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The Bear
by Tim Mattox

Canned Heat on cover of Goldmine Magazine, 2007

 

e came by the name honestly. Bob Hite, Jr. was a bear of a man. Three hundred pounds with a chest-length beard and a growl for a voice, he was truly larger-than-life. But it wasn't just the physical presence that drew the attention of others. Hite was an uncommon bluesman; a disciple of a musical genre who never forgot the originators.

The music he collected and the music he played mirrored that respect and adoration. Even his band's name, CANNED HEAT, paid homage to long-dead bluesman Tommy Johnson. Hite's admiration for an often ignored, if not almost forgotten art form, is the most probable reason CANNED HEAT to this day remains the seminal 'boogie blues' band.

We lost The Bear in 1981 but he left us with over 16 years of music and a lifetime of memories. In August of 1980, on what would be Hite's final tour through the Far East, he talked about his life, his friends and where the Heat was....

BH: "On the road again. CANNED HEAT has been together since September of '65 and has been non-stop until this very day and where we will be appearing this evening at the club...Boogie Woogying.

We haven't broken up, that's the main question a lot of people ask. We've gone through many, many personnel changes, but we've never broken up. As a matter-of-fact when Henry Vestine left the group the very first time, the next day we played Woodstock with Harvey Mandel, without a rehearsal or anything. We just push on."

TM: The same Harvey Mandel from Mayall's Bluesbreakers?

BH: "Yeah, he was with Mayall and he had his own group, the Pure Food and Drug Act. He recorded a few things with the Rolling Stones not too long ago, as well."

TM: Prior to the formation of CANNED HEAT in 1965, did you have any formal musical training or was your family musically inclined?

BH: "As a young boy my parents were both....my father drove a Greyhound bus for awhile and my mother was a typical housewife. Before I was born, my mother sang with Mal Hallett and his Orchestra which was an East Coast band that made quite a few records from the 20's all the way into the mid to late 30's.

Bob Hite pictures

And my father played trumpet with Sammy Kaye's band. They were about to leave on an Atlantic tour, playing on a ship. The night they were supposed to leave, his best friend's father died. So my dad's musical career ended because he didn't want to leave, you know, without his best friend. So that's how he ended up being a bus driver."

"When I was born and just barely able to walk, I discovered records. They went around and music came off of them and it didn't really matter to me what was on the record. It could be Caruso, it could have been Fritz Chrysler, Glenn Miller or Benny Goodman or whatever, I was just fascinated by records. So rather than get little toy cars and things to play with, like most kids, I wanted records. I was shining shoes at age five so I could get enough money to buy records for my collection.

Our church had an old folk's home and when they finally got a new hi-fi set, they gave me like three hundred 78's that they had. I kept accumulating them. By the time the 1950's rolled around, my father was no longer a bus driver. He was working for a computer company and was transferred to Denver. Three-quarters of the weight for our move was my records.
I was never much of a student; I hated school and never gave much thought on what I would do tomorrow. I just lived for the day and played my records. When all the other guys were out working on their cars, taking chicks out on dates, to the prom; I was out hunting for phonograph records."

JOHN FAHEY

"I met John Fahey, who is a very good country blues guitar picker and he's also a scholar on the blues. We struck up a good friendship. It was a lot of fun playing record and swapping stories of different blues singers. I borrowed a tape from him and he disappeared for a year and I didn't see him. This was about 1965 and I'd gotten a job in a record shop in Westwood, California. This guy came in that I'd never seen before, and said, 'Are you Hite?' I went, 'Yeah!' He said, 'Fahey wants his tape back.' I said, 'Sure, where is he?' The guy said, 'He was in Louisiana, but he's back now and he wants his tape back.'

"Well, look, here's my phone number, we'll get together on a Wednesday night maybe, play some records. Come out to my house, (I was living with my parents) and we'll have a good time."

"So he showed up on Wednesday night with Alan Wilson and this fellow who'd come into the record shop, Mike Purlaman. We started playing records and after about ten o'clock my mother came in and said, 'It's a bit loud, would you turn it down'. So I said 'ok' and turned it down. When she left it came back up. She came back in a couple of more times and on the fourth trip, she said the landlord's complaining now, and the neighbors. Finally, it was, 'We're going to get kicked out of here if you don't turn down that record player....so I turned it off."
"Alan Wilson had his harmonica's with him, Fahey had his guitar, so did Michael. I played trumpet and that didn't really fit into the country blues, so I played the jug. We decided right there and then we ought to have a band. That was the original personnel of CANNED HEAT.

