Interview: Fito de la Parra of Canned Heat
Interview: Fito de la Parra of Canned Heat
Canned Heat is one of the all-time classic American blues rock bands out of the 60s. Formed in 65, they are best known for their hits “Going Up The Country”, “On The Road Again” and their cover of Wilbert Harrison’s “Let’s Work Together.” They played legendary festivals like Woodstock. More than 50 years later, the band continues with long-time drummer Fito de la Parra who joined in late ’67. We caught them recently on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles at the legendary Whisky a Go Go. Along with Fito on drums, the band currently consists of Dale Spaulding on guitar and harmonica, Jimmy Vivino from The Conan O’Brien Show on lead guitar and Rick Reed on bass. After the show, Fito chatted with us and regaled us with many a great story.
Bassam Habal: Fito, great to see you and hear you. Let’s start presently and work backwards. I just saw an outstanding performance at the Whisky a Go Go. So great to see you. I came a long way and was happy you were here playing.
Fito de la Parra: I hope it was worth it.
Bassam Habal: Oh, it was definitely worth it. So tell me about the current guys in the band and then we’ll go backwards.
Fito de la Parra: This is only the fourth night we played with this unit. And we haven’t worked in two years, because of the virus and all the thing that happened. And also, we suffered the loss of Larry Taylor, our original bass player, who died two years ago. So again, I had to replace people and reform the band. And Rick Reed came into the band after Larry died. And I wanted to form a band in California because I want to travel less but continue playing because I really love playing, but I don’t like traveling anymore. I’m totally exhausted from traveling and I want to lower a little bit the travel thing.
I have the blood pressure of a 30 year old. No prescriptions, nothing. That’s because of drumming.
So I wanted to make a California band like Canned Heat was originally, everybody from California, and play more gigs in California. So that’s how the idea to hire Jimmy Vivino came– because he’s Rick’s brother-in-law. They even live together. And the other guitar player I’ve had for about 10 years, John Paulus. He lives in Oregon and also had a quadruple bypass surgery and his health hasn’t been that good. He cannot be traveling either, so I decided to hire Jimmy. We played together a couple of times and I noticed how much he’s into the original Canned Heat. He has listened to our band. He’s listened to Alan Wilson a lot. He’s got the roots. He has an understanding of what Canned Heat music is about: country-blues mixed with rock and roll. We are the band that married country-blues with rock and roll, not swing blues or city blues– country blues with rock and roll. So Jimmy is perfect for that. And he’s got a very good attitude. He’s a good entertainer. I’m delighted with him. I’m very happy with the band right now.
Bassam Habal: It definitely shows in the performance.
Fito de la Parra: I’m very happy. We have a very good vibe. Some kind of freshness is still here after 53 years of being on the road. I’m the only one that’s been there for 53 years, but still, I feel a certain freshness and innovation and we’re doing new songs and old songs. But songs that we didn’t touch with any other units, even the original lineup. We do “Whiskey Headed Woman”. We haven’t touched “Whiskey Headed Woman” in 40 years. “Turpentine Moan”, the rocking Elmo James type thing, that’s another early Canned Heat tune we stopped doing 30 years ago and all of a sudden with Jimmy on that bottleneck guitar, it became a lot of fun to redo those things. So as I said, I’m very happy with this. I don’t know where it’s going because as I said I don’t want to travel. A lot of the offers we’re getting are far away and I’m turning them down. My manager’s not very happy about that. In 2019, we celebrated 50 years from Woodstock. It was a very active year. We went to Europe. We went to Australia. We went to Canada. We went to Mexico. I was exhausted at the end. That was it. I mean, it was our best financial year too, ever–2019, and I was already telling my manager that I couldn’t travel anymore. I am done with the fucking airplanes and hotels and the lines, and the waiting at the airports and shit. It is becoming horrible to me. It’s a torture because also the traveling itself has become lower and lower quality all the time. They want more and more money and they give you less and less. I don’t think there’s a worse industry for the customer than the airline industry. So they lost billions, good. They had it coming. I mean, I’ve been flying these fucking airlines for 53 years and pouring 40% of our gross to them,–40% of our gross! Not once I’ve gotten them to operate for nothing. Not once I’ve gotten a thank you or anything from them. Anyway, don’t get me going with the fucking airlines. So that’s the reason why I don’t want to travel anymore. I’m tired, exhausted, and old, but I still have this love for music. So I’m just going to play for no pay. I don’t care. I don’t care about the money anymore.
Bassam Habal: It definitely shows when you play. It’s like, “There’s a guy that enjoys what he does and is having a ball up there”.
