The least glamorous of The 27s, Alan Wilson was more than anything a pure and frail human being, a blues scholar, a great harmonica player, and a guitar player with a solid foundation in Delta blues. Raised in Boston, Alan left for California to help John Fahey with his thesis. Fahey gave Alan the nickname “Blind Owl,” due to his coke-bottom glasses, and introduced him to Bob “The Bear” Hite, another record collector. Together with Henry Vestine, a Mothers of Invention alum, the trio formed Canned Heat in 1966.
Canned Heat started out as a purveyor of the Delta blues tradition, but got caught up with the psychedelic ’60s and added more of a contemporary spin to their boogie. The Bear had a gravelly voice, while Alan sang with a high-pitched, often tortured lilt. Although Canned Heat is now largely forgotten (the band still tours with one member from the golden age, Fito de la Parra) it was one of the more popular bands of the late 1960s. Canned Heat headlined both the Monterey Pop Festival and Woodstock and the group’s songs pop up in movie soundtracks and commercials.
Struggling with chronic depression, Alan Wilson overdosed in Bear’s backyard on the eve of departure for a German festival that also marked one of Jimi Hendrix’s last performances.