Fito de la Parra
Playing Music Box
Canned Heat, the legendary band that played both the Monterey Pop Festival and Woodstock in the 1960s will be appearing at The Music Box Supper Club on November 29th.
The band gained a large following by reinterpreting older blues songs such as “Going Up The Country,” “On The Road Again” and “Let’s Work Together” all of which became international hits for the group.
Canned Heat, featuring two classic lineup members, Fito de la Parra and Larry Taylor, will be making a long awaited return trip to Northeastern Ohio. The band hasn’t played in these parts since a 1978 stop in Youngstown with Judas Priest.
We spoke with Fito de la Parra to discuss his upcoming appearance as well as various aspects of his long and fruitful career.
Greg Drugan: Hey Fito, where are you calling me from today?
Fito de la Parra: I’m in Ventura County, California in Santa Paula where the fires are. Where a lot of the fires are!!
GD: Oh wow, are you safe?
FP: Actually, I am safe now. I live in a little enclave which is pretty safe. I live in an area that is more agricultural, and that stuff doesn’t burn as easy because it’s wet. It’s green, not dry. But I am very close to the fires and last year the fires were huge and they were only about a mile away from my house. It was really dangerous and scary.
GD: Well, I am glad that you are safe and sound. How has the tour been going so far?
FdlP: We toured very hard this year. Our tour to the Midwest is coming and it’s the last tour we’re doing this year. We are really looking forward to playing in the US. We mostly work in Europe and Australia, so whenever we are able to manage a tour in the US we are very happy about it!
GD: Well you are finally coming to Cleveland and we are happy about that.
FdlP: Yes, it’s been a long time. Many, many years. We are playing a place called The Music Box Supper Club.
GD: Yes! It’s a very nice place to play.
FdlP: That’s good! I have very good memories from Cleveland! I recall playing at a place called La Ca or The Cave, La Cave. Do you recall any of that?
GD: That was a little bit before my time. I think that was more in the ‘60s or early ‘70s.
FdlP: That’s exactly right! I think I played there in 1969 and 1970. I don’t remember if it was La Ca or La Cave. For me, it was just fantastic! It was my first trip around the country. I was from Mexico, originally and I was just a 20 year-old kid playing with this great band. I was meeting all of these other bands too. I remember playing with Blood, Sweat and Tears at La Cave. We came there a couple of times. It was real nice, it sort of became like a family there. They were the Cleveland Hippies!
GD: We are glad you’re coming back! First, is Harvey Mandel still an official member of the band?
FdlP: Unfortunately, no. Harvey has had a lot of health problems and it’s very difficult for him to travel the way we do. He hasn’t been with us for three years, or maybe more. The good news is he’s finally cancer free and he’s doing ok. He has his own band in San Francisco and he plays occasionally and does his thing.
GD: I'm glad he's doing well! Growing up, who were some of your musical influences?
FdlP: I grew up in Mexico City and the first rock music that I heard was Bill Haley and The Comets. How great do you want? He was the creator of the first rock (record) out there! He came to Mexico City and my father was an admirer of American culture and music. He always took me to see American movies about jazz musicians, The Benny Goodman Story, The Glenn Miller Story and great movies about swing music. When Bill Haley came to Mexico for the first time, my dad brought the whole family there and I was completely blown away by the music!
Later, I got introduced to the Blues and Rhythm and Blues and I left all that pop stuff behind. I totally immersed myself in the Blues and Rhythm and Blues music and that’s all I’ve been doing for the past fifty-two years.
GD: When did you begin playing the drums?
FdlP: We had a lot of fun. We had a garage band in the suburbs of Mexico City. We grew up, pretty much the same way as middle class American kids would grow up. I started playing the bass, then I played the guitar and then I ended up playing the drums. I don’t know how that happened! Eventually I became a drummer, but I still play other instruments sometimes just for fun. Music is fun! We always found pleasure in the music, not just the instruments that we were playing.
