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Published: 2016/05/28
by Kayla Clancy

"The Blues Will Always Be There": Canned Heat’s Fito de la Parra

It was a fine Saturday in the desert. As the sun began to set, Canned Heat took the stage for their headlining performance at this year’s Blues Blast Festival in Phoenix, Arizona. Original Heat members, Fito de La Parra (drums) and Larry Taylor (bass) were present. Completing the lineup were John Paulus (guitar), and Dale Spalding (vocals/harmonica). Right out the gate they opened with an incinerating classic, “On the Road Again.” The feel of the song invoked wild west imagery with blazing harmonica, omnipresent rhythm guitar, and lyrics which spoke like the rambling wind of blistering suns. On the road again, indeed,

Heat offered up some classic blues instrumentals, and one of their hits, “Amphetamine Annie.” Everyone joined in to sing along. Before long they announced the next tune would be a “psychedelic environmental boogie.” Of course with Canned Heat it was always about the boogie. The entire crowd boogied around the field, smiling, and erupting with joy. It would be impossible not to do so. John Paulus launched riffs off his guitar that went beyond blues. There was so much energy within his playing. The electric solos told a story, and Taylor and Parra maintained the rhythm as if in careful listening. Dale too had a way of speaking with his harmonica, which filled the air with a cajun groove. He had a big smile and light eyes, and kept everyone laughing in-between songs. When it was time for a gentler blues number, the harmonica became soft and sweet. The band was tight in unison, as if breathing together.

The feel-good classic, “Let’s Work Together,” provided another groovy sing-along. Larry Taylor and JP switched between guitar and bass, and Taylor even picked up the slide guitar. A great highness filled the air as “Goin up the Country” sounded off. Everyone in the crowd knew every word. It was a thrill to know that Taylor and Parra had played this same song on stage at Woodstock, and were still keeping the spirit alive.

As the set ended Dale re-introduced the band in farewell. “Let’s hear it for Fito,” he said, “…he’s been keeping this shit together for many, many years.” Thankfully Canned Heat liked to play for long, groovy periods of time. They returned to stage for an extended encore of the classic, “Little Red Rooster.” The great thing about a tune like this, is that it’ll never be played quite the same way twice. The solos and improvisational lyrics are forever at whim to what the moment provides. With that, the final sun set in the desert, and so did the final boogie.

After the show, Fito de la Parra talked about what inspired him to play the blues. He divulged how the primal and folkloric roots of blues rose up and affected him. The journey from Mexico City to Los Angeles was the beginning of a Canned Heat quest. This mission led them all across the world, and most memorably to Woodstock. They set out to spread the blues, to gain recognition for its soulful tradition, and to offer it to audiences in a way that was palatable, and full of groove. Fito said that through the experience of rooted music it is possible to find the feeling, and subsequently, to find the answers. A song that is passed down through time creates something shared between all.

Amidst changing times, the high-vibe music of the sixties may have faded. Great musicians and friends were certainly lost. But baby, the blues will always be there, and so will the spirit of freedom, and those continuing on the mission to forever sing the songs of the wind. Canned Heat sought the recognition of blues music, and in exchange, were recognized. Music affected them, and they affected people with their music. It has been a deep energetic exchange and Fito said, ‘It’s something that happens to us.’

When you grew up in Mexico City, you started drumming in rock and pop bands. How did you get into the blues?

I had an American girlfriend. She turned me onto some of my first blues records…rhythm and blues. And then I never went back to pop or rock anymore.

What was it about the blues that pulled you in?

I just found it more soulful. Of course the jazz influence was very important in my past. Before I started playing in the rock bands I was also playing with some jazz trios. My father used to take me to watch all these old movies with jazz, swing, the Benny Goodman story, the Glen Miller story, all of those. He was my first influence in music-my father who took me to watch all those old jazz movies. When I got into the blues it was closer to what I wanted. It was more expressive. It’s something that happens to us, that we do this stuff. Then we find the other part of music, or one of the other parts, because music has many branches. One of the things that makes it very interesting is the fact that you can improvise, and you don’t have a set thing, like in a broadway play or a classical piece, where structure is set and sometimes stiff. We are the opposite of that; That’s what the blues is about.

Would you say you do a straight blues style drumming in Canned Heat, or do you have rock influence too?

