Spotlight: Alan “The Blind Owl” Wilson

Wilson received his moniker from the Coke-bottle glasses he wore, a result of an extreme case of nearsightedness. Majoring in music at Boston University in the early ’60s and playing the folk blues circuit in the Cambridge area, Wilson would never turn down a gig. There’s an oft repeated story about him smashing into a wedding cake accidentally while performing at a friend’s wedding, an embarrassing result of his not wearing glasses whilst performing. He honed his blues chops and obsessed over the folk blues musicians of the ’20s and ’30s, building up an ever expanding and impressive collection of 78′s.

Wilson became known in many circles as a blues preservationist, focusing on performing, yet retaining the spiritual and soulful intent of the songs. When legendary blues musician Son House was easing his way back into the folk blues circuit in 1965 after a 30+ year absence, Wilson was dispatched to teach Son House to play his songs again. Son House was so impressed with Wilson’s faithful and dead-on mimicry, he asked him to play harmonica and second guitar on his Father of The Delta Blues: The Complete 1965 Sessions release. High praise indeed.

Through his exhaustive blues album collecting, he came in contact with Bob “The Bear” Hite, another major collector, and relocated to Los Angeles. It was here that the wheels of Canned Heat (named for Tommy Johnson’s 1928 song Canned Heat Blues) were set in motion. “The Bear” acted as blues shouter and main vocalist for the band, but also as care giver to Wilson. Let me explain: Wilson was notoriously shy, sensitive and reserved, but also very disheveled. He would rarely brush his teeth and would often wear the same clothes for weeks on end. Scoring chicks was tough and it thoroughly depressed him, especially when “free love” was so pervasive. He probably could have helped his situation if he groomed himself every now and then.

Another interesting tidbit is that he was an impassioned conservationist and would fanatically read books on ecology and botany and would often sleep outdoors to be closer to nature. He felt a great deal of remorse and regret at how the human race had treated our planet, often experiencing feelings of deep depression on the subject. This was many years before concerns over the environment were de rigueur .

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Adding Larry “The Mole” Taylor, Henry “The Sunflower” Vestine (formerly of The Mothers Of Invention) and Fito de la Parra to round out the band, Canned Heat played around L.A. in ’65 and ’66, becoming a popular bar band and eventually playing the Monterey Pop Festival in ’67. After releasing an album of covers in ’67, the band recorded their first album of originals in late ’67, Boogie with Canned Heat, which included On The Road Again, featuring Wilson’s distinctive tenor vocal coupled with hard driving guitar parts and double tracked tamboura.

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After a drug bust in Denver in ’68 and subsequently having to sell off the rights to present and future recordings to Liberty Records (their label) to pay for legal counsel and representation, the band soldiered on – scarred, but smarter – recording and releasing two albums in ’68, Living the Blues and Hallelujah. In-fighting and understandable tensions caused some personnel changes within the Heat, but the band nabbed a prime spot at the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival in ’69. Wilson’s song, Up The Country from Living the Blues, has become identified as the band’s most commercial achievement and personifies the sentiment of Woodstock and the late-1960′s.

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A brilliant idea was born in 1970. John Lee Hooker, a big fan of Canned Heat (especially Wilson) requested that the band back him on an album. The album, called Hooker ‘n Heat, paired Wilson with one of his idols and allowed Hooker to play with one of the hottest blues bands in the land. Hooker even stated that Wilson is “the greatest harmonica player ever.” The album was very well received and helped reignite Hooker’s career.

Just when it seemed things were looking up for Canned Heat and Wilson, Wilson’s depression deepened and darkened. Wilson just couldn’t shake off the all-pervasive gloom that clouded his horizon. After several suicide attempts and countless hours on his therapist’s couch, Wilson camped out on “The Bear’s” property in Topanga County one night in early September of ’70 with a pocketful of powerful sleeping pills and died of an overdose. A very sad end indeed for “The Blind Owl” with the “The Bear” following him just 11 years later. Canned Heat limped on through the ’70′s and still perform today (with one remaining member), but the heart and soul are gone.

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In homage, Stephen Stills recorded Blues Man for Jimi, Duane Allman (who died 10/29/70) and Alan “The Blind Owl” Wilson for his Manassas album in 1972. It’s a touching song with poignant lyrics:

“Blues is pain
The way men cry
Like tired rain
Blues is mean, the real thing
Three good men I knew well
Never see again

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18 thoughts on “Spotlight: Alan “The Blind Owl” Wilson

  1. Pingback: Spotlight: Alan “The Blind Owl” Wilson « Musical Stew Daily |

  2. Scott Bernstein Reply

    Great article! I downloaded myself Living the Blues last night after reading about Alan’s backstory.