GD: When did you meet up with the guys from Canned Heat and how did you get the gig to be their drummer?
FdlP: Somebody talked to their managers about me in Los Angeles. It was toward the end of 1966 and I started making a name for myself in the area. Los Angeles was a great city for music at that time; similar to San Francisco. Canned Heat had already had a record out and they were the West Coast answer to the Paul Butterfield Blues Band from Chicago. A white blues band from the West Coast. I think they were having trouble with their original drummer, Frank Cook. He was a jazz-oriented drummer and they weren’t looking for that. They wanted a more Rhythm and Blues drummer. They wanted to marry country blues with rock and roll.
They came to see me, when I was playing behind Etta James! What a privilege. They saw me playing with Etta James and they liked me so they invited me to make an audition and that’s how it happened. I played and we got along quite well. The managers pulled me aside and they asked me, “What do you think about joining Canned Heat?” I looked at them and said, “I was born to play with Canned Heat!” You know how musicians are, we are kinda like mercenaries by nature. When you offer a musician a gig, the first thing they ask is, “How much am I gonna get paid?” This time, I was so jazzed and delighted to be invited to be in this band, I didn’t care how much they were gonna pay!
GD: You weren’t in the band yet when they played Monterey, however, a year and a half later you got to play the most iconic music festival of all time at Woodstock. When did you arrive, did you get to see any of the performances and what do you remember most?
FdlP: My story about Woodstock is in detail, from the moment I woke up to the moment I collapsed that night, in my book! I used to refuse to answer that question because I would say, “Read the first chapter in my book, Living The Blues.”
But, you are asking me the question. Getting there was a real problem for us. It was a problem for everybody. We were waiting in White Hills, NY at the airport. We were waiting for a helicopter to get us there and we know the roads are closed. A helicopter comes in and it says “Press” on it. Two or three guys with cameras jump in the helicopter and they are almost ready to take off. We go up and we physically remove them! Bob Hite, a big bear, 300-pound guy goes to them and says, “Where do you think you’re going?” The kid from the press goes, “We’re going there to report the news.” Bob grabs him, pulls him out of the helicopter and says, “We’re going to make the news!” So that’s how we did it. We actually hijacked a helicopter from the press and we left the guys there! (laughs)
I remember that I didn’t even want to go. My manager had to drag me out of bed because the night before we played at the Fillmore East. We didn’t even know what Woodstock was. I remember my manager woke me up and said, “Turn the radio on! This is the biggest gig you’re ever going to play! It’s the biggest gig in history!” I was like “I don’t know what Woodstock is, what the hell?” Finally, he convinced me. I woke up, got dressed and made it to the airport to hijack a helicopter.
GD: You guys had a prime slot, 7:30-8:30 on the second day. Was that negotiated or was that just where you fell?
FdlP: No, it was just natural. There was no program of when to perform. Many of the bands didn’t have their equipment there. Some bands had some members but not all of them. It was almost impossible to get in. When we finished the gig at the Fillmore East, our roadies… Let me say this, the roadies never get the credit they deserve! The roadies are like the infantry of rock and roll. Our roadies pick up our equipment at 3 am from the Fillmore East and they drive all the way to Woodstock! It took them 12 hours to get there, moving cars out of the way. I don’t even know how they did it! Then, when we are in the helicopter and are about to land, I see our truck! They were pulling in right next to the stage! I was like, these are our killer roadies, they made it!
There we are, we are all there and our equipment is there. The stage manager says, “Can you guys play? Sundown is the best time to play festivals.” So we were lucky to get one of the best time slots. It’s because we were all there and our equipment was there too, thanks to our roadies!
GD: A little bit of luck goes a long way! Did you know that “Going Up The Country” was going to be unofficial theme song for the Woodstock movie?
