By Mike Morsch, Packet Media Group
Years ago, Fito de la Parra’s father used to make fun of him for being in a band.
He didn’t see a long-term future for his son in the music business.
He’d say, “What? Are you going to be playing when you have gray hair? You’re gonna get old, and you’re not going to be playing.”
That was 50 years ago. And Mr. de la Parra, although he does have some gray hair, is still in the same band and still playing the drums.
“I guess my father didn’t know. I didn’t know,” Mr. de la Parra said.
The blues/boogie rock band, Canned Heat, established itself in the late 1960s as one of the most popular groups of the hippie era. Its members played hard and partied hard.
Formed in 1966, the band was founded by two blues historians and record collectors, Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson and Bob “The Bear” Hite.
By 1967, they had been joined by Larry “The Mole” Taylor, a session musician for Jerry Lee Lewis and The Monkees; Henry “The Sunflower” Vestine, a former member of Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention; and Mr. de la Parra, who had played in two of the biggest Latin bands at the time, Los Sinners and Los Hooligans. Harvey “The Snake” Mandel replaced Mr. Vestine when the latter left the band.
They secured a legacy early on by playing at both the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 and at Woodstock in 1969. Among the band’s biggest hits are “Going Up The Country,” “On the Road Again” and “Let’s Work Together.”
Mr. Taylor and Mr. de la Parra still are around and still playing and will be part of Canned Heat when it headlines the 12th annual Sourland Music Festival Saturday, July 18, at the Hillsborough County Club.
In addition to Canned Heat, the festival will include performances by Jerry Fiess, Matt Romagna, Scoville Blues and Dugan Thomas.
For Mr. de la Parra, it’s been quite a 50-year ride.
“In those times, bands would get together to play music, to be compelling, to share some ideals and political ideas or environmental ideas; the ideals of the 1960s,” Mr. de la Parra said in a recent telephone interview. “We never really expected to become big and famous because we were really a blues band and promoters, and people really didn’t know about the blues.
“It was really quite a thing for us when, all of a sudden, one day, our manager walked into our rehearsal and said, ‘You guys have a hit record! ‘On the Road Again’ broke in Texas.’ And we said, ‘Wow, that’s great!’”
The road was filled with ups and downs, successes and tragedies and several lineup changes for Canned Heat over the years. After the successes at Monterey and Woodstock — where it famously played on the festival’s second day and performed “Going Up The Country,” which became the theme song of Michael Wadleigh’s documentary film “Woodstock” — the first tragedy hit.
Mr. Wilson died of a drug overdose in the fall of 1970 at the age of 27, just weeks before the deaths of both Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, both of whom were also just 27 years old.
The band’s other co-founder, Mr. Hite, died in 1981, also from a suspected drug overdose.
Through it all and the lean years after its popularity waned, Canned Heat persevered. The unfiltered history of the band was recorded in Mr. de la Parra’s book, “Living the Blues: Canned Heat’s Story of Music, Drugs, Death, Sex and Survival,” which was released in 2009.
A West Coast band, the Sourland performance is one of the rare opportunities to see Canned Heat on the East Coast. Age and travel challenges limit the band to fewer gigs these days, but the passion to deliver good music still remains.
“The main issue is that we still enjoy playing for people. We actually enjoy it more now because we feel like we really don’t have anything to prove anymore. We’re doing it for the sake of the music and the sake of us having a good time and going through this ritual, this communion with the people. The Canned Heat music is the music of experience,” Mr. de la Parra said.
“Those people who were touched by our music and records and live shows, they then come back years later and share those experiences with us, which makes us feel real good, especially when the stories are funny,” he said.
All proceeds for the Sourland Music Festival go to the Sourland Conservancy, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the protection of the Sourland Mountain region.
“We don’t need to play to survive anymore. For many years, we did need to play to survive, and that was very hard, especially when the band wasn’t as popular after Bob and Alan died,” Mr. de la Parra said. “Then with disco music and MTV, that was devastating for bands like us that relied on live music. We never really got the royalties we deserved so we had to go out and work on the road. And Canned Heat has been a hardworking band for the past 50 years.”
For information on the Sourland Music Festival, go to www.sourlandmusicfest.org.
For information on Canned Heat and Mr. de la Parra’s book, go to www.cannedheatmusic.com.
By Mike Morsch, Packet Media Group