Bob ‘The Bear’ Hite was the leader and the singer with the massively successful Canned Heat. Formed in Los Angeles in 1965, they always worked at promoting The Blues and, most importantly, the original bluesmen. They hit with ‘On the Road Again’, ‘Going Up The Country’ and more, as well as recording with John Lee Hooker, Sunnyland Slim, Memphis Slim, Gatemouth Brown and Albert Collins.
Bob contacted me saying that there must be some synergy between Bob The Bear and Big Bear Records. We stayed in touch and what follows in an interview transcription of a conversation we had in 1969.
“The reason blues music has taken so long to become popular again is because it was never exposed to the public. It was always underground.
Right! We’ll start off with the ‘twenties. It was heavy, and all the black people were into blues and jazz records. The same goes for the ‘thirties. In the depression, when they hardly had enough money to be eating, they had enough money to buy a new record, because that was a mode of entertainment for them.
Like us going to a club or to the movies or something, a record was entertainment. In the ‘forties they kept buying up blues records, and in the ‘fifties the black folk started getting disinterested in the music, so it disappeared, and then for all those years there were only a few blues-influenced singles that hit the charts, though there were a lot being made that never got a promotion.
They were just made in a little hole in the wall, in a shine parlour in the coloured end of town. So the blues influence completely disappeared.
When we started playing it and put the band together in ’65, the only other blues band you read about in anything was Paul Butterfield. I mean Muddy Waters and Elmore James and Howlin’ Wolf and all those cats were still playing, but you never read about them in the rock papers and magazines.
We started, and then – I don’t know what it was, maybe the public were just right for it, or maybe some crazy disc-jockey somewhere really dug it, was drunk one night and decided that he’d play “On the Road Again”, which I would think was one of the first really funky records to get into the charts.
And that just opened it up. That opened the doors – people heard that music for the first time, because the radio stations were playing it. I think that’s the key. I think you could sell Arabian music to any country other than Arabia if you pushed it down people’s throats enough on the radio and I’m glad to say the radio stations did help a lot, and opened up a little door for us, so the people learned about a new kind of music, when before they only knew about Buddy Holly and the Crickets and people like that.
That’s groovy, but they didn’t know about this other door that was there all the time. All it needed was somebody to open it for them.
Because of the success of John Mayall, Canned Heat, Led Zeppelin, and Cream, now bluesmen like Son House and Skip James (when he was living), Bukka White, and Furry Lewis, and Rev. Robert Wilkins are beginning to make a little money on their own music again.
You know, people hear “The Prodigal Son” by the Rolling Stones, and somebody says “Yes, but you ought to hear it by Robert Wilkins”, and they hear it, and they dig it, and you know Robert Wilkins, he works now, and he makes a bit of money because of “Prodigal Son.”
It helped him a lot and, like with us, “Bullfrog Blues”- they hear the old one by William Harris, and it opens a whole new door. They hear the original; they go “Oh, my God!” and they’re going to want more, and that’s what’s happening, and it’s beautiful- it really is.
It’s putting a lot of old cats that were just doing nothing, just surviving on welfare, a chance to make a living again, and that’s the beautiful part of the whole situation, in my opinion.
Bukka White can now come to England, Bukka White was first found in 1960. He slept at the club he was working at, because he didn’t have the money for a hotel. When he got his first pay-cheque, I took him down to the bank and cashed it for him.
I had to write out the money order, ‘cos he couldn’t write. He sent half of it to his mother-in-law, 25 dollars to his church, some odd sum to a loan company, and he kept about like twenty dollars. Now he can afford to come to Europe, and stay in a fine hotel, and play blues for people who are really going to dig it and blow his mind – and that’s the same with all those cats.
You know the country people, man. They’re wild. John Lee Hooker will come to a gig and just get so falling-out drunk man, that he can’t even do his gig. Jimmy Reed is the same way. You’ve got to dig that these guys aren’t young men anymore, and you get senile when you get old, and they’re innocent, a lot of them.
A cat like Lightnin’ Hopkins, who’s a showman, he’s all right – he’s cool, he’ll make every gig. A cat like Hooker, who’s made his living in bars and in juke joints on Friday and Saturday nights, and had a few hit records, and after he’s had his hit records, still stayed in those places – when he comes to do a concert, man, he isn’t ready for this concert-hall bullshit, and he has a few drinks, and somebody else keeps filling his glass. Drink, drink, drink and Pow! He finds I’s too late and he can’t make it.
I saw Jimmy Reed fall out on stage one night at the Whisky at Gogo in L.A. he got so drunk. But I’ve seen some of us, we’ve fallen about so it ain’t so different.
Once we got to play with Otis Rush. That was in the beginning, you know. We played with Otis Rush and Freddy King – it was really great. But the thing that really gave us our incentive was one night in Cleveland we played with Cream, and that was the first real big group we’d ever played with. And we blew them off the stage in my opinion – we just blew them off the stage.
Then some DJ in Texas started playing “On the Road Again”, and it was the flip side of one called “Boogie Music”, which was supposed to be the A side, and it all started. We played two months ago with Johnny Winters. He is so into the country blues, it’s just all over his face. We played with him in Miami, and we started playing our blues. The cat just exploded man – went wild.