Well, the minute Fahey found out it was going to be electric, it was too much for him to handle, so he pulled out. Mike Purlaman was so excited; he went and got us a job at the Ash Grove. And we hadn't even rehearsed yet. We managed to find another guitar player, a drummer and a bass player. We rehearsed a couple of times, ended up firing Mike Purlaman, who had gotten us the job in the first place, and we got a fellow called Kenny Edwards who was with Linda Ronstadt and the Stone Poneys. He was our slide player. Alan said he would just play rhythm guitar and harmonica.

So we played the job at the Ash Grove and they liked us so much that they paid us $5.00 apiece, (it was supposed to be a freebie) and said come back tomorrow night for Part II of our 'Best of the Best' concert. We went out to Canter's, which was the local hangout in Los Angeles, for all the rock musicians and weird people. Allen Ginsberg and all the strangies that hung out in the middle of the night. By day Canter's looked like a shule and by night it looked like hippie heaven. So we wrote our name on the bathroom wall and did all the things a successful rock act would do."

HENRY VESTINE

"I called up Henry Vestine who was a friend of mine and said, "I've got a band and you've got to come hear us. We played last night and we're playing again tonight, come on down'. He (Vestine) at that time was playing with the Mothers of Invention, Zappa's Group. He said, 'Alright, I'll come down.'

"Two days later, about four o'clock in the morning, the phone rang. My father came in and said, 'One of your friends is on the phone and from now on, tell him to call at a decent hour. So I went out and it was Henry. 'I want to be in your band.' 'You're hired.' So that made six. We rehearsed with six guys, went for an audition at the Sea Witch, which was kind of a funky place down on the Sunset Strip, and it just didn't work. So we had to get rid of Kenny. The main personnel at that time was Stewart Brockman on bass, Frank Cook was the drummer, Henry Vestine was the guitar player, Alan played guitar and harmonica and I did the vocals.
We tried for about six months, but most clubs just wanted a juke box in their joint. They wanted the Top 10 and we hated the Top 10."

"So finally we gave in and found some of the funkier rhythm and blues tunes that were on the charts, like James Brown things, 'I Feel Good' and 'Barefootin' by Robert Parker and a couple of other things that were not Monkees or any of that other English garbage that we were listening to. It still didn't work, so we ended up breaking up for about two months.

I laid around watching soap operas all day and listening to my mother holler at me to get a job. I got a phone call from Frank Cook who said, 'Hey, would you like to play a gig for old time's sake, just for the heck of it?' I said, 'Sure, where?' He said, 'At UCLA at ten o'clock in the morning.' I said, 'Ten o'clock in the morning? Nobody plays a gig at ten o'clock in the morning!' He said, 'I'm having a happening.' He (Cook) was in the theatre arts section at UCLA. And at this time the psychedelic happenings in San Francisco had just started with the Fillmore and the Avalon, with all the light shows and the smoke and the craziness. He was going to reproduce that at UCLA at ten o'clock in the morning.

So we got everybody in the band together, except our bass player and he was playing an Armenian gig in Fresno. So we got Henry's friend, Mike Rosso, to play bass for us. On that job was the Mothers, the Doors, Alice Cooper and two other acts I can't remember. At this time, nobody was anybody. These were just garage bands playing for Frank at UCLA.
We played the job and I went home. I got a phone call from Frank that night and he said, 'Look, I had a guy down there to hear you and he wants to be your manager. We met him and he gave us the typical Hollywood rap, so a month later we had a contract with Liberty records, with a pretty healthy advance. And all of a sudden we're not broke anymore."


1968-----ON THE ROAD AGAIN

"That (song) was released, the A side of that was 'Boogie Music.' That's the one that we thought would be the hit. We left on our very first tour, a six-week tour of the United States. We were sleeping in other bands houses, on floors, in kitchens or wherever we could find a place to stay. I remember we came into Cleveland, Ohio and I had 35 cents in my pocket. We called our manager to tell him things were going relatively well, but we were broke. He said, 'Well, you won't be broke long because some disc jockey down in Ft. Worth, Texas turned over 'Boogie Music' and 'On the Road Again' was number one on their charts and was being played around the country.'


1969-----WOODSTOCK

cover of Boogie: a Canned Heat album

"We didn't want to go. We'd been playing a job at the Fillmore West and Henry had a confrontation with Larry, our bass player, on Friday night. Saturday afternoon our manager came up to San Francisco and said, 'Ok, CANNED HEAT has a gig tonight at the Fillmore. Whoever's in CANNED HEAT, be there. And Henry didn't show up. We searched around madly for a guitar player. Mike Bloomfield was hanging out, so he played the first set with us. (He) apologized for not being able to stay and said he had to go. Over in the corner of the dressing room was Harvey Mandel. We said, 'Hey man, you want to play the gig?' He said, 'Sure' and played the second set with us. When the set was over we said, 'Look, we're in the middle of a tour and we need a guitar player, are you doing anything?' He said, 'No.' We said, 'Go home and get your suitcase packed because we're going to New York at six o'clock in the morning.'

