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 .
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.
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.
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.
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“