It was the recording company’s idea to release an album that included previously-released tracks. They told us that. “Oh, by the way, we’re putting out one of those Best Of albums in a couple months. You know, OK” Great. “You know, we didn’t even know about it – but why not?
There’s a lot of people that only like “Going Up Country” and “Time Was”, and they don’t care for the rest of our things. ‘cos most of them are pretty funky. They want the hits, so what’s a good album here may not be in America.
The kids here in England and in Europe are much hipper – much hipper. In America they know Creedence Clearwater and Led Zeppelin, but they don’t know about the older stuff. Here they do.
I go to the record stores here in Europe and I notice all these great albums you have that are all in the stores. Wherever you go in America, every store has a blues stand, but it’s always got the same things in it.
Here in England, the stores seem to carry even the little bootleg albums that seem to come out, whereas in America you’d have to go to a speciality store to get them. Here they’re sold in the public stores. The interest in much more here.
I can say for us, the audiences are better here in Europe than they are in America. This isn’t work for us, to come over here, and none of us expects to walk out with any money in our pockets. Last time I came home from Europe, I had a dollar and a half in my pocket, but I was happy. I had a great time – I’m happy now.
The only thing I hate about Europe is that we can’t get no big beds for me and my wife. We were in Scandinavia for a week, and we couldn’t get no big bed – not in the best hotels in the cities.
We just got two little beds stuck together. I really don’t dig that at all. I must get that written into my contracts next time. You see, I love her – that’s why I brought her along. I like to sleep with her.
I don’t hate anyone. I don’t like to knock anyone. Though I was misquoted in a British newspaper last year: headlines “Bob Hite hates the Rolling Stones, the Beatles etc.” It just wasn’t so.
HUTTO TO CROSBY
I like J.B. Hutto. I like some of the old cats that are still together that can still play. There are a few old cats that are so old they can’t even play anymore, and people love them just because they’re there.
But the music is the thing with me. If the music is bad I can’t dig it. Like when I play records at home, I mostly play my blues records, my jazz records.
Sometimes I play my Bing Crosby records. I like Bing Crosby. I very rarely listen to new albums. Almost every album I buy recently has been an anthology of old things – in fact that’s what I mean to buy in Europe here – all the things you can’t get in America.
The albums that are not available in America, I get here. I have five or six thousand 45s, and I do have a few Motown 45s – Temptations, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. I dig a few primitive groups that nobody ever heard like Singing Sammy Ward and Geno Sparks – two guys that really should have been stars, but their records don’t sell.
The most freaky musician that I know is Frank Zappa. That cat just wont talk to you.
I have a lot of mutual interests with him. We both like R&B records a lot, and the old black groups that were popular in America in the ‘fifties, and I’ve never talked to him about it ever. Because every time I’ve seen him, he always put off vibes like “I don’t want to talk to you”, so I always just stay away from the cat.
‘Cos you know, we knew the Mothers really well because Henry was a Mother – he’s not really with us anymore. So we all knew those guys for a long time. I’ve known Frank Zappa for about five or six years, but I’ve never said ten words to him. He’s said hello and things, but that’s all.
On our new album we’re trying desperately to get Otis Spann to play piano on “Sugar Momma”, the one Alan sings – the slow one. We want him to play on that, and if he doesn’t, I’m sure Dr John will – the “Night Tripper” man. He’s been on three or four albums. Dr John has always been a studio player.
Like he was responsible for – do you remember an American record label Ace Records. They had Hughie Piano Smith and The Clowns and Jeannie Clayton, and all those rock artists from the ‘fifties. Dr John played piano and arranged those things, and he’s made hundreds and hundreds of records, under hundreds and hundreds of different names and with different groups, when he’s not working with his group – which I think is more or less the thing he wants to do.
He doesn’t really care if the group make it or not, because that cat is busy every day. You can never reach him on the ‘phone, he does so many sessions in Hollywood and L.A. for everybody, and he’s a great cat, really a funky cat, so if the group doesn’t stay together, you’ll hear of him – probably not by name, but on a lot of records.
Similar to the way Larry “The Mole” Taylor used to be. Larry never was with any name group except Jerry Lee Lewis, and a few of his own groups that he played with in a lot of little clubs in L.A., but mostly he was doing sessions. The Monkees, Little Anthony and the Imperials – there’s so many, I can’t event remember their names.
When he first joined the band, you couldn’t be in a car with him for more than half an hour before a record would come on and he’d say “That’s me – I played on that.” He doesn’t have time now, you know. He’s got his own recording studios set up at home, so when we get home, this cat’s right there, all the time.
When he finally gets it all together, we’re going to record John Lee Hooker, properly, with a funky little amp turned all the way up, and just turn him loose. That’s why I want to do it at his house, so it won’t be a studio stereophonic sound. And that’s what John Lee Hooker needs.”
Canned Heat, known as The Bad Boys of Rock originally lined up as Bob The Bear Hite, vocals and harmonica, Al Blind Owl Wilson, guitar and vocals, Henry Sunflower Vestine, guitar, Larry The Mole Taylor, bass and Adolfo ‘Fito’ de la Parra, drums.
On April 5, 1981, having collapsed from a heroin overdose during a show at The Palomino in Los Angeles, Bob Hite was later found dead in de la Parra’s Mar Vista home.
He was 38 years old.