Alan Christie Wilson (July 4, 1943 - September 3, 1970) was a co-founder, leader, and primary composer for the American blues band Canned Heat. He played guitar, harmonica, sang, and wrote several songs for the band.
Wilson was born and grew up in the Boston suburb of Arlington, Massachusetts. Some of Wilson's first efforts at performing music publicly came during his teen years with a jazz ensemble he formed with other musically oriented friends from school. It was around this same time that Wilson developed a fascination with blues music after a friend played a Muddy Waters record for him. After graduating from Arlington High School, he majored in music at Boston University and played the Cambridge, Massachusetts coffeehouse folk-blues circuit. Wilson developed into a dedicated student of early blues, writing a number of articles for Broadside of Boston newspaper and the folk-revival magazine Little Sandy Review, including a piece on bluesman Robert Pete Williams.
Wilson was considered by many of his musical peers to be an expert on the blues musicians who came before him; many considered him as possessing an exceptional ability for connecting musically with the elder bluesmen. His biggest influences included Skip James, Robert Johnson, Son House, Charley Patton, Tommy Johnson, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, and Booker White. James, in particular, was a highly exalted figure in Wilson's personal music journey. In high school, Wilson studied James' 1931 recordings with great ardor. Subsequently, Wilson began singing similar to James' high pitch. Wilson eventually perfected the high tenor, for which he would become known. After Son House's 'rediscovery' in 1964, it was evident that House had forgotten his songs due to his long absence from music. Wilson showed him how to play again the songs House had recorded in 1930 and 1942. Wilson played Houses's old recordings for him and demonstrated them on guitar to revive House's memory. House recorded "Father of the Delta Blues" for Columbia Records in 1965. Two of three selections on the set featured Wilson on harmonica and guitar. In a letter to Jazz Journal published in the September 1965 issue, Son House's manager Dick Waterman remarked the following about the project and Wilson: "It is a solo album, except for backing on two cuts by a 21-year-old White boy from Cambridge by the name of Al Wilson. Al plays second guitar on Empire State Express and harp on Levee Camp Moan. Al never recorded before, but he has backed John Hurt, Skip James, Sleepy John Estes, Bukka White and many others. He is good, and the record will prove it."
During his time performing in Cambridge, Wilson met the American guitarist John Fahey. From Fahey he acquired the nickname "Blind Owl" owing to his extreme nearsightedness, roundish facial features and scholarly nature. In one instance when he was playing at a wedding, he laid his guitar on the wedding cake because he did not see it. As Canned Heat's drummer, Fito de la Parra, wrote in his book: "Without the glasses, Alan literally could not recognize the people he played with at two feet, that's how blind the 'Blind Owl' was.". With Fahey's encouragement, Wilson moved with Fahey to Los Angeles with the aim of having Wilson assist Fahey with his UCLA master's thesis on Charley Patton. It was in Los Angeles that Wilson met Bob Hite a fellow blues enthusiast and record collector who would go on to establish Canned Heat with Wilson. With Canned Heat, Wilson performed at two prominent concerts of the 1960s era, the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 and Woodstock in 1969. Although Canned Heat's live performance was cut from the original theatrical release of the Woodstock film, they were featured in the 25th anniversary "Director's Cut." The studio version of "Going Up The Country" was featured in the Woodstock film and has been referred to as the festival's unofficial theme song. Wilson also wrote and sang the notable "On the Road Again." In an interview with Down Beat magazine he remarked that, "... on "On The Road Again" second LP I appear in six different capacities - three tamboura parts, harmonica, vocal, and guitar, all recorded at different times." On the double album Hooker 'N Heat (1970), John Lee Hooker is heard wondering how Wilson is capable of following Hooker's guitar playing so well. Hooker was known to be a difficult performer to accompany, partly because of his disregard of song form. Yet Wilson seemed to have no trouble at all following him on this album. Hooker concludes that "you Wilson musta been listenin' to my records all your life". Hooker is also known to have stated "Wilson is the greatest harmonica player ever."
On September 3, 1970 Wilson was found dead on a hillside behind band mate Bob Hite's Topanga Canyon house. He was 27 years old. An autopsy identified his manner and cause of death as accidental acute barbiturate intoxication. Wilson reportedly had attempted suicide a few months earlier, attempting to drive his car off a freeway in Los Angeles. He was briefly hospitalized for significant depression, and was released after a few weeks. Although his death is sometimes reported as a suicide, this is not clearly established and he left no note. Wilson's death came just two weeks before the death of Jimi Hendrix and four weeks before the death of Janis Joplin. Along with his talent and intellect, Wilson had a reputation for social awkwardness and introversion which may have contributed to his depression. Retrospectively, some close to Wilson believe he may have been on the autism spectrum.
Wilson was a passionate conservationist who loved reading books on botany and ecology. He often slept outdoors to be closer to nature. In 1969, he wrote and recorded a song, "Poor Moon", which expressed concern over potential pollution of the moon. He wrote an essay called 'Grim Harvest', about the coastal redwood forests of California, which was printed as the liner notes to the Future Blues album by Canned Heat. Wilson was interested in preserving the natural world, particularly the redwood trees. When he died, so too did the Music Mountain organization he had initiated dedicated to this purpose. In order to support his dream, Wilson's family has purchased a "grove naming" in his memory through the Save the Redwoods League of California. The money donated to create this memorial will be used by the League to support redwood reforestation, research, education, and land acquisition of both new and old growth redwoods.
Stephen Stills' song "Blues Man" from the album Manassas is dedicated to Wilson, along with Jimi Hendrix and Duane Allman.
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