The first time I ever heard the band Canned Heat was when I first listened to the original Woodstock soundtrack – the old triple album set. For years after that they were the band whose vocalist sang in falsetto. It was until years latter when I picked up a copy of director's cut on DVD of the movie version of Woodstock that I even discovered there was another vocalist in Canned Heat.
Bob "Bear" Hite wasn't called Bear for nothing. He looked like somebody from another age, a veritable mountain of a man with a mane of shaggy black hair and a black beard that you would call biblical if the man wearing wasn't so wonderfully profane. Watching the footage of Canned Heat that had been added to the extended version of Woodstock I had no idea who or what I was watching. There was this huge guy on stage belting out a Blues tune and growling like a wild thing.
My first thought was some biker had commandeered the microphone from whatever band happened to be playing at the time. I thought my assumption about the biker was confirmed, about the biker when I read it was Canned Heat performing. Canned Heat's lead singer was a falsetto not some big bear who looked like he ate falsettos for breakfast.
That's when I found out that there was more than one vocalist in Canned Heat. I was saddened to hear that he had died young — from a heart attack — but I don't think I was too surprised. He was an awfully big man and if he lived with anywhere near the abandon with which he performed, well let's just say it would have put quite a strain on anybody's heart. I don't know if this is true – and I'm sure someone will correct this information if it's wrong – but I seem to recall reading something about him having the heart attack that killed him while rehearsing with the band after rejoining them in 1980 for a couple of gigs.
Considering his passion for the music, it seems only appropriate that he would leave in that manner. It turns out that not only was Bob an accomplished Blues vocalist, harmonica player, and guitarist he was also an avid collector of older music dating back to the days of 78 rpm records. Long before he helped found Canned Heat he'd begun his collection of records; by the time of his death he had amassed a massive collection. Unfortunately a great deal of his collection vanished when Bob shuffled off somewhere else, but fortunately some few hundred records ended up in the safe hands of Adolpho "Fito" De La Parra, Canned Heat's drummer for more then 40 years.
Walter De Paduwa, better known as Dr. Boogie, is a musicologist and radio personality from the town of Overijse Belgium who also happens to be a friend of De La Parra. Together the two men have started the laborious process of taking those old 78s and transferring then onto CD so that these treasures can be preserved. Rarities From The Bob Hite Vaults on the Sub Rosa label is the first compilation that's been made available. If the 19 tracks on this disc are an indication of the quality of the material that they have at their disposal, we can only hope they will make this a continuing series.
The earliest track on the disk is a 1941 recording of Pete Johnson's "Death Ray Boogie" and you can see from this track why he was acknowledged as one of the great boogie-woogie piano players. The rest of the tracks on the disc are taken from recordings made in the '50s and represent a fair sampling of some of the great boogie-woogie music recorded during that time.
The difference between this music and the early rock and roll music of Elvis and others is that this is played with more abandon and is definitely lacking any of the hillbilly/country influences that defined Elvis's material and made it more acceptable to White audiences. You only have to listen to Bill Haley from a 1955 Decca recording singing "Birth Of The Boogie" to hear the differences between the two types of music. For those of you who thought you knew Bill Haley's music because you've heard "Rock Around The Clock," you'll be in for a big surprise.
That's not the only gem on this recording. Well, they're all gems; some just stand out a little more than the rest. There's a great recording of Etta James singing "Good Rocking Daddy" from a 1955 Modern recording, Otis Rush on a 1957 Cobra recording of "Jump Sister Bessie," the late, great Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown is "Taking My Chances" on a 1951 Peacock recording, and on the same label in 1955 Johnny Otis sings out that "You Got Me Crying".
But for me the real highlights of the disc are the last six songs; three different recordings of Elmore James from 1953 featuring A & B sides from three different companies. That's when you hear a master of boogie-woogie at work. According to the liner notes, none of these songs were ones for which Elmore was well known, but that just goes to prove how good he must have been. It's hard to imagine how good he must have been if these were just throw away sides only ever released as singles.
What really impressed me about the whole disc was how pristine the sound is on all the tracks. That's testimony to more than just the technology used but also to the immaculate condition the originals must have been in. Any time you have to use digital "cleaners" on old records you're taking away some of the original sound whether you want to or not. The way they work is to eliminate any sound in the frequency range that the noise of pops, hissing, or cracks occupy. It invariably leaves the music sounding sort of flat, because some of the high end has been removed.
Bob "Bear" Hite, and De La Parra after him, must have kept the original records in wonderful shape; these are some of the best recordings I've ever heard of older material that has gone through the analog digital transfer process. Rarities From The Bob Hite Vaults is a remarkable collection of music that might otherwise have been lost to the ages. It's a fitting tribute to the memory of a man who obviously loved the music and a great treat for music lovers every where.