Obituaries: Henry Vestine

Henry Vestine, guitarist: born Washington DC 25 December 1944; died Paris 20 October 1997.
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The Independent Online
In the Sixties, under the aegis of bandleaders like Alexis Korner and John Mayall, a whole generation of British musicians became the exponents of the blues. Soon, the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds and the Animals were taking this black American music form back to its place of origin and introducing it to a new wide and white audience. To this day, Eric Clapton is still playing variations on the 12-bar format of Robert Johnson and emulating Albert King, Freddie King and B.B. King.

Canned Heat, featuring the guitarist Henry ("The Sunflower") Vestine were the missing link in this equation. The Californian blues band were early collectors and connoisseurs of the idiom but only found world-wide popularity at the end of the decade with their memorable performances at festivals and recordings of "On the Road Again" and "Going Up the Country", which became Top 20 hits on both sides of the Atlantic.

Despite the tragic deaths of their founder members Al Wilson and Bob Hite, various incarnations of Canned Heat kept the blues flame alive. The current line-up had been enjoying something of a revival when Vestine died in Paris last month.

Born in Washington DC in 1944, Henry Vestine had drifted to California and played with the Beans before joining Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention in 1966. The group was already writing its own satirical material and moving away from blues covers. Soon the purist Vestine lost interest and jumped ship after appearing on the Freak Out! album, hooking up with Alan Wilson (nicknamed "Blind Owl" because of his thick glasses) and Bob Hite (nicknamed "The Bear" because of his bulk).

Both were Los Angeles blues fanatics who sang and blew a mean harmonica. Wilson also played guitar and penned learned articles about the music while Hite ran record stores and amassed a huge collection totalling some 60,000 items, including many vintage 78s. The pair had started a jug band in 1965 and called it Canned Heat after a 1928 Tommy Johnson side entitled "Canned Heat Blues" (which described the highs one could reach by mixing soda and Sterno, a product more commonly used for unblocking drains). But their rootsy approach hadn't gone down too well and they had floundered before regrouping the following year.

The Drummer Frank Cook got them a gig at UCLA which led to a residency at the Kaleidoscope Club. There, Canned Heat were spotted by the staff of Liberty Records, who were regulars and offered the group a contract in early 1967. Vestine recommended as bass player Larry "The Mole" Taylor and this line-up recorded the Canned Heat album which contained many good covers of vintage blues tracks like "Rollin' and Tumblin' ", "Evil is Going On" and "Dust My Broom" ( a staple of the British R&B boom) and their own "Bullfrog Blues".

Already their live reputation was growing and their appearance on the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival bill alongside Janis Jopling, Otis Redding, the Who and Jimi Hendrix helped their debut album into the US Top 75. Drafting the Mexican drummer Adolfo "Fito" De La Parra to replace Cook, Canned Hea supported Cream and recorded Boogie with Canned Heat, which came out in early 1968. A Texas radio station began playing "On the Road Again" and, with Wilson's distinctive falsetto vocal and harmonica, this dusted-down version of a track originally recorded by the Memphis Jug Band in the late Twenties caught the public's imagination and charted in the US and the UK.

The group came to Europe, triumphed at the Revolution Club in London and cut the infectious "Going Up the Country", which equalled the success of the previous single. Canned Heat were in a different league now, jamming with Dr John and the Chipmunks and guesting on the blues pianist Sunnyland Slim's album Slim's Got His Thing Going On.

Nineteen sixty-nine was to be their year, with the release of the double set Living the Blues as well as D.A. Pennebaker's film Monterey Pop made a couple of years earlier. But a heavy touring and recording schedule was taking its toll on the band, with drug busts a regular occurrence. Henry Vestine was particularly guilty in that respect and his playing suffered as a result.

