I just finished reading an excellent biography this morning called "Blind Owl Blues" by Rebecca Winters. It's about the life of Alan "Blind Owl" Wilson of the 60's blues/rock band Canned Heat. I think that through the years Alan has received a bad rap, been misunderstood as a person, and very much underrated as a musician. This book helps to clear up many of those misconceptions and allows you to see this extremely talented man in a different light. If you like a good read I highly recommend it.
I also just noticed that today marks the 42nd anniversary of his death and just wanted to take a moment to pay homage and remember the kind, gentle soul he was and the musical influence he had on so many. Like a lot of people, the first time I ever heard of Canned Heat was with the release of "On the road again" in the late sixties. At the time I didn't have a clue who Alan Wilson was but I did know I dug the sound of that harmonica. It would be many years later before I'd take up learning to play harp but that sound of his was always in my head and it was the first lick I wanted to learn how to play. But Alan's musicianship went far beyond what you hear on that song and if you do a youtube sweep you can hear many examples of his fine playing both on harp and slide guitar.
I've read all the post and comments about Alan on this forum and whether or not he should be on "this or that" list of people to listen to. It's not my intention to reignite that debate because list are nothing more than someones opinion and I use my own set of criteria for that. Basically I use 2 rules...(1) Do I like their playing? (2) Do they make me want to play? For me it's as simple as that and Alan fulfills both of those in spades.
He may not have had the speed or technical prowess of some but he more than made up for it in feeling. I like to think of his playing as "complex" simplicity and that's what I love about it. Even someone as technical and speed orientated as Jason Ricci found a lot of joy in Alan's playing. There's a youtube video where Jason breaks down one of Alan's solos and the best part of the video is seeing how excited Jason gets with every lick that Alan plays. Speed has its place but I think it's just as hard if not harder to make a musical statement with just a few notes and Alan was very good at it. Jason gets it but I think a lot of folks miss his genius because they're looking for something that isn't there.
Alan wasn't just a musician either. He was a musicologist who studied the blues and many other forms of music. He was also instrumental in the "blues revival" period and played a large role in the rediscovery of Son House, Robert Pete Williams, and Bukka White. John Lee Hooker had much praise for Alan and the album they did together "Hooker and Heat" is a blues classic.
All in all just a fascinating man who just wanted to live a simple life. Thanks Blind Owl...gone but not forgotten.
To learn more about Blind Owl check out these two sites
Thanks Old Hickory-Blind Owl was one of the first harp players I really got into-My brother and I would listen to the Woodstock album every year around the time of the festival-though I was not at the original festival,the vibe was shared by us both-Canned Heat was one of the many performers to play the festival,and it was great to see the on stage freindship formed by and audience member and Bob Hite-sharing a cigarette on stage,and taking it all in,the guy was oblivious to the crowd-just diggin and groovin on Canned Heat. I will remember Alan today by watching his Woodstock performance and thinking what may have been-thanks again.
Last Edited by on Sep 03, 2012 9:10 AM
Being a native Southern Californian and a "child of the 60's" I had the fortune to see/hear a Big Brother & the Holding Co. show in which Canned Heat was the opening act. I didn't know at the time I was seeing history in the making , all intensified by some guy named Owsley.(I digress). Alan Wilson REALLY deserves huge props as the phenominel musician he was but still seems to be viewed only as the quiet driving braintrust of Canned Heat. I ordered "Blind Owl Blues" 4 days ago and am very much looking forward to the read. Can't say enough about Alan's truely soulful harp playing and how it moves me deeply. Thanks Old Hickory , for posting of Alan's memory, and Jason also ,whom I know is a big fan of Canned Heat's early stuff, for keeping it alive.
Knowing all about Owsley, I am jealous of your experience.
Actually, this helped my harmonica playing in my formative years.
I was in India in 1972 (following the hippie adventure trail east from Istanbul) on the beach at Goa, where a guy called "The Doctor" would come around at night with a little bottle, eye dropper and flashlight. He would come up to you and say - "One drop or two? Say 'aah' ".
I spent the rest of the night on the sand, sitting with knees bent up and head between them, playing harmonica. It was a true breakthrough for me at the time in understanding how to bend. ---------- The Iceman
Bob Hite was also a college of musical knowledge with a massive blues record collection.
Living in Hollywood from the late 60s into the early 70s I had opportunity to see Canned Heat many times. Another early influence. I even got to jam with Larry "The Mole" Taylor and Matt "Guitar Murphy in the dressing room at the old Kaleidoscope on Sunset just off of Vine. Canned Heat was on the bill with James Cotton.
