Al (Blind-Owl) Wilson
Band: Canned Heat
Other Deceased Members: Bob Hite, Larry Taylor, Henry Vestine
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Al 'Blind Owl' Wilson died aged twenty-seven on 3rd September 1970 on a hillside behind bands-mate Bob Hite's Topanga Canyon home, near Los Angeles, California, U.S.A. An autopsy identified his manner and cause of death as accidental acute barbiturate intoxication. Al 'Blind Owl' 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. Along with his talent and intellect, Al 'Blind Owl' Wilson had a reputation for social awkwardness and introversion which may have contributed to depression.
Al 'Blind Owl' 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. Al 'Blind Owl' 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, Al 'Blind Owl' 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.
Al 'Blind Owl' Wilson was born on July 4th 1943 and grew up in the Boston suburb of Arlington, Massachusetts, U.S.A. Some of Al 'Blind Owl' 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 Al 'Blind Owl' 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 coffee-house folk-blues circuit. Al 'Blind Owl' 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.
Al 'Blind Owl' 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 Bukka White. James, in particular, was a highly exalted figure in Al 'Blind Owl' Wilson's personal music journey. In high school, Al 'Blind Owl' Wilson studied James' 1931 recordings with great ardor. Subsequently, Al 'Blind Owl' Wilson began singing similar to James' high pitch. Al 'Blind Owl' 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. Al 'Blind Owl' Wilson showed him how to play again the songs Son House had recorded in 1930 and 1942. Al 'Blind Owl' Wilson played Son House's old recordings for him and demonstrated them on guitar to revive Son House's memory. Son House recorded "Father of the Delta Blues" for Columbia Records in 1965. Two of three selections on the set featured Al 'Blind Owl' 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 Al 'Blind Owl' 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 'Blind Owl' 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, Al 'Blind Owl' Wilson met 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. With Fahey's encouragement, Al 'Blind Owl' Wilson moved with Fahey to Los Angeles with the aim of having Al 'Blind Owl' Wilson assist Fahey with his UCLA master's thesis on Charley Patton. It was in Los Angeles that Al 'Blind Owl' Wilson met Bob Hite, a fellow blues enthusiast and record collector who would go on to establish Canned Heat with Al 'Blind Owl' Wilson.
With Canned Heat, Al 'Blind Owl' 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. Al 'Blind Owl' Wilson also wrote and sang the hit record "On the Road Again." In an interview with Down Beat magazine Al Wilson remarked that on the song "On The Road Again" from the second LP he appeared 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 Al 'Blind Owl' 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 Al 'Blind Owl' Wilson seemed to have no trouble at all following him on this album. Hooker concludes that " Al 'Blind Owl' Wilson must have been listenin' to his records all of his life". Hooker is also known to have stated "Al 'Blind Owl' Wilson is the greatest harmonica player ever."