Where to begin with this one? Well, in the world of underrated white blues prodigies, Alan "Blind Owl" Wilson must certainly reign supreme. Now most of you will probably recognize ol' Al via the band he co-founded and helped bring to prominence; the legendary Canned Heat. The Heat in their prime were a fantastic group, no doubt, because they injected the true spirit of the blues into rock. At their best they stood shoulder to shoulder with Butterfield, Mayall, Fleetwood Mac, Cream or any other white blues band you'd care to mention. It's also true that the Heat came up through the same Topanga Canyon scene that also gave us two other very strange and beautiful bands: Spirit and Kaleidoscope. In fact, various members of the Heat also put in time with the Mothers of Invention and Pacific Gas and Electric. These guys were players basically.
So in the original line-up of the Heat, you have some very interesting and divergent personalities. Singer Bob "The Bear" Hite was a good natured 300 lb. goofball and avid record collector. Bassist Larry "The Mole" Taylor had jammed with everyone from P.J. Proby to Tommy Boyce, the latter of whom brought him in to help track the first Monkees' album. Drummer Frank Cook may be best known today as the idealistic nitwit seen in CBS's Inside Pop TV special, but his vitae at the time included stints backing jazz greats like Chet Baker and Charlie Hayden. Lead guitarist Henry "Sunflower" Vestine, perhaps mainly regarded today as a notorious acid casualty if at all, was actually one of the top American lead guitarists of his era, counting Jimi Hendrix as a fan and Frank Zappa as a previous employer.
These four cats alone could have formed a hell of a band in their own right, but what truly put the Heat over the top was their "X" factor. In fact, when I think of the term "X" factor in a musical sense, I can not imagine a band with a better one than the guy who's the subject of this thread and compilation: "The Blind Owl", Alan Wilson.
But why should you, the discerning listener, give a shit? I mean, isn't this the same cat that the old Rolling Stone Record Guide casually dismissed as Canned Heat's "bumblebee voiced lead singer" or some such shit? (Seriously, FUCK the Rolling Stone Record Guide.) Well, if all you know about Canned Heat is "Goin' Up the Country" and "On the Road Again" (both included), perhaps that's all he'll ever be to you. But that's your loss, kid. Overlook the Heat at your own peril, because these guys knew how to (Frank) cook, and their motor was this nerdy looking cat:
That's the Blind Owl, performing the Heat's cover of Elmore James' "Rollin' and Tumblin'" at Monterey. Perchance you've seen this clip? If so, bully for you! I would do terrible things to go back and watch the Heat, the Flag and the Blues Project tear it up on the same afternoon at Monterey Pop. Wait, where the fuck was I going with this? Oh yes.. BLIND OWL! Okay, dig. I'm sort of lightweight drunk right now, so I'm just going to copy/paste a bunch of shit off of Canned Heat's website:
Alan Wilson grew up in Boston, Massachusetts, where he became a music major at Boston University and a frequent player at the Cambridge coffeehouse folk-blues circuit. He also found time to write two lengthy, analytical articles on bluesmen Robert Pete Williams and Son House for “Broadside Of Boston”, a Massachusetts music paper, which Downbeat Magazine described as “among the most significant contributions to modern blues scholarship, representing the first important musicological analysis of blues style.” In fact, when Son House was “rediscovered” in 1964 by Phil Spiro, Dick Waterman and Nick Perls, Wilson ended up spending hours with the elderly bluesman helping him recall how to play his own songs again, as House had not owned a guitar for several years and was suffering from what was later diagnosed as both Alzheimers and Parkinsons. Waterman managed House and got him a recording contract with Columbia Records and Wilson assisted House in recording his 1965 album, Father of the Delta Blues, and provided harmonica and second guitar on three songs (two of which, “Empire State Express” and “Levee Camp Moan”) were included on the album.