One of my favorite memories is from a New Years Eve show at Shriner Auditorium. Canned Heat, Poco, and Lee Michaels. The Heat were top of the bill. Just as midnight was nearing the big double doors at the back of the hall opened to a fanfare. In strides a purple elephant... yes, a purple elephant... with Bob Hite in a diaper riding on its back. The floor was packed but luckily I was in the balcony. The elephant carefully strode towards the stage. The crowd was so dense people were pressed up against it everywhere. They were patting it's legs as they were forced to part in front of it and, swept by its sides and then closed in behind. A miracle no one fell over and got stepped on. That elephant was so calm and cool. Bob and the animal reach the stage, Bob jumps off, and the Heat breaks into "Boogie Chilun" while the elephant serenely exited stage right. One of the most spectacular entrances ever. ---------- LSC
This is part 2 of Jason analysis of Alan's last solo from the Hooker and Heat Album...I have GOT to get this cd! And LSC I can't get that picture of Bob Hite in a diaper while riding in on a purple elephant out of my head. Are you sure you weren't hanging out with the Iceman and his magical dropper that night? Hee
Thank you for this thread!!! I didn't even know about the book! This guy was the best! I got into a big fight with a good friend of mine (still not talking) because he kept talking over one of Alan's backing harp vamps on Women and Whiskey. Im still not sorry.
"You hear that Cat...On the Harmonica?....THATS the Canned Heat!"- John Lee Hooker
Ditto on bringin up this video again. Hey Big J, you've just caused me to infuse a bunch of Sam Adam's Whitewater IPA into my lovely Spire's harp watching these again. And I think you really gave my old high school classmate Brenda a thrill last week at the Bean. She was delighted.
Yes, it's an excellent, fascinating book and I recommend it highly. Al Wilson was a strange cat and I can't say that I love his stuff. But his best stuff was highly original, often haunting. As a player, he was an excellent listener.
His sister sent me the book and a complete set of his recordings--the idea clearly being that dealing with that mass of stuff would revise my opinion upward, at bare minimum in the direction of including him in the honorable mention list on this website. I was persuaded and did that a number of months ago.
canned heat came around before the allman bros,who could also play some great blues.... blind owl was driving force behind canned heat...there were better harp players but he was a great bluesman with his vocals and slide playing...like so many wish he were still around
@Moon Cat... "This guy was the best! I got into a big fight with a good friend of mine (still not talking) because he kept talking over one of Alan's backing harp vamps on Women and Whiskey. Im still not sorry."
That's hilarious JR, he really should have known better...hee! Get the book, I know you'll love it! They say on their website "In the near future, Blind Owl Blues will be removed from the market in its current form." I'm not sure what to make of that other than maybe it will only be available in a digital form so if anyone wants a first edition hard copy I would order soon. And thank you so much for those 2 videos and giving us some insight into Alan's playing. More pleeeassse!
@kudzurunner... I noticed that in the "acknowledgements" section of the book the author list the Blues Archives at Ole Miss as a source of much of the information. Is that open to the general public? I would love to take a tour through there some day.
(the following information was obtained from Pat Missin at www.patmissin.com)
How did Alan Wilson play the solo on "On The Road Again"?
In the middle of a typically lyrical solo on Canned Heat's "On The Road Again", Al Wilson hits a G in the midrange of his A harmonica: click here for clip A standard diatonic in the key of A has a G#, but no G built into it. It is not possible to bend the G# in this octave, so how did he do it?
Several suggestions have been put forward. Perhaps he played an overblow? That is possible as other players around that time were starting to discover overblows and the hole 6 overblow on an A harp would give you a G. However, the slide down from this note includes a very quick slur over the D (5 draw) and the B (4 draw). If he had to switch between an overblowing and drawing, there would be a slight hiccup in this phrase. Several people who knew Al Wilson said that he would sometimes weight the tip of the 7 draw reed to lower its pitch by a semitone, however if this were the case, then that slide down would include an F# (6 draw) and listening to it at slow speed indicates there is no discrete F# note present. Another explanation has been given that he added a valve to the outside of the 7 blow reed, enabling him to bend the 7 draw down to a G - this would also mean that a slide down from this note would include a discrete F#.
The explanation is that he retuned the 6 draw reed, raising it by a semitone to give him the G. This is consistent with the notes of the slide down from that note, as you can hear on this slowed down clip: click here for clip Wilson is playing the retuned 6 draw to give a G, which he then bends down to a rather flat F#, followed by the D (5 draw) and the B (4 draw). He used a similar tuning on other tunes, such as "TV Mama" and "Nine Below Zero". So, one of the biggest pop hits to feature blues harp, is also one of the first recorded examples of a custom-tuned diatonic.