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Bringing ‘60s Heat to the 21st Century: de la Parra Continues Legacy of His Woodstock Band

Fito de la Parra is likely one of the few people on earth who can say he helped hijack a helicopter—without getting arrested. The Canned Heat drummer, now 76, fondly recalls how he and his bandmates were desperately trying to make it to Woodstock for their set in the summer of ‘69, but all roads to the upstate New York hamlet were impossibly jammed.

“Somehow, we ended up in a little airport that’s very close to the site of Woodstock. We’re all just waiting, and this helicopter shows up and says ‘Print’ on it,” de la Parra recalled recently, adding that the Jimmy Olsens who jumped out of the chopper were about the same age as he and his bandmates. It was at this point that the band’s 300-pound singer, Bob “the Bear” Hite, asked the journos “where do you think you’re going?”

“The kid says, ‘We’re going to report the news.’ So Bob pulls him physically out of the helicopter [and says], ‘No you’re not, we are going to make the news!” de la Parra said. “The two kids from the press ended up without a helicopter, looking at us taking off. They didn’t mess with five rowdy hippies that wanted to get” to Woodstock.

Canned Heat - Press Photo
Canned Heat - Press Photo (L to R: John "JP” Paulus-guitar / Dale Spalding-harp & guitar / Fito de la Parra-drums / Rick Reed- bass)

Those and many non-PG-rated anecdotes are available in de la Parra’s memoir, “Living the Blues.” You can also ask him yourself when de la Parra and a reconstituted lineup of Canned Heat come to play at the Ram’s Head On Stage in Annapolis Sept. 19.

The band’s current iteration includes Dale Spalding, the group’s frontman for the past 15 years, guitarist John Paulus, bassist Rick Reed, as well as ax wizard Jimmy Vivino, the longtime bandleader on Conan O’Brien’s TBS program.

“He really looks like a Canned Heat guy. Long beard, long hair, fat belly, the whole thing,” de la Parra said of guitarist Vivino. “So what you’re going to hear [is] the 21st century version of the Canned Heat band. Of course, we’re going to be playing our hit records, and we’re going to make them sound as close to the original as possible—and also some new things.”

De la Parra has been with Canned Heat since 1967, shortly after the band formed in Los Angeles two years prior. The group found acclaim with jam standards “Going Up the Country” and “On the Road Again,” and they also charted with “Let’s Work Together” in the ‘70s. 

The Woodstock-era personnel included de la Parra on drums, Hite on vocals, alongside bassist Larry Taylor and guitarists Henry Vestine and Al Wilson. Not only is de la Parra the only original member of Canned Heat still touring, he is in fact the sole survivor of the group’s Woodstock-era lineup. 

“Well, you get used to it after all these years,” de la Parra said of keeping the band’s legacy going for five and a half decades. “What family or what band has not had tragedies and changes in that amount of time? But we’re still going and…I carry the banner.”

And he’s quick to push back against notions that his ensemble isn’t the “real” Canned Heat or merely a tribute band. 

“The majority of people do accept us as we are, and they come to our shows and they do enjoy themselves,” the percussionist said. “And that’s what [the fans] are there for, and that’s what we are there for—not to start analyzing why [the current iteration] is not the original or why the old guys are dead or why I keep going. That is immaterial. What matters is come by and have a good time with Canned Heat’s music.”

The percussionist known as “Fito” was born Adolfo de la Parra in Mexico City in 1946.  He followed his rock dreams to the United States, winding up in Los Angeles in the late-’60s and soon falling into the orbit of Canned Heat. 

“I came here because I was interested in playing Black music. I wanted to play rhythm and blues,” he said. “I never expected to become famous or join a very famous band, [but] I am extremely grateful to God and to this country. I’ve accomplished so much that I never expected.”

Still, de la Parra stresses that as blessed as his career has been, the mega paydays of stadium-touring acts haven’t necessarily come his way. However, at this point in his life, he doesn’t have to play in order to pay the bills; rather, it’s an act of joy. 

“I am able to do OK even if I’m not working. At my age I should be, you know,” he said with a hearty chuckle. “Because when you get to your seventies, if you still need to work to make a living, then you’re in trouble.

“I don’t need to work anymore, but I do it because I love it. love music and I love playing for people.” 

Canned Heat - Press Photo
Canned Heat - Press Photo (L to R: Rick Reed-bass / Dale Spalding-harp, lead vocals / Fito de la Parra-drums / John “JP” Paulus-lead guitar)

De la Parra’s memoir, “Living the Blues” was even optioned by Mike Judge to become a feature film. The “Beavis & Butt-head” and “Office Space” creator is himself a bassist, and he was excited about bringing Canned Heat’s story to the big screen. COVID, however, had other plans.

“The exclusivity that he had with the book expired a few months ago,” de la Parra shared, adding that he remains in irregular contact with Judge about reviving the project eventually. “I was very enthusiastic, especially because Mike was the one who wanted to do it, but the COVID thing really kicked us in the ass. However, even if the option’s expired…the doors are open.”

The band members will be traveling together from Los Angeles to Newark to commence their string of East Coast dates. Vocalist and guitarist Spalding, who lives in New Orleans, will meet them for their dates that include the Ram’s Head gig on Sept. 19. 

“We’re only taking one airplane,” de la Parra said, adding that the post-COVID environment for making airline connections has been tricky. After landing in New Jersey, the band will then drive around to their East Coast gigs together in a Mercedes Sprinter van, much as de la Parra did in the old days.

But don’t be too quick to call the percussionist himself “old.” Although he smokes the occasional pot, de la Parra doesn’t drink, smoke cigarettes or use hard drugs. He exercises regularly, eats well and says he has the blood press of a man less than half his age. 

“I think a great part of it is drumming,” he says of his capital bill of health. “Drumming is great exercise and it’s an aerobic experience. Not only is it good for the body, but also the act of performing and the communion with the people are very important. They are very therapeutic psychologically and physically.” 

It’s been quite a road from Woodstock—which Canned Heat’s manager told them would be “the biggest gig you ever played”—to the 21st century iteration of the group, with de la Parra its unwavering anchor for more than a half-century. The drummer says he hopes the band will record some new material next year, potentially as a catalog-capper.

“It’s not that often you can see a Canned Heat show, [so] I hope people come by and enjoy themselves,” de la Parra said, nudging fans to “take advantage that we’re still around—because it may be the last time.

“As a whole, the band is a feeling-good band, and that’s what you’re going to hear.”

Canned Heat will perform at Ram’s Head On Stage in Annapolis on Sept. 19. Tickets are available at ramsheadonstage.com

Eric Althoff

A native of New Jersey, Eric Althoff has published articles in “The Washington Post,” “Los Angeles Times,” “Napa Valley Register,” “Black Belt,” DCist, ScreenComment.com and Luxe Getaways. He produced the Emmy-winning documentary, “The Town That Disappeared Overnight,” and has covered the Oscars live at the Dolby Theater. He lives in Fredericksburg, Virginia, with his wife, Victoria.

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