He got his clothes and came back and we flew to New York. We were all dead tired and we'd heard all the reports about the roads being closed around Woodstock. Traffic jams everywhere and nobody could move, so we decided we didn't want to go.

Our manager was with us and he said, 'Alright you guys, we won't go. Go to your rooms and rest. Thirty-five minutes later I get a phone call, 'We're going, I've chartered a plane.' They ferried us off to Snake Navel, uh, some little airport, someplace in New York. We took off and then landed in the middle of the mountains and there was nobody there except two little, strange looking kids with yarmulkes. They were the only people there.

Finally, up comes the ABC news department, and about ten minutes later here comes a helicopter. They all jammed out to the helicopter with all their news equipment and were going to get on it. Our manager said, 'This helicopter's for us. We're one of the acts, we're performing, and we have to get there.' They said, 'No, we're taking this.' There was a little argument and it got physical. We yanked ABC off the helicopter and needless to say, we got there.

And still we didn't know what this was all about because the biggest job we'd played till that time was the Fillmore and the Fillmore held a couple of thousand people. And that was the biggest audience anybody had ever played for.

We're in this helicopter and the pilot says, 'There it is' and he points. We looked and there was just a mountain of people. It was hard to believe. We landed and this was after all the rain and the mud and they'd had a pretty rough couple of days. We went on at just the right time. We got on and played our first tune and I thought the place was going to come unglued. I mean the response was deafening.

We played the gig and had a real good time and then couldn't get out. We ended up ripping off one of the trucks they used for equipment and somebody left their limo there with the keys in it, so we took that. That was Woodstock. We didn't get to see much of it.


1970---AL 'BLIND OWL' WILSON

"Alan, we, to this day really don't know what Alan's main problem was. I had my own ideas. He was never one to play for the people. He never really cared what the people thought about how we played. He was trying to play for the rest of the guys in the band. His words, 'I care what you guys think, I don't care what they think.'

Towards the end, before he died, he would actually play behind his amplifier. He'd go behind it. He said, 'I could hear better.' Alan was strange from the beginning. I call him a musical genius; he could sit in front of a speaker with a piece of paper and a pen and write the notes down as they were coming out. He could transcribe anything. He could tune A440 by ear. He could pick up any instrument anybody handed him and in a couple of minutes get a melody out of it. He was an amazing character when it came to music.

As far as his own hygiene was concerned, whether he had wrinkled clothes or out in the rain or smelled, it didn't matter. I used to get on his case. I look kind of sloppy myself, but at least I'm clean and I don't smell and that's always been MY scene. My mother raised a clean boy.
And Alan wasn't getting along with his parents. When I first met him, he hadn't spoken to his parents for a year. They didn't understand him at all. Finally, the day came when the band had a job in Boston, where he was from. He was very nervous because there was all this mail he'd received from his family and never even opened. So he knew he was going to be confronted by his parents.

See, he was a musician, he loved to read, he loved to listen to music. He didn't want to be a stock car driver like his father wanted him to be. He didn't even have a driver's license. He didn't want to be a ham operator. He had a license, his father saw to it he had a license but he didn't care about that. All the things his parents wanted for him, he didn't want. They didn't understand this strange kid that would come home from school and listen to music and read, continually.

Anyway, we got to Boston and his mother came up to me and said, 'You must be Bob.' I'm pretty easy to spot. The big guy with the beard. And she said, 'What did you do to my son?' Immediately, I went, 'Oh, wow. What's this?' She says, 'You've done in two years what I couldn't do for eighteen.' Because he (Alan) was all clean, his clothes were pressed and he was looking pretty good.

So, that got Alan back with his parents but he still couldn't find a girl. I think that was the main problem. It wasn't money, it wasn't anything else. I think just a plain, old, ordinary girl is what he needed and he just couldn't come up with one. Most of his songs, if you listen to the lyrics, are mostly lonesome songs. The last albums he made with us, well they're almost death wish songs."

THE COLLECTOR

"I have about 2000 albums, but I have about 78,000 singles, 45's and 78's. And that's an estimated count. Usually when someone asks me that question in my home, I always say, 'would you care to count them?' They always say, 'no.' Well, neither would I.

I go all the way back to 1888 because inevitably someone always asks me, 'what's the oldest record you have?' I whip out one of my old 1888, seven inch Amil/Berliner singles which was RCA Victor before it became Victor. Musically, I'd say about 19....well, I'm a jazz enthusiast, early jazz, so I'd say 1922 up-to-date. Although the past couple of years my record collection's pretty sparse. There's not too much room in my house for disco records, but I do have a thirteen year old daughter who makes up for that. I do get to hear the Bee Gees a lot!