Fito de la Parra: It just does so much good to me and to whatever I’m doing for people, is coming back to me. It’s like a good karmic thing. I’m very healthy; I have the blood pressure of a 30 year old. No prescriptions, nothing. That’s because of drumming. Drumming is an aerobic exercise and, at the same time, it’s a meditation with a communion of the people. I am looking at you all. I knew who you were. I am looking how you’re moving your heads and all that. If I don’t have you moving and rocking and dancing, then something is wrong. It is a beautiful communion. That’s what it is.
Bassam Habal: Absolutely. What would you say would be some of your favorite blues records growing up?
Fito de la Parra: Of course. Starting with Jimmy Reed, because you know, Jimmy Reed. If you want to turn somebody on to the blues, one of the earliest people to listen to is Jimmy Reed because of its simplicity, his wonderful lyrics, its primitiveness. That’s one of my favorites and, of course, John Lee Hooker right next to Jimmy Reed and then you can go on and on and on. I love and respect all the Chicago guys, of course. Muddy Waters and everybody in the whole Chicago scene. I mean, there’s so many people I admire.
Bassam Habal: Do you remember the first blues record you heard that knocked you out?
Fito de la Parra: Well, that was it. That was Jimmy Reed. And, as I said, I consider that, and many musicians friends agree with me, that if you want to turn somebody on to the blues, play them some Jimmy Reed to start with, something easy to digest and you know, very primal.
I came from Mexico City. I arrived here a year before I joined the band. I didn’t even speak English that good but I already knew blues music.
Bassam Habal: So how did you end up joining the band way back then?
Fito de la Parra: Well, I came from Mexico City. I arrived here a year before I joined the band. I didn’t even speak English that good but I already knew blues music. I had been playing already with Mexican bands for about seven or eight years, starting with pop bands and rock and roll. We were famous. I enjoyed fame and fortune from the very beginning of my career since I was 13 years old. I signed my first record contract with CBS at 13 years old.
Bassam Habal: What was the name of the band?
Fito de la Parra: Sparks. We had the original Sparks. There were some Sparks later in the 80s but I didn’t want to sue them or do any of that. I’m not that kind of a person. There are people that say “Oh, you should have claimed the name.” Create more havoc and ruin people’s lives. Fuck that. So yeah, we had Sparks in 1958-’59. Anyway, I played in Mexico for about four years, five years in these pop bands. I enjoy a lot of popularity, gold records and groupies, everything, just like here. Middle class kids from Mexico City, playing garage bands, copying American rock and roll from Elvis Presley and Bill Haley and Jerry Lee Lewis, and that’s how we started. But then eventually I met this American girl and she turned me on to the blues. She was kind of an intellectual, you know. She’s an attorney now, well-known state attorney and she was a smart girl. She was studying at the University of Mexico. She came to see us play and she enjoyed how we played, etc. We were a pretty good band, pop band, rock band, infantile. And as she said, “There’s this kind of music, you know, and I’m going to send you some records when I go back” and she sent me a couple of Jimmy Reed records, and another James Brown record, Night at the Apollo, with all this rhythm and blues, so I started getting turned on to that music with these records this American girl sent me, and then, at the same time, more or less, Javier Batiz arrived in Mexico City. Javier Batiz was also Carlos Santana’s first teacher and first mentor. He’s one of the greatest, probably the best rhythm and blues artist from Mexico. He was born in Tijuana and grew up in the nightclubs in Tijuana, entertaining people there all his life and then he ended up in Mexico City, and brought all that greasy Black music into Mexico City to all of us that were playing kind of pop, following the top 10 of the US. So then we started getting aware of Black music, and something a little bit different, a little, not as commercial, but with more heart. And that’s how I got turned on to the blues. So by the time I came to the US, I was already, not an expert, but I knew what I was doing musically and mentally. One of the things that happened as I joined Canned Heat is the day I went to my audition, I didn’t know those guys were record collectors and musicologists and experts in music. I mean, absolute experts. No bullshit. You know, these guys knew this shit. I, on my way to the audition, stopped by a record store and bought this Chicago Southside record of Junior Wells and Buddy Guy. You probably have seen it. It’s a very famous record, Live at Pepper’s Lounge. So when I went to the audition, I knock on the door, and Bob Hite opens the door and sees me with that record under my arm, right? And I go, you know with my accent, “I’m Fito. I’m here for the audition.” So I play and, you know, they offered me the job. Later, many years later, Bob came to me and said, “You know, I already heard you play before. I knew you could play, but that’s not the issue.” He says, “Many other drummers can play good.” He says, “What really got you into the band in my eyes, is because I saw that record you had under your arm the day you came for the audition.” When he saw me with that record of Chicago blues, he thought to himself, “This is the drummer for Canned Heat” because the drummer they had earlier, the original guy, Frank Cook, was in the band for about a year before me, he was too much into jazz and they were arguing about styles and all that. Bob wanted a low-down heavy blues drummer. He didn’t want a sophisticated jazz drummer. So that’s one of the things how I came in. The record collector saw my record under my arm and says, “That’s the one.”
