock was the most important one but not the only one,” said Parra.

What was supposed to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Woodstock at Walkins Glen, NY fell into shambles as Canned Heat was set to Headline as one of the original acts. “We had been communicating with Michael Lang, and following along with everyone, but the thing just fell apart,” noted Parra. “They just got too ambitious, too greedy. They had 90 acts, which I consider outrageous and obnoxious. And of course, they didn’t get the permits.”

What was set to be the 50th weekend anniversary turned into a miscommunicated mess, that founding promoter Lang just wouldn’t let go. From changing venues to ultimately trying to produce a free show, Woodstock 50 became a running joke between music fanatics and distant memory for all those wishing to attend.

“They hired very expensive acts,” Parra commented on the festivals downward spiral. “Besides us, and some of the other classic Woodstock acts, they hired Jay-Z, Miley Cyrus, two of the biggest pop acts of the time. They didn’t need to do that. Especially if we are talking about Woodstock, these people didn’t even have anything to do with Woodstock.”

Parra, as well as many fans, believed the festival was overbooking for something that would naturally draw a crowd. The idea of the original festival shutting down an entire road system much as it did in 1969 was a major theorized idea of why it was so hard to obtain permits for such an event.

Although disappointed it didn’t happen Parra emphasized there was nothing, he or the band could have done to change the outcome of Woodstock 50. He fondly keeps the memories of the original festival close to heart and as a reminder that things have a habit of working out quite nicely if given the chance. One thing Parra emphasizes is that no matter what anniversary there will never be anything quite like the original.

Canned heat made a rare appearance to the original festival site on September 13, 2019, in Bethel NY. Although it wasn’t the first time the group has been back, Parra notes how amazing the feeling is to stand on such hollow ground. “I saw the plaque that has the name of the band, and it was a very nostalgic moment,” said Parra. “It touched my heart.”

A half-decade after Woodstock, and over 60 years on the road, the band continues to play on despite tragedy, venue size, and traveling conditions. “We love playing the music,” Parra notes. “The traveling has become worse and worse as time goes by.” What was once a carefree cross country trip or packing the van to drive downstate has turned into commercialized airlines and restrictions that leave musicians with no desire to continue.

“Not only is it because we are getting older and frailer, but it’s the problems that come with traveling,” said Parra. “The airline industry and the traveling industry, in general, have gotten greedy and worse and worse as time goes by.”

The uncomforted of long-distance travel is something that lies heavy on Parra’s mind. From the smaller seating on aircraft to the attitudes of employees and the skyrocketing prices, the band travels less each year and if they do it’s for not very long. “It’s a horrible thing to be dealing with, a real nightmare,” commented Parra. “The music if for free, we just really love to play it, what we charge for is to get there.”

Despite the travel conditions, Canned Heat continues to tour wowing fans city after city. Their recent stop in Bethel and Buffalo, NY was the kickoff to a short leg tour eventually leading them across the world to Germany.

Parra recalls one story in particular where travel issues lead them to fast thinking and a redesign of an entire album cover. Little known to the fans one of their most historic albums, Hooker’n’Heat, actually contained an altered image as band members couldn’t be there for the shoot. “Alan Wilson died just before we mixed the album,” Parra remembered. “Alan died after we recorded it, so he was not there for the session.” The photo looking much like a dive pay by the hour hotel featured the band and John Lee Hooker in a dark setting across the cover.

 

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Hooker’n’Heat Album Cover

“We rented this funky apartment from an old lady right in downtown LA, we wanted a setting that would represent the blues and sadness,” said Parra. “We were suffering, we were morning Alans death.” The album was just that. A depressing photo of a dingy basement apartment where the only one standing out was Hooker. Hite, Parra, and manager Skip Taylor met Hooker at the apartment on a chilly LA evening, allowing a setting to represent the depressing feeling of the time.

“Henry didn’t make it,” recalled Parra, “so when we sat on the bed right next to Hooker, there’s a picture of Alan hanging in the background. Then our manager Skip Taylor stood up and later on we cut Henry’s face out a placed in over Skip’s face.” Long before computer imaging software, photoshop or effects, Canned Heat was able with the help of glue a stand-in and some hard work represent the feeling and every member of the band.

Canned Heat would go on to develop a relationship with Hooker recording three more albums and guest appearing on one of his last releases, The Healer, along with Santana, Bonnie Raitt, Charlie Musselwhite, and countless others. Outside his work with Canned Heat, Parra would go on to become Hooker’s official drummer for the last two years of his life. “I was with him at his last gig. “said Parra. “It was a week before he passed away, and it was a very sad and intense experience to play next to him and listening to him sing about going away.”

Wilson’s death came as a surprise to the band on September 3, 1970, and would be the first of many tragedies for Canned Heat. Throughout Nemours lineup changes and the death of frontman Bob Hite, the current lineup consisting of Mandel, Parra, and Taylor for nearly the last fifty years. Mandel would leave the band permanently in 2015, leaving the two sole survivors to carry on.

Ultimately the untimely death of Larry Taylor August 9, 2019, to a long battle of cancer has left Parra alone to carry on the legacy of the legendary band. “He was playing music up until the last minute,” Parra said on the death of a longtime friend. “He had cancer for several years and was fighting it but went on the road and played gigs for us and played until his body couldn’t do it anymore.”

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Larry “The Mole “Taylor 

Nearing a more than a fifty-year friendship, Parra and Taylor had been through thin and thick together keeping a band alive they both cared about so much. “Larry was a wonderful player and wonderful individual and out of the whole band, he and Bob Hite were the ones that loved music the best. It was a passion for him, and I’ll miss him dearly,” said Parra. Parra compares Taylor with the likes of Hooker. Not fully educated at school, but a genius in his way. His passion for music and the ability to play left the band standing out beyond others. “He’s the greatest bass player blues had to offer,” said Parra.

Like Taylor, Parra has no retirement in sight and plans to play until the day he dies. “Musicians don’t retire,” noted the drummer, “musicians just die, that’s the way it goes.” Like his idols and colleges, he views retirement as a way to leave the job you don’t like. He notes B.B. King playing on stage until he was 89, as well as his friend John Lee Hooker up until his death.

“I don’t consider myself that much of a legend,” Parra said about his career, “some other people do call me that and it’s wonderful, but it’s hard for me to see that.” He looks back fondly at his career knowing he was able to inspire a whole new breed of musicians and provide a soundtrack for a generation. Coming from Mexico, Parra is grateful to have been able to come to America and be part of the family and drive of what Woodstock is and where his career has taken him.

Parra nor Canned Heat show no signs of stopping performing worldwide and releasing two albums in 2019. The band doesn’t forget where they came from and the dark shadow cast over them. Instead of glooming, they give it their all every single night sounding better than ever. “We haven’t been a very lucky band, but we’re a blues band, and that’s what it’s all about,” said Parra.

 

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Canned Heat 2019 Lineup 

Canned Heat’s latest release, Canned Heat Christmas, is available in limited vinyl quantities on Record Store Day 2019. More information on Canned Heat as well as tour dates, Fito’s book, and merchandise is available at www.cannedheatmusic.com. Most importantly in the words of Canned Heat and Bob Hite, “Don’t forget to Boogie!”

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