When actor Anton Yelchin died in June in a freak accident many immediately linked the death to the portentous 27 club striking again, as the actor was also a musician – a guitarist for a band called The Hammerheads. This is the typical inquiry when a musician dies young; was he/she 27 years old, and, if he/she was, it is the 27 club’s reaper coming with scythe in hand to steal another young musician from this world.
Today, I enter the Stygian realm of 27. Thankfully, I am neither a musician nor talented, and thus I should be spared by the 27 club; so, my 27th birthday can be met with more joy, despite the fact that I am getting closer to 30, which I would always consider so “adult” and “old” when I was younger. Yes, older readers are probably scoffing at my naive, doltish complaints. In all seriousness, though, it’s good to be 27 – I get to espouse on deep thoughts of the world, and, if I say anything dumb or trite, I can always use the, “well, I’m still learning” excuse.
27, though, is synonymous with the 27 club if you are a fan of music, and, thus, I felt the need to do a post on this star-crossed club. However, instead of completed a wide scope of the entire 27 club, I want to focus in on a particular musician whose death pre-dated the Mt. Rushmore of the 27 club (Jimi, Janis, Jim, and Kurt). In fact, Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson died only two weeks before Jimi Hendrix in September of 1970, a year that fell in the middle of a stretch of time where the 27 club took so many wonderful musicians (1968-1972).
Before we get into the fascinating story of Alan Wilson, let me qualify this entire post by writing that there is no special link with 27 and death for musicians. Yes, coincidentally, many talented musicians died within a short time of each other at the age of 27, but, when you do a wide scientific study, it is pretty obvious that more musicians die closer to the national average for humans than do when 27. Many musicians unfortunately die young, though, because of the lifestyle they lead – drugs, alcohol, lack of sleep, constant touring, violence, accidents, and, in some cases (like that of Mr. Wilson), debilitating depression. For example, Tupac died at 25, Otis Redding at 26, Hank Williams at 29, Sam Cooke at 33, and Buddy Holly at 22.
Canned Heat may be the most underrated band of the 1960s. The band, which was put together by Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson and Bob “The Bear” Hite, appeared at both seminal 60’s music festivals – The Monterey Pop Festival and Woodstock – and played a style of psychedelic blues music that was adroit and foundational. It is not a lie that Canned Heat provided tremendous inspiration for several blues acts during one of the most formative eras of rock n’ roll. The band housed a slew of blues-related acts in the late 60s (Jefferson Airplane and The Grateful Dead included), and became a key starting point for tremendously talented blues musicians like Harvey Mandel and Walter Trout. Founding guitarist Henry Vestine is ranked 77th in the top 100 guitarists of all time list from Rolling Stone Magazine.
Unfortunately, Canned Heat suffered two huge losses with the death of Alan Wilson in 1970 and then Bob Hite in 1981 (at the age of 38). The band still performs today with originals Larry Taylor and Adolfo de la Parra. Harvey Mandel performs with them as well, and he is pretty much an original, joining the band in 1969 and playing with them (his third performance oddly enough) at Woodstock.
Let’s talk about Alan Wilson. Wilson, who got the nickname “Blind Owl” because he had terrible sight and was erudite, majored in music at Boston University and focused his attention on blues music. He particularly enjoyed the music of pioneer Skip James, and he emulated his high vocals in his own singing. With Hite, Canned Head was founded, and the band released a string of excellent album starting in 1966 – Vintage Heat (1966), Canned Heat (1967), Boogie with Canned Heat (1968), Hallelujah (1969), and Future Blues (1970). The albums featured such special guests like John Mayall, Dr. John, and Sunnyland Slim.
The band’s hit “Going Up The Country,” which sampled the quills of Henry Thomas’ “Bull-Doze Blues,” became the anthem of Woodstock; it is featured in the Woodstock movie.
In September of 1970, Wilson was found dead on a hill behind Bob Hite’s home. His autopsy revealed that he died of an accidental drug overdose. Wilson was hospitalized and treated for significant depression earlier that year after a suicide attempt, and some think the drug overdose was indeed a suicide.
It is worthless playing the game of what could have been, but if Bob Hite and Alan Wilson both stayed alive for longer, I believe Canned Heat would have released several more albums with the two leads at the helm, and perhaps would have gone done as one of the best blues bands ever.
Enjoy “Going Up The Country!”