Bassam Habal: How did you hear about the audition?
Fito de la Parra: The managers. I was playing all over Los Angeles already. I was lucky. I mean, I came here and I was already getting jobs. I play in a place called The Tom Cat Club in Torrance, California. The Tom Cat Club was wonderful. I don’t know how they heard about me but they came to see me and I’m playing with this funky half Black-half White band in Torrance, and we used to be the house band. Every weekend we had different celebrities that we backed. And that’s how I got to play behind T-Bone Walker, Etta James, The Shirelles, The Platters, and Big Joe Turner. Every weekend we had a treat. One of my idols in rhythm and blues will come to our club and play there and we’ve got to play with them. So the managers came to see me play in that club and they arranged for me to play in a wonderful little psychedelic place called The Magic Mushroom with one of my bands that I had so that the guys in Canned Heat could see me play. That’s how they did it, they booked my band and Canned Heat together, and that particular night, Canned Heat was not doing very good because they had just been in jail for a week in the famous bust in Denver. You must know about it. Maybe you know something about that?
The Doors opened for us or we opened for The Doors. It was with The Doors at the Long Beach Auditorium December 4, 1967. I still have the poster, scrapbooks.
Bassam Habal: Well, I know about the song.
Fito de la Parra: The song “My Crime”. So they just came from Denver. They just arrived and they were not in good shape, but they had already made the decision to get rid of their drummer. So this band is already a little shaky and I had a great little band with a Black singer and a fantastic guitar player called Ted Greene who became quite a legend later on–a teacher of jazz guitar. Well, Ted Greene was the guitar player in my band Bluesberry Jam when he was just a blues guy before he became totally sophisticated and all that.
We had a wonderful night and that night we kicked Canned Heat’s ass really bad at The Magic Mushroom. That’s another reason why they say they called me that same night at three in the morning, the managers. “We want you to come by and play with the guys and audition for them directly.” So they never really even considered any other drummers.
Henry wanted to hire a Southern guy from Texas because, he figured, drummers from Texas are known to be very good for shuffles. But I guess Bob and Alan and Larry, especially Larry, liked me. And it was important that Larry liked me because he was a bass player and that’s how they decided to hire me before they even tried other drummers. Another thing I can tell you about is when they pulled me out in the corner after we played, the two managers, they say, “You want to join Canned Heat?” And I answered, “I was born to play with Canned Heat.” I wanted to show him some commitment and here I am, a little immigrant guy that just has a chance to join a great blues band. The band was not famous. It was not making any money. Money is not in the question here. This is all about music and they offered me the job. You know, I wasn’t gonna be like the typical musician, “Well, how much are you guys gonna pay?” Because of the nature of music and the music business, musicians have to be mercenaries. We’re forced to be mercenaries. We don’t get no pensions. We don’t get none of this shit. You know what I mean? We have to hire whatever we can so it’s a typical answer. “You want me to play in your band, how much are you going to pay?” But I didn’t do that with Canned Heat. I told them, “I was born to play with Canned Heat.”
Bassam Habal: What do you remember about the first gig that you actually ended up playing?
Fito de la Parra: It was a wonderful gig. The Doors opened for us or we opened for The Doors. It was with The Doors at the Long Beach Auditorium December 4, 1967. I still have the poster, scrapbooks. I actually collected scrapbooks. It’s amazing that I have 50 years of scrapbooks. The other day this guy came to interview me. He’s doing a film about Randy California and he says, “Nobody that I’ve interviewed has all these documents. I mean, you have it all.” He was admiring that. My book is really good. You should read my book.
Bassam Habal: What’s the title of your book?
Fito de la Parra: “Living the Blues.” It’s doing real good, great reviews and sales. It’s just been published. It was self-published for many years.
Bassam Habal: Henry Vestine worked with with Frank Zappa. Did you did you know Frank?
