Livin' the Blues
Canned Heat's drummer relives Denver bust
Book blames corrupt cops for planting drugs on the powerful boogie band
© 1996 FITO DE LA PARRA
Even though it was hard work playing with three bands, I was living my dream.
I joined the musician's union. I'm making money. I'm a straight-arrow, who's in love with his wife. I have my brand new muscle car, a Pontiac Firebird 400. What more could a man want?
Fito de la Parra on drumsPhoto by Geoff Davidian
It was at this point that Frank Cook was starting to pull away from Canned Heat.
It seems that the other band members, especially Bob [Hite, the band's singer] and Larry [Taylor, the bass player], wanted a drummer with more of a rhythm and blues orientation than Frank, who was really into jazz.
By now, the band was far better known, for reasons good and bad. In the spring of 1967, it came out with its first Liberty album called "Canned Heat," which had an orange cover showing the band around a table littered with Sterno cans. It didn't contain any original material, relying on blues classics like Muddy Waters' "Rollin' and Tumblin," Willie Dixon's "Evil Is Going On," Elmore James' "Dust My Broom" and Sonny Boy Williamson's "Help Me." It wasn't a big seller but received rave reviews from authoritative critics like Pete Welding in Down Beat
In June, the band appeared at the Monterey Pop Festival, establishing the group as LA's answer to Paul Butterfield's Blues Band in Chicago and England's Bluesbreakers, also pioneer white interpreters of black blues.
Bob 'The Bear' Hite in photo
Photo by Geoff Davidian
The festival was small by today's standards, only about 35,000 spectators, but it established a new wave of bands as the standard bearers for a cultural revolution. Up there on the same stage with Alan [Wilson] and [Bob] The Bear [Hite] were Otis Redding, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, The Grateful Dead, the Animals and Jefferson Airplane.
Down Beat magazine featured Canned Heat on the cover of its festival issue and the band took off. The band appeared at the Avalon Ballroom, where owner Chet Helms had a helper, a quiet young Jewish guy who collected tickets and swept the floor. His name was Bill Graham and he went on to found a music empire based on the legendary Fillmore ballrooms in San Francisco and New York, command posts of the '60s rock movement.
Helms booked Canned Heat into The Family Dog, his new place in Denver, setting the stage for a drama that gave the band one of its best known songs and also saddling it with a financial burden that would have repercussions for decades.
The Denver police hated the idea of a hippie haven in their city and had done all they could to stop the club from opening. Nothing worked. Helms was way too smooth for them and met all legal requirements. When the club finally opened, Helms and his people were subjected to a barrage of harassment and illegal searches. This prompted them to get a restraining order against John Grey, the rabidly anti-drug detective also known as the "Wyatt Earp of the West" for his promise: "I'm going to rid Denver of all long haired people."
It was Canned Heat's bad luck to show up just as the police figured they'd get one of the bands and the bad press and legal troubles would slop over on Helms. On Saturday night October 21, 1967, the police [. . . ]dispatched a stool-pigeon with some weed to Canned Heat's hotel to socialize a little and get the band high. The Bear swore that the band members (knowing the city's reputation) actually didn't have drugs with them that night.
It turned out the stool-pigeon was an old friend of Bob's -- Bear grew up in Denver -- so he trusted the guy, until he suddenly slid out the door and the cops came barging in to "discover" a lid of grass under the cushion of the chair where the "friend" had been sitting. They arrested everybody on charges of marijuana possession -- still a big offense in those days.
Skip, the one guy who did have drugs, wasn't there. He was in his room with a girl, but the cops went after him to arrest him anyway.
"You with that band?" asked the cop who knocked on the door.
"Uh, yeah," said Skip, who was wrapped in a blanket from the bed.
His girl was in a sheet
Standing on his night stand wrapped in tin foil was a flat chunk of rich dark brown Afghani hashish: it looked like a Hershey's bar.
"You're going to have to come with us and the rest of the band," the cop said. As they left, the cop said to the girl: "Sorry to bother you with this ma'am. But you can finish that chocolate bar all alone."
The only real dope in the place -- except him -- and he missed it.
The band was hauled off to jail after the search. A judge was not available to set bail until Monday, so the boys spent the weekend in the can. Larry -- who never got high -- was thrown in a tank with 50 drunks and no sleeping facilities. The bust was immortalized in "My Crime," which
tells the story best.
I went to Denver late last fall
I went to do my job; I didn't break any law
We worked in a hippie place
Like many in our land
They couldn't bust the place, and so they got the band
'Cause the police in Denver
No they don't want long hairs hanging around
And that's the reason why
They want to tear Canned Heat's reputation down.
To a reporter at the time, The Bear said: "To sing the blues, you have to be an outlaw. Blacks are born outlaws, but we white people have to work for that distinction."
Being led away in handcuffs, kicked off the band's image as the bad boys of rock, heavy-duty incorrigibles, which eventually led to our becoming a favorite band of the Hells Angels and other outlaw biker clubs. At the moment, the band was on the downside of the outlaw life.
Skip was desperate. He had a band that was far from a sure thing but was suddenly hot. Unless they could follow up, they might get cold just as quickly. Unfortunately, they couldn't play anywhere because they were in jail.
In a gin rummy game in Los Angeles with Al Bonnet, President of Liberty Records, Skip mentioned that he had to get $1O,OOO right away. Bennett, a shrewd businessman, offered him that much for the publishing rights to the band's works and Skip grabbed at it.
That sprung the band, but at the price of publishing rights that would be worth millions in the years to come. It was the start of a chain of events that created a band that rode a powerful wave of popularity in the rock explosion of the late '60s, but was always just one gig away from being broke. It was only six months later that the "Boogie with Canned Heat" album hit the stores with "On The Road Again," which became a worldwide hit.
To this day, the band has not received a penny of the publishing rights for that song, a song that shows up regularly in TV commercials as a way of instantly creating the aura of the vanished '60s.
This was the band I was so thrilled to get a chance to join. I just didn't know, and wouldn't learn for years, that it was already a band that was crippled financially by the same offstage life that fed its music and its fame.
Shortly after being released on bail pending trial, Skip and John came to the Tomcat Club to hear me play. They'd heard about me from good reviews I got playing with Bluesberry Jam in a concert at UCLA, as well as the guys in Sotweed Factor, who visited their office looking for a manager. Boy, had Skip changed. The clean-cut, preppy agent in the corporate suit I met three years ago now had long hair. He was wearing a funky hippie outfit, doing drugs and managing Canned Heat. He'd come a long way from William Morris. On my break, they asked me to sit at their table.
"You do know there's something else happening besides this kind of place?" asked Skip, gesturing at the Tomcat Club. "There's a movement out there. A true musical revolution. Guys like Jimi Hendrix. You want to be part of that don't you? Canned Heat's looking for a new drummer. How
would you like to play with Sotweed Factor or Bluesberry Jam and open for Canned Heat in its next LA appearance? Then Bob, Alan and the guys can hear you play."
They arranged for Bluesberry Jam to open for Canned Heat at a little place on Venture Boulevard in the Valley called the Magic Mushroom. We were a little uptight that night because Canned Heat was already THE Los Angeles blues band and people were talking about them with respect.
This is the start of the experiences of life in the band that became the bad boys of rock, the heavy-duty incorrigibles that climaxes with our becoming one of the favorite bands of the Hell's Angels and other outlaw biker clubs.