[“20. Four great musicians. Left to right, Fahey, Rev. Rube Lacy (P.M. 12696), Blind Aouhl Krishnawhilsan, David (etc.) Evans, in front of Rev. Lacy’s church in Ridgecrest, California.”]
Singer, guitarist, harmonica player Alan Wilson of Canned Heat, third from the left in the above photograph, died forty years ago today. Like Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin (both of whom soon followed), he was twenty-seven.
Alan Wilson, or the Blind Owl, as he was called, was a brilliant musician. His Skip James-influenced singing is immediately recognizable (you may know it from “Going Up the Country”), and his reedy timbre is a reminder that blues voices come in many sizes. As a guitarist, Wilson brought the fingerpicking idioms of pre-WWII acoustic blues to electric music. (Who else could take a rhythmic motif from Garfield Akers and a melody from Blind Willie Johnson and turn them into a song of lunar devastation?) Listen to any number of Canned Heat recordings, and you can hear how Wilson’s creativity as a rhythm guitarist shapes and reshapes a tune. As a blues harmonica player, Wilson is unsurpassed. The strongest evidence: his duets with John Lee Hooker on the double-album Hooker ’n Heat, masterworks of musical empathy. (Try “Burning Hell.”) Hooker called Wilson “the greatest harmonica player ever.” Hooker was right.
I remember as a much younger person thinking of Alan Wilson as a kindred spirit. He was a geeky guy: awkward-looking, glasses-wearing, obviously quite shy. I still think of Alan Wilson as a kindred spirit. How I wish he had had many more years in which to grow as a man and musician.
I chose the above photograph for (what I think is) its obscurity. It appears in the liner notes of guitarist John Fahey’s 1967 LP The Voice of the Turtle (Takoma). Also in the photograph: ex-blues guitarist and singer Reverend Rubin “Rube” Lacy and musicologist David Evans. P.M. refers to the Paramount master-number for Lacy’s only released blues recording, the 1928 “Mississippi Jail House Groan” and “Ham Hound Crave.” The photograph is most likely from 1966, the year that Evans located Lacy in California. Evans, Fahey, and the Blind Owl all recorded with Lacy that year.
Hooker ’n Heat
Friday, September 3, 2010
By Michael Leddy at 6:25 AM