Fito de la Parra: I saw him at one of the gigs one time and just said, “Hello.” We never got to talk. You reminded me of him a little bit when I saw you. I said, “That guy has the coat and long hair, you know, same type of hair as Frank.”
Bassam Habal: That’s great. What do you what do you remember about the Monterey Pop Festival?
Fito de la Parra: I wasn’t in Monterey.
Bassam Habal: You were not at Monterey?
Fito de la Parra: That was the drummer that I was talking about, Frank Cook. I came in late ’67.
Bassam Habal: Yeah, I was always wondering that. So, obviously, you’re asked this a lot, and here it comes…
Fito de la Parra: You want to know about Woodstock?
Bassam Habal: Yeah.
Fito de la Parra: See, that’s why I wrote the book. The first chapter in the book is the Woodstock experience from the very beginning. We have a great tale, “The Canned Heat tale of Woodstock.” So I’ll give you some of it but you have to read the whole chapter of the book.
First of all, I didn’t want to go. Henry Vestine had just quit the band and Harvey Mandel had just joined. We were not rehearsed. We were raw. We were broken because the original lineup had already suffered its first wounds because of Larry and Henry not getting along and because Henry taking too many drugs, and Larry being straight. Henry’s gone. I am tired and laying down in my bed in some funky hotel in New York and my manager insists on getting in and I won’t let him, so finally he drags me out of bed physically, and convinced me to go. “Look, turn the radio on. Look at the TV. There’s half a million there.” You know, Mexican kid just arrived right here. I don’t know what the fuck Woodstock is or any of that shit. I’m happy to be in the band and be popular and all that.
My book starts with this, “Fuck Woodstock. Leave me alone.” We end up in White Hills, New York, laying on the asphalt pissed off and tired and we see a helicopter arrive that says, “Press” and there’s two kids carrying their equipment into the helicopter running so we run after them, five hippies loaded on marijuana but dangerous hippies. Imagine the five of us running to a helicopter. The guys in the press go and Bob goes, “Where do you think you’re going?” And he goes, “We’re going to report the news.” So he grabs the kid. Bob was 300 pounds. He was a big guy. He grabs the kid and pulls him out of the helicopter and says, “No, No, No, we’re going to make the news”, and we jump on the helicopter and we hijacked the helicopter to get to Woodstock.
Bassam Habal: Unbelievable.
Fito de la Parra: That was the way we got there because it was impossible to get there. We played a gig the night before. I think it was the Fillmore East or some gig that we played in New York. They left New York that night. By the time we arrived the following day at 4pm in the helicopter, they were just arriving to the stage and we saw the truck and could not believe it. They took in over 12 hours a drive that normally takes two hours. They had to move cars out of the roads to get the truck in and ask all the hippies and girls and boys there, “Help us because we have the equipment for Canned Heat and we need to get to the stage.” The roadies, loaded on Benzedrine, they made it. They drove more than 12 hours and actually got there at the same time. As we were flying from the helicopter and flying down, I see the truck. What a beautiful coincidence, because many bands didn’t even have their equipment. I mean, it was chaotic. It was a lot of shit going on there and you cannot tell by looking at the film. I mean, you have to see the background. So we were so happy that our roadies actually came through and made it with the equipment after that night and that’s one of the great tales and that’s why I always say that the roadies never get the recognition they deserve from all these arrogant musicians and I always call them the infantry of rock n’ roll. The roadies are the infantry. And we have to give them some credit always, like the guys that did that stuff for us at Woodstock. It’s Gunga Din. You know what I’m talking about? Rudyard Kipling’s story of a little guy that saves the British Army. That’s the roadies. They are the Gunga Din of rock and roll, the infantry of rock and roll.
Bassam Habal: My buddy said to ask you about the gendarmes in France.
Fito de la Parra: The famous bust, the famous bust in Paris.
Bassam Habal: Henry convincing them his heroin was B12.
Fito de la Parra: How do you know that story? He must have read my book.
Bassam Habal: No, he hung out with you.
Fito de la Parra: That’s one of the greatest stories, that bust. It caused us a lot of trouble later. I was banned from all the Schengen countries for being a bad person. I don’t know what the fuck with these people, but oh, that’s a great bust, one of the greatest.
Bassam Habal: What can you relay to the people on that one?
Fito de la Parra: You wanna hear about that bust?
Bassam Habal: Yeah.