INFLUENCES

"Of all the rhythm and blues artists, when I was very young, eleven, twelve years old back in the early 50's, it was Fats Domino that I really liked. Always liked his music. Not only Fats Domino, but Joe Turner was another big influence as far as rhythm and blues stars were concerned. And then you get back into the older stuff, I've always liked the shouters, the hollerers. There was one called Peetie Wheatstraw, the Devil's son-in-law; I really liked a lot.... and John Lee Hooker."


JOHN LEE HOOKER

"We cut our second album in Chicago in 1968, I believe it was. And Calvin Carter who was vice president of VJ Records, previous to that, was our producer. We were in the studios and he said, 'Play something so I can get a level on the instruments. So Alan started playing the John Lee Hooker boogie. About three minutes later he pushed the cue button and said, 'Stop, that's great, let's record that.' That's how the boogie was born.....it was an accident. We record the boogie, the 'Fried Hockey Boogie' and it came out on the second album.

It was always something that we wanted to do, was to get together with John Lee Hooker and make an album. We could never find him. One day in the airport in Portland, this was about 1969, maybe early 1970, and there he was. We went up to him and he saw us and he was coming up to us and before we had a chance to get anything out other than, 'Hello,' he said, 'I want to make a record with you guys.' Which was exactly what we wanted to say to him. The idea was born, we got numbers how to contact on another and after our tours were over we got together and Hooker n' Heat was born."

THE FUTURE

"If I knew that, I'd just be rolling in the dough. It's hard to say, it really is. New Wave, I mean I know a couple of New Wave groups back in Los Angeles that are doing exactly the same thing that we did in 1966. There's a group called the 'Blasters,' they're all record collectors. They love old blues, they love rhythm and blues and old rock-a-billy records and that's all they do. They're re-arranging old rock-a-billy and blues tunes and doing the same thing we did and they're calling them New Wave because they wear suits. That seems to be the thing, either wear suits or look weird. Well, we looked weird too, so what's the difference? We STILL look weird.

In a telephone conversation back in 1988, Larry Taylor, the long-time bass player for the HEAT and a fixture as an L.A. studio musician, had these recollections of his days in the group. "I joined the band in late 1966, early 1967 and played from then to 1970. I left in 1971 and went back around 1978 and played another year and a half to two years."

"Back when I first joined we played the Ash Grove and the Topanga Corral. We used to go to his (Bob's) house a lot and we used to listen to records. He'd pull 78's, stacked in milk cartons all the way around the room. We'd spend two or three days and do nothing but listen to music. I learned a lot of stuff from those guys, him and Henry."

Taylor laughs when he remembered some of Bob's more unusual moments. "One of the funniest things I ever saw Bob do was eat a whole jar of jalapeño chilis in fifteen minutes. It was funny to see that. And I remember one specific New Year's Eve, we played a gig at the Shrine Auditorium and Bob came in on an elephant, with a diaper. It was 1968 or '69. He came up to the stage and put his clothes on and we did the set."


I was there at the Shrine to see Bob come in riding on a baby elephant. He says in the interview it was either '68 or 69: it was both – it was New Year's Eve.

Debbie Hollier, Nevada City, CA

* * * *

Who else played with Canned Heat and Deep Purple at the Shrine in '68?

Bill, LA

I think the Shrine show on New Years in '68, where Bob Hite rode out on the elephant, also featured Poco, Lee Michaels, Black Pearl, Love Army and Sweetwater. Don't know that Deep Purple was booked on that evening.

Bill, maybe you're thinking about the International Pop Fest in San Francisco a few months earlier that featured these fine folks... Procol Harum, Iron Butterfly, Jose Feliciano, Johnny Rivers, Eric Burdon And The Animals, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Grass Roots, The Chambers Brothers, Deep Purple, Fraternity of Man & Canned Heat or possibly the following year in Jan of 1970 when Deep Purple appeared with Canned Heat and Renaissance on a triple-bill in London at the Royal Albert Hall.

One final note: The Johnny Otis piece didn't mention it, but it was Mr. Otis that took Canned Heat into the studio the very first time to record in 1966. Small world, ain't it?

Tim

* * * *

Thank u for posting it! Bob is still boogin' around!!

Stefano Di Leonardo, Fisciano (Salerno, Italy)

* * * *

Great Read! I will post it on Bob "THE BEAR" Hite Official Facebook Page,

Dave Tohill, Brandon, UK

* * * *

Hello Tim, thank you so much for letting a huge Canned Heat fan check out this interview with the Bear. I really enjoyed it.

Best regards,

Rick Caldwell, Fairfield, Ohio

* * * *

I knew Bob Hite in the 60's. Canned Heat played at our high school prom 1966 Rexford High. The Family Dog, Chet Helms, Skip Taylor.

Max Kalik, Los Angeles, CA


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