|Crossroads: Fito De La Parra - Canned Heat's Drummer|
Pivotal moments in musicians' careers propelling them from obscurity to infamy
by Mark E. Waterbury
When the name Canned Heat is mentioned, there are those who may search their memories and say, "hey, they were at Woodstock, weren't they?" There are many people for whom Canned Heat is not merely a reminiscence. They know that this band has been touring and recording their particular blend of rock, country and blues for around thirty-five years, and they have endured tragedies - nearly three decades of being virtually dismissed by the press and other adversities. They are still on the road today, playing for fans old and new who appreciate the band's influential contribution to music as well as their tenacity at surviving for such a long time while many of their peers have faded away. Drummer Fito de la Parra can be considered the glue that has held them together for all of these years.
Formed in the mid 60's by Bob "The Bear" Hite and Alan Wilson, Canned Heat had already been together for nearly a year when Fito de la Parra (who previously drummed for Los Sinners, The Platters and Etta James) first saw them perform live. "I was very impressed by their musical quality," Fito remembers. "I just loved that band after I first saw them and never had any idea that I would ever join them. But I did think to myself that this was the type of band that I wanted to join." Canned Heat's management actually invited Fito's band to open for the band at a club called the Magic Mushroom after they saw Fito perform with an R&B outfit. Canned Heat was on their third drummer in a year's span, and that same night, they called Fito to audition at a rehearsal the next day. He showed up at the rehearsal with an LP featuring Junior Wells and Buddy Guy that he had just bought. Unbeknownst to Fito, Bob and Alan were huge blues connoisseurs. "I didn't know they were crazy about the blues, and when Bob saw that record, he got a big smile on his face. He told me later that they had already seen how I played, but when I showed up with that record, they knew I was the drummer for Canned Heat."
It was 1968 and Canned Heat already had two album releases and a performance at the famous Monterey Pop Festival under their belts, but hadn't really gained large scale success yet. "The weren't making that much money and weren't that popular when I joined," Fito recalls. "Then one day our manager shows up at our rehearsal with a dream, telling us that we had a hit record. That some deejay in Dallas was playing the shit out of it and they kept getting calls for requests. After that, it just took off, around the nation and the world. We never expected that to happen, but it did." That song was the classic "On The Road Again", and it helped launch Canned Heat into the forefront of the rock scene in the late 60's. "Goin' Up the Country" was the next hit, and then in late 1969, the band was offered a headlining slot at some festival in the farmlands near Bethel, New York. Fito and his bandmates really had no idea of what Woodstock was going to be like. In fact, Fito was very tired from the rigors of the road and didn't even really want to do the gig. "My manager literally had to drag me out of bed," Fito muses. "I slept in the hanger at this little airport while we were waiting for the helicopter to take us there. But all of that tiredness went away once we were flying over that crowd, and saw that this was going to be the biggest gig we ever played. All that energy came and I forgot about being tired and we had a great time."
The good times would come to a screeching halt for Canned Heat in 1970, beginning with when Alan Wilson died of a drug overdose, an apparent suicide. This of course devastated the band on a personal level, but had a far reaching affect on the band's popularity, especially with the press. "Alan was one of the main creative forces in the band, and the entire Canned Heat mystique and magic suffered its first crack there. We still had plenty of talent in the band, but most of the press and the media disregarded us then. It was a big blow and sometimes I even wonder how I've stayed active so long with everything that has happened in this poor suffering band."
Over the next decade the band did what it could to survive. They kept performing and recording, including doing the album "Hooker N' Heat" with one of their main blues inspirations John Lee Hooker, as well as albums by Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown and Memphis Slim. In 1981, Bob Hite died of a heart attack, but the band soldiered on, with Fito being the catalyst through several personnel changes. "It's been an ongoing uphill battle for us to strive for credibility and recognition way back to when Alan died. But we have persevered, and we really found that we don't care what the press says about us. We did the same thing that we did when we were very young, listening to our gut feelings and playing the music the best that we can. Trying to maintain the level of quality and being a good working unit."
Canned Heat continues to enjoy solid popularity in Europe, and in the U.S. they still have a steady, even rejuvenated following as more music fans get back to their roots. The current lineup of Fito, vocalist/sax/harmonica & flute player Stanley Behrens, guitarists Dallas Hodge and John Paulus, and bassist Greg Kage has actually been the longest surviving version of Canned Heat, together since 1999. "When a band manages to stay together and they have vision and talent, you reach a level of tightness that is really wonderful," Fito notes. "That's where we are right now. We've been together for four years and we're sounding really good." In 2003, they released "Friends in the Can," an album displaying the usual vibrant marriage of blues, country and rock with guest appearances by Walter Trout, Taj Mahal and Roy Rogers. "With this album, we were trying to keep up with the challenge of not being just a nostalgia band. We have some new songs and some covers, and we still come up with a new record every year that has some good original music on it. That's the method we have been following from the beginning." The album also included some of the final recorded works of the late John Lee Hooker, and it was somewhat bittersweet for Fito, who actually backed John on the last couple of gigs he did before he passed on. While John Lee Hooker had an undeniable influence on Canned Heat's music, Fito feels that Canned Heat has also been an influential band on modern music. "It was really an experience for us to have enjoyed John's friendship and also to have performed with him. But Canned Heat was not just an influence on blues artists, but on rockers as well, including metal people. I've seen interviews with guys from Motorhead, Van Halen and even Red Hot Chili Peppers who would come hear us when they were younger, and were very much inspired by us. In a way it haunted us that to the blues purists we were too rock, and to the rock purists we were too bluesy. What we did and still do is bring together country-blues and rock and roll, and that's how our influence has spread not just to blues players but rockers as well."
There were many bands around in the 60's you have to read about in the history books. While Canned Heat has its own notch in rock history, thanks to the tenacity and passion of Fito de la Parra in keeping the band alive through all the adversities, they are still writing their history thirty-five years after their birth, and bringing newer younger fans into to fold as well. "We continue to meet the challenge of growth. We put out an album almost every year and play nearly a hundred gigs a year. As a whole, it is a wonderful experience to get out and perform in front of people with a re-creation of the original band with the right image and sound and the right attitude. I love seeing young people at our shows, and for a young person eighteen years old, it is an act of rebellion to love us because they are looking for something else that mainstream music is not giving them, like execution of the instrumentation and live music expertise. We still have the bikers, the hippies and the Viet Nam vets as well that are our hard core fan base, and I always come back to the fact that after all the tragedies and everything, Canned Heat has been a loyal band. We have a faithful cow that still gives us a little milk every day and we need to keep treating it well."
Fito de la Parra's advice for musicians: "Don't go into music expecting fame, popularity and money. Go into it for music itself, just like we did and you will find a lot of satisfaction. If you make it and become famous, that's great, but if you don't, you will also be OK. If you go into music wanting to become the new Michael Jackson or whatever, you are bound to be disappointed. You have to be good with yourself and with the music, and the music itself has the power. And you have to dedicate your life to it.