Fito de la Parra: The story, okay, it’s a great story. It all started in Holland. We’re in Holland playing in this beautiful place, one of those nice concert halls, and these Arab guys show up with this great hash, some of the greatest fucking hash I’ve ever smoked. They give us each a chunk. We take a hit. We get really loaded. We go play. We play a couple of hours. We’re feeling real good. We come out, the Arabs say,”You guys want to buy some of that hash?” “Yeah, yeah, we want to buy some.” We give them all this money and they give us all these packages. We jump on our bus, we’re going to Paris because the next night we’re playing at the Olympia. We have a long drive from Amsterdam to Paris. So we go in the bus, everybody holding whatever we’re holding and I remember the manager also saying, “If anybody has any dope, you guys be very careful. We’re going to France and we’re going across the border. This is Holland and when you’re coming from Holland to France, they always fuck with you.” This is 1970, around there, ’69 maybe. So we go on the bus, and everybody starts opening their shit trying to smoke something and it was all camel shit wrapped with weeds and stuff. The Arabs ripped us off. But in our desperation, or I guess Bob The Bear, he was always consuming everything–whatever he can. Bob and Henry would just take anything. He’s just trying to get high and he keeps lighting this stupid shit up on the pipe, stinking the whole bus of camel shit because that’s what they gave us in those packages. And the moment I saw it and smelled it, I didn’t want to touch it. I said, “Fuck this!”
Well, Bob keeps stinking the whole bus with camel shit and, of course, we never got high. And so when we cross the border, they opened the door to check for our papers, and they smell the camel shit and immediately say, “Everybody out”. So everybody has to get out to be searched. As we were going out, most of us had a few pills. I had a little bit of coke and we knew we were gonna get caught. As we’re getting out of the bus, Henry’s putting his hands out and we’re giving him pills. Everybody, whatever we have in our sights. We don’t want to be caught. Henry’s taking it all, popping pills from everybody as we’re leaving the bus. Okay, so we end up in the officer’s office. They are starting to take all our information. Blah, blah, blah. We’re criminals. They open Bob Hite’s suitcase and they find a bunch of reds in the suitcase. Bob turns and looks at them and says, “I forgot I had them in there.” I mean, stuff like that. They started finding all kinds of shit/ They find the half a gram of coke that I had too. And at the same time, we’re all sitting there. They’re dealing with all this shit and Henry starts coming on to all those pills he popped on the fucking bus. So he has the balls to just get up and goes to the officer. The officer has a bag of syringes, and three of those syringes had the shit already inside, you know, that black shit inside and the other ones were empty. But in France, it is legal to have syringes. It is no problem. So Henry comes on–on the shit he took on the bus, and he gets brave, you know, and he goes and tells the guy (in French), “Vitamin B12”, and the officer goes, “Well”, grabs the bag and gives it to him. Can you believe this shit? So he’s all loaded. He’s the worst of us. He grabs his bag of heroin, and goes out of the police station. They let him go!
So eventually, this Moroccan chief, the Moroccan Captain shows up. He spoke Spanish. Finally, we get a way to communicate because we haven’t been able to communicate. We’re just getting busted. In Spanish, I was able to talk to him and convince him that we’re just a band, and we’re gonna play at the Olympia and you better call them because there is going to be a riot, and all that and I convince him to let us go. You know, we pay a lot of money. We gave him a lot of money, and they still, they put us on the record and we still had to pay attorneys and all kinds of bullshit. They kicked me out of Europe a couple of times because of the bust. I mean, a lot of shit we went through, but one of the main things is that, as I’m arguing and begging with the Commissar, I looked through the window of his office–on the second floor– and I looked through the window of the bus. Henry’s mainlining in the fucking bathroom of the bus. We are not even out of the bust yet. He took his fucking syringes and shit, went into the bus and got high. So that’s the story. And then we were late, like five hours or so more and everybody at the Olympia was waiting for us. France was a scene. I mean, they were going to riot if Canned Heat didn’t play, so that’s why the Commissar let us go–because they called the Olympia. See finally, when I talked to him in Spanish, he calls the Olympia and I tell him, “You better tell them that we’re coming because otherwise you’re gonna have to handle a riot.” And in France in those times, they were having riots all the time. France has riots all the time and so they were into it and they let us go. And Henry got high in front of me as I am asking him. I am giving him a record. I am giving him dollars. You know, “Please let us go we have to play at the Olympia. We’ll be going out of your country as soon as we’re done, don’t worry about us. We’ll be gone.” And I turn to see and look out the window and I see Henry in the bathroom of the bus.
So that’s the bust. I wish I could tell you more stories, but they are kicking us out.
Bassam Habal: Thank you for talking with us.
Fito de la Parra: Read my book.
Bassam Habal: Alright, God bless you.