A reviewer once said, we were the band “that married country-blues with rock ‘n’ roll.” We were more into country blues than city blues, like “Goin up the Country.” That song and all the songs that luckily became hits were country-blues oriented.

“Goin’ up the Country” originated from the song “Bull Doze Blues” written in 1928, right?

That’s right. “On the Road Again” wasn’t even authored. Of course there is Floyd Jones, but really “On the Road Again” is just traditional Mississippi lyrics that you don’t even know where they started or where they came from. This is really folkloric and primitive music, and that’s what makes us crazy about it. The roots, the primal thing about this music, have to be understood. That’s what it is; it’s very primal. At the same time it’s easy to digest. It’s not so demanding on the spirit.

Part of the uniqueness of traditional music is that it stems from songs that are passed on, borrowed, and revitalized throughout time.

Yes, yes. Even if the music scene seems very stiff and depressing sometimes, and just where the business is going in general, there is this sort of light at the end of the tunnel of young people that are still aware and hip to it, and musicians too. They are starting bands in garages just like we did. Learning how to play an instrument, learning a craft, not just learning how to play a computer. It’s a very different thing. Of course on a computer you need some talent and this and that, but it’s still not the way music is, as I grew up understanding it to be. Sometimes it’s a little bit depressing see how the mainstream, the corporate music, has invaded our senses. You have to search more in the past, and the farther back you go…Then you find the feeling. You find the answers.

Some kids came to me this one time and said the blues started with Stevie Ray Vaughan, and I told them, no no no, you have to listen to what Stevie Ray Vaughan was listening to.

For example, there’s this movie called Ghost World, and at one point this young lady comes across a man who collects 78s. She thinks he’s a weirdo. Then, this collector turns her onto Skip James, a song called “Devil Got My Woman,” which is very early Mississippi blues. Just beautiful, wonderful music. This girl gets totally blown away by it, and comes to him and asks where she can hear more of this music. He tells her, “I’m sorry, but there are only two of these records in the world of this guy, and that’s all you’re gonna get…but listen to this. “Skip James was a great influence on us too. One of the greatest.

You mentioned you went and saw old films with your father. Who were some of the musicians that really inspired you to play?

Well I was in Mexico City, growing up as a middle class kid, admiring the U.S. and the music and the culture-Bill Haley and His Comets for example. That was the first rock and roll band I ever saw and it was just fantastic. They were really the first band to truly make rock and roll palatable and popular. There was a movie called Blackboard Jungle. That’s where the first “Rock Around the Clock” came from. That’s Bill Haley and His Comets. They came to Mexico and my father of course immediately said, “Let’s go see Bill Haley!” I saw them and thought, “I have to do that!”

So is that what inspired you to move to California?

Well, I married an American girl. She wanted to develop her career as a teacher and I wanted to prove to her that I could play here in this country where rock and roll, and rhythm and blues was born. Many of my friends made fun of us. They said, “What do you think, that you’re gods?’ You think you’re going to the land of the gods to show them about rock and roll?” There’s a chapter in my book called “Taking Water to the Sea.”

But I went, and I got lucky. Part of it was my integrity in playing rhythm and blues music. When I came here already I had experience. I had been working professionally five or six years. I had more experience than anyone in the band. The only one that had equivalent experience that I had was Larry Taylor (bass), who started with Jerry Lee Lewis. He started very early too. We both started around age 13. So by the time I joined Canned Heat around 19 or 20 years old, I had a lot of experience. But, all the guys were musicologists and record collectors. They were blues experts.

Bob Hite had a large blues collection at his home in Topanga Canyon didn’t he?

Yes, he had a fantastic collection. I didn’t know any of that. I showed up to my audition with a copy of South Side Chicago blues with Junior Wells and Buddy Guy under my arm. I remember something Bob Hite told me many years later. He said, “I had seen you play before, but when I opened the door and saw you with that record under your arm, I thought to myself, ‘This is the drummer for Canned Heat.’” So that’s what got me the gig! I was totally innocent. I happened to go to a record store and buy that record on my way to the audition. I didn’t know that was going to cause such an impression on Bob. They were having problems with their previous drummer because he was too jazz orientated. He didn’t really want to play blues music. So, this Mexican kid shows up with his blues LP and Bob says, “That’s it.”

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