'Born to play': Original drummer brings Canned Heat's blues to the Cape

Adolfo “Fito” de la Parra almost missed out on the gig of a lifetime because he was tired from the previous night’s show. The drummer of longstanding blues-rock band Canned Heat recalls not wanting to leave his hotel room to play the 1969 Woodstock festival, but ended up going at the insistence of his manager.

“I didn’t know what Woodstock was and I didn’t even care,” he says on a phone call from his California home. “But then all of a sudden I find myself on this helicopter and I look down and I see there’s half a million people there.”

He describes playing Woodstock as “chaotic” but also “a great experience.”

The current incarnation of the blues band Canned Heat, which started in the 1960s, includes original drummer Adolfo "Fito" de la Parra (second from right) and will perform Sept. 23 at the Music Room in West Yarmouth.
The current incarnation of the blues band Canned Heat, which started in the 1960s, includes original drummer Adolfo "Fito" de la Parra (second from right) and will perform Sept. 23 at the Music Room in West Yarmouth.

“I’m happy I made it and got out of my room and played the gig,” he says with a laugh.

De la Parra has continued to leave his room and play Canned Heat shows ever since, becoming the last remaining member of what he calls the “classic ‘60s” lineup. He and the current version of Canned Heat are set to play the Music Room on Friday, Sept. 23 in what is sure to be a performance that will stir up memories for veteran rock fans.

‘A marriage made in heaven’

Canned Heat came on to the scene in 1966 and right away were a blues-based band thanks to the love that its founding members — guitarist Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson and singer Bob “The Bear” Hite — had for the genre. The group began to establish itself with its performance at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival and ultimately the aforementioned headlining slot at Woodstock.

De le Parra, now 76, joined Canned Heat in October 1967 when he was in his 20s. Before Canned Heat, de la Parra was part of what he calls the “fantastic night club scene” of 1960s Los Angeles, where he performed in the Tom Cat Club’s house band, playing behind guests Etta James, the Coasters, T-Bone Walker and more. It was de la Parra’s own interest in blues music that he says helped secure him the gig to join the band.

On his way to audition for Canned Heat, de la Parra says, he stopped by a record store and picked up a copy of a live Junior Wells and Buddy Guy record. He had it under his arm when he arrived for the audition.

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De la Parra says that Hite later told him, “‘I had already seen you play and you play good, but there are many drummers that play good. But when you showed up with that blues record under your arm, I knew this is going to be the drummer for Canned Heat.’”

De la Parra calls joining Canned Heat “a marriage made in heaven,” referencing his bandmates as “blues scholars, musicologists and record collectors” who all enjoyed the same kind of music he did.

Although he says he knew Canned Heat at the time “wasn’t popular,” he didn’t care. He wasn’t interested in success, he just wanted to play.

“So when they offered me the gig, my answer was: ‘I was born to play in Canned Heat,’” de la Parra remembers. “I wanted to show commitment. I was an immigrant from Mexico and to me, this was a dream. They talk about ‘the dreamers’ now, I guess I was the original dreamer.”

Growing up in Mexico City and finding the blues

De la Parra is a native of Mexico City and grew up there, but says his father was interested in American culture and would take him when he was young to see “swing-people movies” with musicians like jazz drummer Gene Krupa, big band trombonist Glenn Miller, and clarinetist Benny Goodman.

“I grew up liking and digging all this great American music that was coming out,” he says.

When his father brought him to see Bill Haley and His Comets play a show in Mexico City, de la Parra says, “I just fell in love with rock and roll. There was this new music, this new attitude that was coming in. It was a little bit different than the swing music my dad was turning me onto.”

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De la Parra started playing shows with bands around Mexico City, covering Top 40 songs from the U.S. It wasn’t until he met an American girl who turned him onto blues musicians T-Bone Walker and others that de la Parra took the turn off the Top 40 road and headed down the blues highway to America.

“This other music was more soulful and had something deeper to it and I wanted to play that,” he explains about recalibrating his focus to the blues.

Success and a hard decision

It wasn’t long after de la Parra joined Canned Heat that the group had its first big hit in 1968 with its variation of “On The Road Again” off of its sophomore album Boogie with Canned Heat. “Going Up the Country” followed in 1969. Canned Heat’s cover of Wilbert Harrison’s “Let’s Work Together” was the group’s biggest hit and landed at No. 1 in 31 different countries around the world, according to the Canned Heat website.

“The song broke by itself,” de la Parra says about “On The Road Again.” “ We never expected to become popular. We knew we were in a specialized thing trying to promote blues music. You have to remember in those times, blues music was not popular and promoters were afraid of having blues bands in their places.”

De la Parra credits the song taking off to a disc jockey in Dallas, Texas, who started playing it.

“It became a hit in Texas,” he says. “Once it broke in Texas, it became a hit worldwide. We couldn’t believe it. It was a wonderful experience.”

Fast forward to 1981 and the death of singer Hite to an overdose, and it seemed to be the end of Canned Heat. The band had already endured the loss of Wilson to an overdose in 1970.

“We considered dropping the whole thing and let Canned Heat go when Bob died,” says de la Parra. “I remember wondering ‘Is it worth it? People aren’t going to like us. They’re going to think we’re a tribute band.’”

However, Canned Heat was already signed up to play a show in Australia and the promoter urged the band members to find a new frontman and “assemble the band as best you can.”

De la Parra remembers approaching the Australia show as a test: If the reception was bad, they would decide to put the lid on Canned Heat. The group, of course, was met favorably and continues to this day, although de la Parra says there are some who don’t see them the same way.

“In many ways that saved us, the Australian tour,” he says. “But there are a few hardcore purists out there that don’t believe this is the real Canned Heat and have their own opinions. And they can have it. That’s okay.”

‘The band belongs to the people’

De la Parra and the current Canned Heat lineup, featuring guitarist Jimmy Vivino, former band leader for talk show host Conan O’Brien, will play all the hit songs plus “other new things and blues classics to educate a little bit.”

De la Parra carries on the Canned Heat name with a somewhat heavy heart as he recalls his former bandmates. “They were very special,” he says. “Very different kinds of people, very talented, but also they lived in an era of excesses and that made their lives short.”

When looking for new musicians to join Canned Heat, de la Parra seeks players who “understand what Canned Heat is about.” The faces may have changed, but de la Parra says the current musicians still “give the people the experience of a Canned Heat show even if it’s not all the original guys.”

De la Parra also hopes that his 2010 book about his experiences in the music world – entitled “Living the Blues: Canned Heat’s Story of Music, Drugs, Death, Sex and Survival” – will someday be made into a movie. Mike Judge of “Beavis and Butt-Head” fame has optioned to produce it, but that option has since expired.

Movie or no movie, the drummer still gets a kick out of what he does.

“We still enjoy playing the music and that’s the main thing,” he says. “After all, the band belongs to the people.”

How to see Canned Heat

When: 8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 23

Where: The Music Room, 541 Main St., West Yarmouth

Tickets: $85-$150

Reservations: https://musicroomcapecodtickets.com/events/canned-heat-09232022/

This article originally appeared on Cape Cod Times: Canned Heat concert on Cape Cod includes drummer 'Fito' de la Parra