In early August, Canned Heat were due to play two dates at Fillmore East in New York with Jefferson Airplane, but an argument broke out between Taylor and Vestine. Soon the bass player was refusing to share a stage with the guitarist, who walked out on the band. Mike Bloomfield (of Butterfield Blues Band fame) filled in for one night but a friend of his, the Detroit- born Harvey Mandel, jammed along for the second set and was roped in full- time. This line-up travelled to Woodstock for another crowd-wowing performance in stellar company (Joan Baez, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young).

The movie and the soundtrack of the event gave a tremendous boost to the careers of Joe Cocker, Richie Havens, Ten Years After and Santana. Canned Heat also rode the Woodstock hippie wave. In September 1969, the Hallelujah album reached the US Top 40. In the meantime, Vestine formed his own short-lived group, Sun, and worked with the jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler. He therefore didn't appear on Canned Heat's classic boogie reworking of Wilbert Harrison's "Let's Work Together" (a British number 2 in 1970) or on the follow-up, Cleveland Crochet's "Sugar Bee".

However, when Mandel and Taylor quit to back John Mayall in May 1970, Vestine returned to the fold with a new bass-player, Antonio "Tony" De La Barreda, as the group joined the blues legend John Lee Hooker for live concerts and the Hooker'n'Heat double album (not released until the following year). Collections like Canned Heat Cookbook and Canned Heat '70 Concert were keeping the band in the charts but all was far from well, with Al Wilson, in particular, suffering from depression and attempting suicide on several occasions.

His heart-wrenching rendition of "My Time Ain't Long" on the Future Blues album should have sent alarm bells ringing, but other members had their own problems too. After a short stay in a psychiatric hospital, Wilson was discharged into the care of Hite, took a drug overdose and crawled into the woods at the back of his colleague's home. He died in September 1970, aged 27.

Shocked but committed to a European tour, the group recruited the guitarist Joel Scott Hill and soldiered on as best they could with "Wooly Bully", a cover of "Sam the Sham" and the Pharaohs' 1965 hit. Still, in spite of a guest appearance by the rock'n'roll legend Little Richard on "Rockin' with the King", the patchy Historical Figures and Ancient Heads album was their last Top 100 entry.

The arrival of Bob Hite's brother Richard on bass signalled another round of line-up changes with the guitarist James Shane replacing Hill and Ed Beyer joining on keyboards. After 1973's The New Age, the band concentrated on the European market, releasing Gates on Heat (with Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown) and Memphis Heat (featuring Memphis Slim) on Barclay, the French label.

The following year, Canned Heat signed to Atlantic Records but, even with the legendary Barry Beckett and Roger Hawkins producing, One More River to Cross didn't connect with the shifting changes in public taste. Somewhat disillusioned, the band retreated to the nostalgia circuit. Henry Vestine dropped out again and the gargantuan Bob Hite fell into alcoholic and drugs- fuelled bouts of depression. On 6 April 1981, the singer played the Palomino Club in California, overdosed after the first set and suffered a fatal heart attack. He was only 38.

The drummer Fito De La Parra carried on the mantle and, in 1985, Vestine and Taylor returned for Canned Heat's 20th Anniversary Boogie Tour, but the reunion was short-lived. However, following the double CD anthology Uncanned: the best of Canned Heat (Liberty, 1994), De La Parra and Vestine were again at the helm of the latest Canned Heat line-up which also comprised the slide guitarist and vocalist Robert Lucas, the lead guitarist Junior Watson and bassist Mark Goldberg and will release Canned Heat Blues Band (on Mystic Records) in a fortnight. This album includes a new version of "Going Up the Country" and brings the tortuous and tragic career of Canned Heat full circle.

Henry Vestine, who was suffering from cancer, died in his sleep on 20 October just before a return flight from Paris to the United States. The week before, he had played a blistering set at the Shepherd's Bush Empire in London. His sterling guitar work was at the centre of many classic blues and boogie tracks which, over the years, have influenced the likes of Status Quo, Dr Feelgood, Nine Below Zero, Jeff Healey and Robert Cray. Without Canned Heat's urban and rural blues, rock would have been less colourful. In the immortal words of Bob Hite, "Don't forget to boogie!"

- Pierre Perrone