Canned Heat is an American institution. There are very few bands that have toured for 40 years that are still working as aggressively as they were in 1967; The Canned Heat just never stopped their legacy of the full-tilt boogie. From the original Monterey Pop Festival, headlining Woodstock with their unofficial theme “Goin’ Up The Country,” to the 2003 Madison Blues Festival, this chart-topping group has continued. Originally under the leadership of Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson and Bob “The Bear” Hite; drummer “Fito” de la Parra has presided over 40 albums and 30 lineup changes since taking over the Heat’s helm in the early 1970s. Mr. de la Parra spoke with Maximum Ink from his home in Los Angeles as he was preparing for the 2007 Monterey Bay Blues Festival.
MAXIMUM INK: It’s the 40th anniversary of the Summer Of Love. How did it affect you?
“FITO” DE LA PARRA: I didn’t join the band until September of 1967. I was 18 years old, and I didn’t know anything about hippies, or the counter-culture or any of that. I was immersed in rhythm and blues, at a primarily black club with [lots of] rednecks in Torrance, CA, called the Toe-Tap club. It was before I was in Canned Heat.
MAX INK: Did everyone in the classic lineup have the same ideas about the blues, or did you all bring different things to the table?
DE LA PARRA: We all contributed different ideas, and each of us put our input there and it was welcome. Alan would come with an original riff and lyrics, and then we would put our own parts as we saw fit. We would all talk about it. It was pretty loose, because these parts were basic parts, and we would use them to experiment around and improvise with them. You have a basic structure. It’s not like classical music; for example, we would take what a song was about and do whatever we could to put something new into it. We did that just about every night.
MAX INK: So there was a synthesis of new ideas along with old concepts that were fused into…
DE LA PARRA: …Into what Canned Heat music came out to be; especially on those first four or five records, with the classic lineup. I have to say, our manager Skip Taylor was a good lyricist, too, and he helped contribute to the lyrics of the band.
MAX INK: What was it that made Canned Heat such a special band?
DE LA PARRA: As was said once by my friend the journalist [Pete Welding]: Canned Heat was the band that married country, blues and rock and roll. Another accurate statement is that Canned Heat made the blues palatable for white audiences. The third was that Canned Heat is the band that put the blues at the service of rock. Those are three statements by the press that I have found to be true. They are not my statements, but I agree with them.
MAX INK: Back to 1969, describe the scene at the original Woodstock.
DE LA PARRA: It’s like in the movie. There were a lot of people, and there was an organized and orderly anarchy. There was no violence (or very little), and everybody managed to deal with the situation and each other as best as they could. And you must understand that these were mostly Easterners. If they managed to live with each other in those crowded cities like Boston and New York, why couldn’t they do it outdoors? It’s the same people that don’t freak out because they are together with another half a million people? They’ll make it, they’ll function somehow.
MAX INK: You performed at Woodstock ’94, would you say that a piece of the spirit was still there?
DE LA PARRA: The place I performed at was at the original location, and it was the alternative Woodstock. The capitalist Woodstock event with contemporary bands was in the area, but not at the original site. The one attended by Canned Heat was at the original site, with the original vibe and original feeling of the festival in 1969. Even bands from the big Woodstock, the capitalist Woodstock, came to our festival and sat in and jammed. When they finished their sets they came to Max Yasgur’s farm, and played with us.
MAX INK: How have you come to play so many non-profit festivals like Atwood Summerfest?
DE LA PARRA: It’s a natural thing to do, I think, for a band that is down home and for the people. It relates to them, especially the down-and-out, instead of playing to the rich. We see it as a natural thing to do; to operate with nonprofit events. We do it for the hell of it because there is no reason for us to say no to a good cause.
MAX INK: During the “Hooker ‘N Heat” tour you guys played at a Madison bar called Snoopy’s, and John Lee Hooker was fronting the band. Tell me about that gig in April of 1971.
DE LA PARRA: I remember, I saw some old friends who drove up [from Chicago], and it was a lot of fun. The John Lee Hooker gigs were great; we were having a ball, we partied a lot, we drank a lot of beer. The beer was really happening in Wisconsin. John did his share of drinking, too. Especially beer.
MAX INK: Can you give me some highlights of playing with John Lee Hooker? Was he irascible when he got drunk?
DE LA PARRA: No, he never really got too loaded. He would drink and get happy, and smoke a little pot, but very little. He was quite a gentleman, and he was a very smart man. I’ve always said that he was a genius. He couldn’t read or write, and could hardly sign his name. But, he could keep track of where the money was, what was going on, everything was right in his memory. He always said, “I don’t need it, I don’t need to write.” He was an extremely smart man… For people to listen to his music and say that he was primitive and illiterate, yes that was all true; But at the same time he was a genius, and that’s what makes his music different. Traveling with him was a pleasure. He loved to be one of the boys. Even until the end. I played his last gigs with him and the Coast To Coast blues band in 2001.
MAX INK: Tell me about your book, “Living The Blues: Canned Heat’s story of Music, Drugs, Death, Sex, and Survival.”
DE LA PARRA: The book is doing quite well, you can get it on Amazon.com or, better yet, through our website, www.cannedheatmusic.com. Please do, we want to keep living our history and legacy. The next edition is coming out later this year, revised and augmented by popular demand!
MAX INK: How many lineup changes has the group had?
DE LA PARRA: We’ve had more than 30 lineup changes in 42 years, it’s been a crazy ride. So when people ask me, “Who is in Canned Heat now?” it’s okay, because as long as I’m there, it’s still Canned Heat. I see value in it spiritually, and it is a good legacy, an opportunity that has been granted to me by destiny, by God, whatever you want to call it. I want to do it right. This was my train in life. If you stay at the station of life, and you see the trains go by, you have to identify which one you’re going to get in. You can never stay at the station with fear and not take risks. I took a risk, I came to this country, and I joined this band.
MAX INK: What’s left undone, unexplored, or uncreated for Canned Heat?
DE LA PARRA: There’ always something that you can do. There’s always different combinations of sound and lyrics you can use, and plenty of inspirations from the past to still dig out some ideas. Some people might think that the blues is exhausted. Yes, maybe in the case of traditional blues, but remember, Canned Heat is also a rock band. Blues and rock. When you have those two forms of music, I guess you can do anything.
Canned Heat will be on the road again July 20 in Chicago, IL, at the Beverly Art Center, July 21 in Greenwood, IL, at The Music Event at Galt Airport, July 26 in Navarre, MN, at the Narrows Saloon, July 27 in Spring Park, MN, at the Ultimate Beach Charity Concert at 4pm and later in Maple Grove, MN, at the Narrows Saloon, July 28 at the Atwood Community Summerfest in Madison, WI, and July 29 at the Times Cinema Theater in Milwaukee.