  3. Matt Andrews Reply

    Living the Blues was one of the first double albums to do well on the charts. There are lots of great Canned Heat songs, check out the 11 minute “Fried Hockey Boogie”, “Amphetamine Annie” was written b/c the courts demanded that the band do anti-drug promos. “Poor Moon” is a great song to hear Al Wilson’s personal take on his environmental concerns and “Human Condition” was written after one of his many trips the psychiatrist. I wonder if Zoloft would’ve helped him out a little.

  4. Chrissy Burnett Reply

    Super article although a tragic one. Great job sharing his story especially since he doesn’t have the notoriety of Hendrix or Joplin.

  5. zappafrank Reply

    Thanks HT. I love some Canned Heat, so this was pretty touching.

  6. Pingback: Pages tagged "poignant" |

  7. Johnny Roche Reply

    Great story on a musician and band I enjoy, but knew very little about. Thanks for sharing it.

  8. grapesofwrath75 Reply

    Good stuff. I’ve listened to this band quite a bit but didn’t know much about the back story.

  9. Matt Andrews Reply

    Downbeat Magazine
    Canned Heat @ The Monterey Pop Festival
    August 10, 1967

    Review of Canned Heat’s performance on 6/17/67:
    “Technically, Vestine and Wilson are quite possibly the best two-guitar team in the world and Wilson has certainly become our finest white blues harmonica man. Together with powerhouse vocalist Bob Hite, they performed the country and Chicago blues idiom of the 1950s so skillfully and naturally that the question of which race the music belongs to becomes totally irrelevant.”

  10. Rob Case Reply

    I really enjoyed this article! I have always enjoyed the music of Canned Heat, but I have a new found appreciation for both the music and lyrics after reading the story of Allen “The Blind Owl” Wilson. I now feel the need to dig up more recordings featuring his psychedelic blues guitar and harmonica. Thank you for not allowing the passing of this beautiful moon to be eclipsed by the surrounding stars!

  11. Rob V Reply

    Great article. I didn’t know much about their tragic struggle but have always enjoyed their music. This is definitely a “Hidden Track”.

  12. Will Reply

    Duane Allman died on the correct date but it was in 1971 not 1970. Very tragic story about Al Wilson.

  13. Pingback: R.I.P. — Alan “The Blind Owl” Wilson (1943-1970) « Musical Stew Daily |

  14. pappy Reply

    god bless you blind owl. we will never forget.

  15. Mossy Reply

    Blind Owl lived the next town over where I grew up just West of Boston, Mass. He is the Unsung Hero, a musical genius. His was not the flash or stage theatrics,a desire for attention, one reason why he is not so well known. His was a thing so deep and true, it transcended the norm. Blind Owl was The Best. I listen to “Up The Country” almost everyday. We love you Al.

  16. Rebecca Davis Reply

    Thanks for providing this superb blog post on the Blind Owl. I’m happy to see you’re still getting a few readers and comments on this essay. If you haven’t already done so, please take a few moments to check out the family tribute website at AlanWilsonCannedHeat.com, where new material, photos, videos, and music downloads are added frequently. You can also read an excerpt from my Wilson bio at BlindOwlBio.com.

    Thanks again and as Canned Heat always said, don’t forget to boogie!

  17. Nancy Cahill Reply

    Blind Owl didn’t prance around the stage wearing boas and tight skinny pants. That’s just unthinkable to imagine isn’t it? Alan C. Wilson was every bit as talented as Jimi and Janis. But Alan suffered from crushing depression. His is a story of herculean strength and courage just to get up each day, never mind create those stunning original gobsmacking songs grounded in the blues world but then transformed by Alan to a new higher universe. His last concert in Holland end of July 1970 shows him playing, ironically, Human Condition. His eyes are dead, focussed on nothing. The antidepressant meds of the 1960s were worse than useless as they produced nasty side effects and also gave you hope where there was little basis for having it. Alan Christie Wilson is the bravest man I will ever know. His superstar artistry was stunning of itself. But to know that he was creating, touring, laying down tracks, doing all the promotion required by the biz, WITH as I like to call it, a Wiley E. Coyote 1,000 lb. weight on his chest. That is what depression feels like. All you need do is find a picture of Alan, any picture from 1970, and you will see those dead eyes I speak of. This was a man who wanted out but didn’t know how to do it. And i will never be dissuaded from believing that if he had had a woman who could mother him, organize him, wash him and his clothes, be his closest confidante and lover, he would have come thorough the other side to explode into the superstar talent he always was, Alan needed love very badly. I was 17 at the time, so I was not a good candidate…but i sure do beat my head against the wall that some sensitive loving woman oould not have intervened at the right moment. i feel that our gender really let the ball drop.

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