FdlP: Not really. It wasn't planned. The song was becoming a hit. Someone came up to me and said, “Why don’t you do that song “Going Down The Country?” It’s “Going Up The Country” because that’s how you relate to it, you are going up the Catskill Mountains to the Woodstock Festival. We didn’t know it was going to be the theme of the Woodstock Festival, but every time you hear that song, you think of Woodstock.
GD: For sure. After Woodstock, you guys played with blues legend John Lee Hooker. What was it like playing with him?
FdlP: Oh, that was a wonderful experience and a wonderful privilege playing with him. I followed his music since I was kid. When I joined Canned Heat, they were all John Lee Hooker fans, I mean hard core! So when we finally met him, we struck a deep friendship. We did a couple of tours with him. He was like a member of the band. He was a little bit older than us, but he was just one of the guys. He was always ready to party and always ready to have a good time. Towards the end of his life, I got invited to join his band called the Coast to Coast band. So I got to play with him the last two years of his life.
I was with him for his last performance a week before he died. It was so sad and so deep with him singing about him going away. I had tears coming down my eyes while I was playing with him. He’s singing, “My doctor said, my doctor said.” The blues is about life, but he was singing about death and him going away.
GD: Who were some of your favorite artists that you’ve either played with or toured with?
FdlP: It’s always been a great experience for me. In the ‘70s when Canned Heat wasn’t doing so well because of disco music, I became the house drummer for the Topanga Corral which was a little blues joint. It claims to be the first hippie joint in history. I had the pleasure to play behind George “Harmonica” Smith, Mary Wells, Big Joe Turner. All of these people who came to play at this joint and I was the house drummer. At The Tom Tom Club, I played with The Shirelles and The Platters so it’s been great to play behind all of these great performers.
GD: Through all the turmoil and lineup changes in the band, you have always been the one constant feature in keeping the band together. How have you been able to do it?
FdlP: I always saw the band as something very valid. Maybe because I was an immigrant and I ended up in this spot in life. My parents gave me this stability and my personality. I did some crazy things, but not as many as my partners did! I never abused myself. I never went for the heavy drugs or the heavy alcohol. I could have changed, I could have went to other bands. For example, J. Geils offered me a job many years ago. I was happy with Canned Heat. Remember, I said I was born to play with Canned Heat. I've lasted fifty-two years without quitting.
GD: Next year is the 50th Anniversary of Woodstock, are you going to be a part of any festivities that might take place?
FdlP: I would hope so! I think my manager got a phone call from the promoters but I can’t say for sure because you never know what they’ll decide. We did play the 10th Anniversary and the 20th Anniversary. I have a feeling that they are going to invite the bands that are still functioning from the original Woodstock. I’m sure they are planning on having some big names and some big contemporary bands.
GD: You will be playing in Cleveland in a couple of weeks. You said you remember playing La Cave but did you ever stay at Swingo’s?
FdlP: I don’t remember that, but I remember La Cave well! I remember I smoked my first joint at La Cave. I was a clean-cut kid from Mexico City. It’s amazing that I didn’t touch the stuff there, but I come to the US and this red-headed girl from Cleveland turned me on to my first joint!
GD: We corrupted you!
FdlP: That’s good, I love it because I still practice that! (laughs)
GD: Very good! What can fans expect from the show?
FdlP: We are going to play our hit records for sure. We play them as close to the records as possible. We also play stuff that we develop in our rehearsals to educate a little bit. We are not just a jukebox type of band. We like to improvise a lot, that’s what blues music is about, improvisation. We are doing the right thing by playing the hit records and then introducing new things to the fans.
GD: Sounds like a party! Fito, thank you so much for your time. I’m looking forward to your show!
FdlP: Are you coming to the show? Stop by and say hi! I hope you enjoy it. The band is really good and we are kicking ass!
GD: For sure! We will see you in a couple of weeks. Happy Thanksgiving!
FdlP: Happy Thanksgiving to you, my friend!
Be sure to check out Woodstock legends Canned Heat at The Music Box Supper Club on November 29th. Tickets are $35 or $40 day of the show.