If it were just for the vocal performance on the seminal track 'On The Road Again', Alan Wilson would have a permanent place in the history of popular music. If you take into account his teaching Son House how to play the Delta bluesman's own songs, his guitar work with Canned Heat and his wielding the harmonica with consummate skill, it would be impossible not to argue that Alan Wilson deserves a place in the pantheon of legendary bluesmen. All this and he died before reaching the age of 30.
A Student of the Blues
Born in 1943 in Boston, Massachusetts, Alan Wilson developed a passion and an academic fascination for music, especially The Blues. He majored in music at Boston University and wrote for a local music paper. His articles on country bluesmen Robert Pete Williams and Son House were described as 'the first important musicological analysis of blues style' by Downbeat Magazine, a respected national publication.
When a group of blues historians 'rediscovered' Son House in Rochester, New York, in 1964, they persuaded him to perform on the thriving folk-blues festival circuit. These were concerts where men who had had limited regional success in the 1930s, paid a pittance for recording records for the black jukebox market, were venerated by white middle-class kids as being the lost link to American Roots music.
There was just one small problem with this. Son House had not picked up a guitar in decades and had forgotten all his songs. Al Wilson was called in. Not only was he an exceptional slide guitarist, he had been listening to the records of House and knew them off by heart. Slowly, he taught the great man how to play his own songs again. Son House, the preacher who had succumbed to the devil's music, performed as if possessed by a spirit1 and was a massive hit on the scene. His resultant album, Father of the Delta Blues, featured Wilson on second guitar and harmonica. Wilson also featured on a Son House album recorded at London's 100 Club, where Wilson was invited to sit in on a couple of songs.
Canned Heat and Boogie
Wilson had acquired the nickname of 'The Blind Owl'. He wore thick-lensed glasses for his extremely poor eyesight, and had a limited concern for his own personal hygiene. His clothes were unwashed, his hair was not shampooed or brushed, and he had chronic bad breath from never brushing his teeth. It was this unkempt figure who travelled to California in order to help another blues historian, John Fahey, transcribe the songs of Charlie Patton. It was there he was introduced to a record collector and fellow blues fanatic, Bob 'The Bear' Hite.
The Bear was just that, a huge bearded figure with a powerful voice. Bonding over their love of music, they decided to form a 'jug band', an authentic blues band to play the music they both loved.
In Hite they had a guy schooled in the world of blues shouting; in Wilson they had an exceptional slide guitarist with a sensitive tenor voice and a mean line in harmonica playing. The line-up was completed by another blues historian, Henry 'The Sunflower' Vestine on guitar, Samuel Larry 'The Mole' Taylor on bass, and Adolfo 'Fito' de la Parra on drums. Vestine, a former member of The Mothers of Invention, was instrumental in the rediscovery of Skip James, one of the most influential Delta blues pioneers to record.
Jackie DeShannon, the singer/songwriter, brought the band to the attention of her husband, the A&R head of Liberty Records. Their set consisted mainly of updated electric versions of classic blues tracks, powered by some of the best boogies the world has ever heard.
Downbeat Magazine said that the Vestine/Wilson guitar pairing was probably the best in the world and that Wilson was the greatest white harmonica player alive. The Beat magazine said that de la Parra was the equal of any jazz drummer out there.
The band took their name from an old Tommy Johnson track concerning the use of a meths-based cooking fuel as an alternative to moonshine alcohol.
Their biggest hit was 'On The Road Again' - a masterclass by Wilson. He played harmonica, guitar and tambour as well as providing the falsetto vocals. Another of his songs for the band was 'Going up the Country', again, a popular song with the audiences.
Canned Heat appeared at the Monterrey Festival in the 'Summer of Love', 1967, and played at Woodstock a number of times. Wilson was absent, picking flowers, when one of the biggest crises to afflict the band happened. They were busted for drugs in Denver in 1967 and had to sell half their publishing rights to the record company to afford a lawyer. The lawyer got them probation but the loss of much of their publishing revenue hampered the band ever since. The raid was immortalised in the song 'My Crime'.
The band were heading in a more experimental direction, with Indian instruments joining the boogie flavours.
It Doesn't Matter Where you Look as Long as you Find Them
While Wilson was taking a cab with Hite and de la Parra in Chicago, 1968, the trio recognised the driver: he was none other than 'Sunnyland Slim', the former piano player for Muddy Waters. They convinced him to return to the studio and got him a record deal.
A similar story happened in Texas. The band were playing Houston in 1969 when they heard that 'The Ice Man' Albert Collins was playing in town. It turned out that the Bluesman was a fan and they used their influence to secure the 'Master Of The Telecaster' a record deal.
'Going up the Country'
Al Wilson was not a very capable person. He may have been a musical genius, but his personal life was a shambles. As stated above, he was a mess. Hite often had to check that Wilson had washed his clothes. Wilson also had women troubles. He was a sensitive soul, and was known to have cried himself to sleep when a groupie preferred another's company to his own. Hite points out that if Wilson had realised that brushing his teeth may have led to bearable breath, his chances with women may have improved.
Wilson was a committed environmentalist. He was an eco-warrior decades before people took them seriously. He loved being in and around nature and took on the world's problems as his own. Future Blues, a 1970, critically-acclaimed Canned Heat Album, featured astronauts on the moon in a reversed Iwo Jima pose, with an upside-down American flag, as a protest against the damage the US was doing to the planet. Major retailers refused to stock it.
Wilson had his share of mental health issues and had been committed, but was released into the care of Bob Hite.
Play that Ol' Boogie One More Time
Perhaps the greatest performance of Wilson's life was saved for working with one of his heroes, John Lee Hooker. Hooker had clung to fame while many of his fellow bluesmen had vanished. At the turn of the 1970s, he was suffering a lull in his career and entered the studio with the Heat to record a double album, produced by Bob Hite.
Hooker was notoriously difficult to record. He would never play the same song the same way, with alternate takes sounding dramatically different. He also had his own sense of timing which meant that he would fit the music around the words, throwing in bars with strange time signatures when and where he wanted.
Hooker had played with white blues bands before and generally the results were rather stifled. Things were different with Canned Heat. The session was arranged so that Hooker played a few songs on his own, then some more with Wilson sitting in, then some more with the whole band. While other bands may have listened to Hooker's music and knew his songs, Canned Heat knew Hooker's style and could keep track of the enigmatic genius.
Ever cantankerous, Hooker took on the challenge of trying to lose The Blind Owl but no matter how much he tried, the Owl was still in time and playing some of the best mouth organ that Hooker had ever heard. Hooker stated that Wilson was the best harmonica player he had ever worked with. The resulting album, Hooker 'n' Heat, was Hooker's first charting album, and marked an upturn in the bluesman's fortunes. The Detroit bluesman also said that out of his whole back-catalogue, this album was his favourite. The old bluesman had grown close to the young Wilson.
Sadly, the good times were over all too soon. Shortly afterwards, on the eve of a European tour, Wilson went into the countryside with a supply of drugs, to camp out. Worried by environmental issues and his own personal problems, he was found dead. The band had already left without him by the time the news reached them. Hooker 'n' Heat was released shortly after Wilson's death, the artwork missing The Blind Owl.
The world of music had lost, at the age of 27, one of its greatest, and most fragile, talents.