Canned Heat owed so much of their success to their appearance at Woodstock, yet the fact that they appeared at all was a matter of luck, along with the gentle art of persuasion.
Henry Vestine, the former Mothers Of Invention guitarist, quit Canned Heat just two days before the festival gig following a fight with bass player, Larry Taylor at the Fillmore West. Harvey Mandel was drafted into the band only to find that drummer Adolpho ‘Fito’ de la Parra felt they didn’t have sufficient time to rehearse for Woodstock, so he also left the band. Their manager got into the reluctant drummer’s room where he had locked himself and talked him into changing his mind and they flew to Woodstock by helicopter arriving in the nick of time. It was Harvey Mandel’s third gig with the band. As Canned Heat played, day turned to night and they had secured a prime slot on the already late-running second day.
Originally formed in 1965 as a jug band, they took their name from Tommy Johnson’s Canned Heat Blues. Their first incarnation was would-be disc jockey Bob ‘The Bear’ Hite who hailed from Torrance, California; Bostonian, AI ‘Blind Owl’ Wilson, Frank Cook, and Henry Vestine from Washington. Their original bass player was Stuart Brotman who later emerged in the US band Kaleidoscope, alongside David Lindley, he was soon replaced by Mark Andes (who later co-founded Spirit), before New Yorker Samuel Larry Taylor came in as permanent bassist; he had served his apprenticeship with the likes of Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis, as well as playing on several of the Monkees hits.
In 1967 the group signed to Liberty Records after appearing at the Monterey Pop Festival. In July 1967 they released a self-titled album that made No.76 on the album chart, following it with Boogie With Canned Heat in 1968, which spent three months on the Billboard chart. Living the Blues a double album came out in 1968, after which came Hallelujah in 1969, just before their Woodstock appearance.
“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.” – Downbeat Magazine following their Monterey appearance.
In 1968, Cook had been replaced by De La Parra who hailed from Mexico City and it was soon after the band began to have hits with their unique blues sound. On The Road Again went to No.16 in the USA in the late summer of 1968, while AI Wilson’s‘Going Up The Country’ peaked at No.11 in the US early in 1969. In the spring of ‘69 “Time Was” went to No.67 on the Billboard charts. The band were also very popular in Britain where “On The Road Again” went Top 10 and “Going Up The Country” Top 20.
“Going Up The Country” became something of an unofficial theme song from the festival after it was featured in the movie. Coupled with “On The Road Again,” which the band played as an encore it helped catapult the band to even greater recognition. “Woodstock Boogie” was very much a jam lasting close to 15 minutes, including the obligatory drum solo; it was a reworking of “Fried Hockey Boogie” from Boogie With Canned Heat.
“The Woodstock performance which although there were a couple of tunes which weren’t too good, ‘Going Up The Country’ was one of them, there were some which were killers, stone killers.” – Bob Hite.
In September 1970, AI Wilson was found dead from a barbiturates overdose in Bob Hite’s Topanga Canyon garden. He had suffered from depression and his death robbed the world of “the most gifted harmonica player I’ve ever heard,” as John Lee Hooker described him. The band had been working with the blues legend on an album that became Hooker ‘N’ Heat. The following month “Let’s Work Together” from Hallelujah reached No.26 on the Billboard chart. It was their last single of any note; it reached No.2 in the UK.
By the mid-70s, only Hite and Vestine, who had returned to the fold, remained of the original lineup. Then Bob Hite died on April 5, 1981, which ended that chapter in the band’s history. The band somehow carried on with Taylor and De La Parra, guitarist Junior Watson (late of the Mighty Flyers) and Walter Trout.
By the time the band featured on John Lee Hooker’s album, The Healer in 1989, Vestine had rejoined the group yet again. Vestine died in October 1997 in a hotel outside Paris from heart and respiratory failure. He wanted his ashes to be scattered in a crater on the dark side of the moon named after his father, a noted astrophysicist. Some of Canned Heat’s longevity can be put down to their material regularly being featured in advertising campaigns on both sides of the Atlantic, which have included General Motors, Miller Beer, Levi’s, Pepsi, and 7-Up.