Alan Wilson is a forgotten figure who was a gifted musician. He died in 1970 under strange circumstances outdoors in a sleeping bag near his band’s lead singer’s (Bob Hite) house. He was dead at the age of 27. Jimi Hendrix would die in a couple of weeks and Janis Joplin would follow a month later…all of them were age 27.
Alan grew up in Boston, Massachusetts where he became a music major at Boston University. He was a frequent player at the Cambridge coffeehouse folk-blues circuit. Alan ended up a blues scholar. He had a massive collection of old blues records and was a walking encyclopedia of the blues. Wilson’s nickname, “Blind Owl,” was bestowed upon him by friend John Fahey during a road trip in 1965 from Boston to Los Angeles and was a reference to the extra-thick lenses Wilson wore.
Alan moved to Los Angeles and met Bob “The Bear” Hite and in 1965 started Canned Heat. The group decided to take their name from “Canned Heat Blues,” an obscure 1928 track by bluesman Tommy Johnson that described the drug high achieved through drinking the household product Sterno.
In 1967, after appearing at the Monterey Pop Festival, Canned Heat signed to Liberty Records. They made a self-titled album that year and it peaked at #76 on the Billboard Charts. In 1968 they released “Boogie with Canned Heat” which made it to number 16. They followed that album with “Living the Blues”(#18) and in 1969 released album Hallelujah(#37).
Their appearance at Woodstock raised their stock higher. They had two hit singles both sung by Alan Wilson, Going Up Country (1968 ) and On The Road Again (1969). Alan wasn’t the lead singer of Canned Heat but he sang the two best-known singles by them. They were both written by him and based off old blues songs. His unusual voice came from him trying to mimic the voice of old blues singers.
He was very intelligent, awkward, suffered from depression and was not a prototypical rock star. Alan was a serious environmentalist trying to save the Redwood trees. He would sleep outside often to be alone with nature. Alan Wilson was a superb slide guitar and harmonica player. John Lee Hooker said that Wilson was “the greatest harmonica player who ever lived.”
He was a big fan of Eddie James House, Jr. who was was better known as “Son House,” the great blues artist who had retired. He not only retired but was an alcoholic and had not played guitar in years and could not remember his old songs and slide parts from the 20s and 30s. Son House is said to have tutored Robert Johnson. John Hammond asked Alan Wilson to teach the 63-year-old Son House how to play like Son House again. Wilson knew his old records and licks and taught them to Son House who relearned them. House was later signed to a contract.
It gave Son House a career again and he kept playing till he retired again in 1974 after being rediscovered by a new generation. You can hear them both together on the Son House album John the Revelator: The 1970 London Sessions.
Alan died on September 3, 1970. No one knows if it was a suicide or an accidental overdose of Seconal.
Canned Heat continues to this day but they were never as successful after Alan passed away.
For a complete look at Alan Wilson go here to http://www.blindowl.net/index.html
it’s a great site. Below is an essay he wrote in 1970 about the Redwoods.
“The redwoods of California are the tallest living things on earth, nearly the oldest, and among the most beautiful to boot. They dominated the woods of the northern hemi-sphere in the time of the dinosaurs, a time when no mammal, flower, or blade of grass had yet appeared on earth. The Ice Age nearly exterminated them – of the once vast redwood forest only a remnant was spared by the immense glaciers which covered most of Europe, Asia, and North America in the not-too-distant evolutionary past.
Walking through this forest is an experience unique on earth. Here the sun’s rays are intercepted three hundred feet and more above the ground and are broken into tiny shimmering beams which descend among the towering pillars to play, at length, on the forest floor. Fern and wildflower bathe in the soft glow of a thousand muted spotlights which flicker on and off as the trees’ upper boughs sway majestically in a gentle wind.
2.000.000 acres of virgin redwood forest greeted the white man’s civilization as he completed his sweep of North America. In the last 100 years 1,800,000 acres of these have been logged, and of the remaining 200,000 only 75,000 are presently safe from devastation in state and national parks. At a time when these parks campsites must be reserved months in advance, the remaining 125,000 acres are being “harvested” (as the lumber-men put it), for uses which other trees could fulfill.
At the current rate of “harvest,” these remaining acres will be cleared within the next ten years.”
– Alan C. Wilson, 1970