Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Alan Wilson/ Canned Heat - Blind Owl Sings

Compilation (single artist)

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!


  1. Believe it or not based on the length of my screed up there, but I've only scratched the surface talking about Blind Owl. If anyone else wants to pick my brain, I would be down for some in depth Blind Owl discussion!


  2. Long overdue! I just saw the post this morning and thanks to that Playboy After Dark clip/link I found on your YouTube page I was getting heavily into listening to the Blind Owl last month.

    Al Wilson had a trait that I've heard in nearly every musician who would be described as a great soloist: In every solo, he/she throws in one note or one phrase that makes you spit out your coffee or fall off your chair in disbelief...or at least makes your ears perk up. The "On The Road Again" harp solo has that one impossibly high note that just screams out of the speakers, and it *was* impossible since Al modified the reeds in his harp so he could blow that note. I love that one note.

    Back to the Playboy After Dark clip...listen to Al's guitar solo on the first song. It has that quality that you can't describe, but he hits notes and phrases that I have no clue where he would grab them from, unlike many blues guitarists who you could nail their influences in two phrases, but they're so unique and phrased so bizarre that he owns the song with that guitar solo. And the won't find that on a multi-effects pedal.

    Now I heard one report from Bob Hite that suggests Al had a lot of depression and sadness because he wasn't as successful with women surrounding the band as other members, and the suggestion was made that Al had spent so much time learning, researching, and contributing to the blues he loved so much that he never learned the social graces and how to deal with women. On tour, as a band with a very successful run of hits, the women were there but Al never had luck with them, in fact I think he was stood up by a call girl before his death and it shattered him emotionally. Again, just things I remember and there is more to the story than that.

    Another more happy story is how amazed John Lee Hooker was at the band's (especially Wilson's) ability to follow his bizarre time changes and musical quirks as they were recording Hooker N' Heat. It's as if they knew his music as well as their own.

    Jason, great topic and post. There are a few characters left in rock history who need more exposure and credit and Al Wilson is one.

  3. Thanks for your post, Craig... Insightful stuff as always. I agree totally about Al's solos, they just transcend whatever influences he may have had, forming into something that was altogether new for the burgeoning rock music scene. It's like the guy in the harp video I posted above said (paraphrased): Al listened to Little Walter, but he didn't *sound* like Little Walter!

    I laughed with your statement about the guitar tone he achieved. You certainly would NOT be able to find that in a Pod or multi-effects box!

    In terms of what you mentioned about the man himself, I have run across that same quote from the Bear where he talks about Al not having much luck with the chicks. In fact, that story you mentioned about him getting stood up is the basis for his "London Blues"! (Though I've heard she was more of a groupie than a call girl per se.) But if you take the time to check out this compilation I've posted, you'll hear that the pain caused by mistreatment at the hands of women is a constant theme throughout his work with the Heat since his earliest days.

    I feel pretty bad for Al, for although he hit a sort of super-stardom few would ever achieve, it's painfully obvious that he was not enjoying himself. You look at any of the existing clips of him, and he always has that pained expression on his face, like his mind was elsewhere. Although I can't begin to know what he was going through, I can only assume that he was happiest when studying and playing music for his own pleasure, and that the touring and the spotlight must have gotten to him.

    There's a fantastic song that the Heat recorded in 1970 but did not release called "Human Condition" that features on this compilation. It's not unlike something Brian Wilson might have cut for Adult/ Child, during his Landy years. In it, Alan goes to talk to his shrink, where she informs him that all the pain and misery he's going through are just part of the human condition. Aren't we all?

    Anyway, I've actually got another Blind Owl CD in the works called Blind Owl Blues, where you'll get to hear some of his actual demos and interviews. As a student of the form, these will absolutely blow your mind. There's also some good news afoot, as a book on Al was recently published, also called "Blind Owl Blues", by Rebecca Davis Winters. I don't own it yet, but I plan on buying it... Here's the link:

    Interested to hear more of your thoughts, Craig. Thanks for checking out my stuff as always!

  4. Some of Alan's family members have created a new site to honor him and commemorate his legacy. I will send you a link on 12/21/10 when it goes live.

  5. And here it is-- *very* well done site:

    Get on over there and check it out everybody!

  6. Hey check out:

  7. Thanks for this comp. Looking forward to hearing it

  8. Greetings....linked to your site from Willards...I'm a long time fan of Alan's would love to hear your compilation however I can not get sendspace to work for me - it will not connect and gives me errors - been trying for 3 days now... any suggestions or anything else I can try? thanks..

  9. Thanks very much for featuring Canned Heat and Alan Wilson on your blog!

    I hope you'll check out my biography of Wilson, at It covers his early experiences with Delta blues legend Son House, his career with Canned Heat, his work as a pioneering environmental activist, and his mysterious death at the age of 27.

    You may be interested to hear that Alan Wilson's death was ruled accidental by the attending coroner. The evidence at the death scene, as well as the autopsy report, also indicates an accidental, rather than suicidal, death. It's also noteworthy that Wilson was in treatment for his depression and, unlike many suicidal people, was making active, positive plans for the future. I've covered this in some detail in the final chapter of my book.

    Thanks again and as Canned Heat always said, don't forget to boogie!

  10. Thanks for the comment Rebecca! I very much look forward to reading your book. Are copies still available here in the U.S.?

  11. any way to get a re-upload of this comp? i tried to make my own but did not get anywhere near 17 tracks! good work!

  12. Sure thing, here is the link Nathaniel:

  13. thanks for this, really! but it says the file is no longer available... sorry to be a pest, but i'd love to check this out. thanks again!

  14. Ahh, sorry Nathaniel. I will try to re-up it for you.

  15. Still eagerly awaiting this one - love to hear it! If you get a spare minute would be much appreciated!

  16. excuse me the link was dead can you re upload it plzzzzzzzzzzzz

  17. What's the name of the first youtube video^
    i dont know the name of the first song that there playing

  18. Hi Ana... That would be "Boogie Chillun (pt. 2)" by John Lee Hooker and Canned Heat!

  19. So is it validated Alan played on Burnin?

  20. This is one of the best tributes to Alan I've ever seen. Hope it remains online forever. To give you an idea of the vintage of my Blind Owl enthusiasm, I wrote an obit about him for my high school newspaper in 1970!

  21. A new link would be so sweet!

  22. I'm on it! Give me just a few minutes here.

  23. Do you think you could re-upload the link? I would love to hear some more of the Blind Owl..

  24. Do you think you could re-upload the link? I'd love to hear this collection. Thanks!

  25. I would also love a new link!

  26. When I met John Lee Hooker in Palo Alto around 1977, I had a nice long conversation with him backstage and he was STILL referring to Alan Wilson as the greatest harmonica man he'd ever met.

  27. dmf273, that's a great story! And high praise coming from J.L. Hooker indeed.

  28. Would it be possible to get a new link?

    1. Hi Tim. I'm not going to re-post this, only on account of the fact that's all since been commercially compiled and released on a new 2 CD set on Severn Records.

      Thanks for understanding.

  29. Awesome. Cocker just passed and I needed some of him. An ex loved him. Got me some Youtube... Woodstock. Which then got me some Canned Heat. Fuck. I was always a radio fan, but had an album or two at the time. Blind Owl was the shit, or whatever the current parlance might be.