Wilson was an excellent harpist, slide guitarist and vocalist with a unique tenor style. His friend, Mike Bloomfield introduced him to Charlie Musselwhite as “the best goddamn harp player there is. He can do things that you’ve never heard before.” Wilson occasionally worked for his father’s construction firm laying bricks but, thankfully, he preferred laying down unforgettable riffs to hard physical labor. Wilson’s nickname, “Blind Owl,” was bestowed upon him by friend John Fahey during a road trip in 1965 from Boston to Los Angeles and was a reference to the extra-thick lenses Wilson wore to compensate for his poor vision. Later Fahey, while researching a book on bluesman Charlie Patton for his degree in Folklore at UCLA, invited Wilson out to California to help with the project. Wilson was a music major at Boston University, and Fahey needed someone who could transcribe, chart and notate Patton’s material correctly.
YEAH! Okay, now you're getting the picture possibly. Blind Owl was a) a blues scholar of the highest order; b) an altruistic dude who went out of his way to help all his heroes (largely poor, African American musicians) get recognition and record contracts; c) a fucking badass of the guitar, and when I say guitar I mean acoustic, electric and steel, and most of all d) the fucking be-all-end-all of the motherfucking blues harp.
No, really. This isn't me saying this. (ED: OR IS IT?!?!) Because, here's the thing: Back in nineteen sixty-two-- before the idea of a Canned Heat even existed-- back in those stupid old days of Ozzy and Harriet where little Ricky Nelson was just beginning to come into his own and those little Beach Boy fucks were just getting a record deal, the Blind Owl was playing piano, harp and guitar on John Lee Hooker's Burnin' LP. Ever heard it? well you oughta! As previously mentioned, Al also helped Son House re-learn his own fucking songs, and you can hear the results on the Father of the Folk Blues LP, where he plays harp and guitar on a few tracks. This is still all before the Heat, mind.
Al also kicked down some harp on Fred Neil's classic 1967 self-titled LP, which is one of my favorites, seeing as it features "Dolphins" and "Everybody's Talking"... Two of the greatest songs ever written by anyone. But the ultimate statement might be out of the mouth of John Lee Hooker, who called Alan the greatest harp player he'd ever heard. Not the greatest WHITE harp player, mind you, but the greatest of all time. John Lee Hooker said that, and he played with Little Walter. Who have you played with again? (Joke.)
Now I personally don't understand too much about the ol' blues harp, ya hear? I'm a guitar player first and foremost, and my kind tend to stay away from stuff you have to put your mouth on, but HEY! I know genius when I hear it, right? Of course I could never actually describe to you exactly what makes Al so much better than all the other harmonica playing fools out there, but thankfully there's this guy to break it all down for us! Listen and learn.
Yes I find it perhaps a bit funny that a guy like the Blind Owl, who was burning so much raw talent coming from so many different directions, would settle for a more or less secondary role in what essentially became America's #1 boogie 'n' blooz band for a couple of years there, but from all accounts Alan was a self-effacing cat who was not fond of the spotlight. A lover of nature, he would sleep outdoors while on tour while the rest of the band lodged comfortably in a hotel room. It was just the kind of guy he was. It's been said that his eventual suicide (he overdosed on reds and gin while camping in the Bear's back yard) was due to the fact he was despondent over the state of the environment. More than likely, though, he was tired of the grind.
Buried within the Canned Heat's catalog of party-friendly boogie choons is the work of a real genius. It's amazing nobody thought to compile it until now, but I guess that's the reason this blog exists. So, ladies and germs, have at it-- 17 legendary performances featuring the Blind Owl on vocals; his entire recorded contribution to the Canned Heat saga. All I ask is that you please take the time to listen to what Al and his harp are saying to you. It was there all along within those old Canned Heat records, but taken as a whole this is the most potent of potables.
And if anyone ever asks you who that bumblebee-voiced lead singer of Canned Heat was, you can now feel free to simply punch them in the nuts and say "I told you so".
Blind Owl, fools!