“This shit won’t even get me high.” Those were the last words of Bob “The Bear” Hite, lead singer of the blues/boogie band Canned Heat. Best known for their entrancing single “On the Road Again” Hite was a huge, gregarious man—hence his nickname—and like most musicians from the sixties and seventies, he had a penchant for booze, drugs and wild living.
Hite was born on February 26, 1943, in Torrance , California . His father was a radio sportscaster and the family moved about the country during his elementary school years. Back in California in his teens, Hite made a deal with a guy who changed the records in jukeboxes each week to sell him all the 78 rpm records that he was taking out of rotation for one dollar. This was the start of Hite’s giant record collection, which at his death was one of the biggest collections of 78 rpm blues records in the world.
After high school, Hite worked at Rancho Music, a record store in West Los Angeles, where he met guitarist Henry Vestine and guitarist/harmonica player Alan Wilson. Together they formed Canned Heat with Hite on vocals. As deeply into the blues as any of their contemporaries, like the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Hite piloted Canned Heat into an quintessential party band. Their performance at Woodstock was so legendary that their cover of the Son House song “Going Up The Country” turned into the unofficial song of the three-day festival of peace. Canned Heat also performed at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, as well as hundreds of other music festivals around the world.
Hite’s great achievement was producing and playing on the landmark 1970 album, “Hooker ’n Heat..” Teaming the hippie blues band with the then 53-year-old bluesman John Lee Hooker was a boon to everyone’s career; sadly it was the last project that Alan Wilson was involved in before he died of a drug overdose on September 3, 1970. Wilson was found in a sleeping bag on a hill behind Hite’s Topanga Canyon home, although it appeared that persons unknown had brought him there after he had died.
After Wilson ’s death, Hite’s personality changed. He became “Bear Hite,” the unstoppable, yet loveable, party animal. Fun-loving to a fault, Hite would party with fans after the shows at the slightest suggestion. He would snort the most cocaine, take the most LSD, smoke the biggest joint, and eat more speed and downers, and drink more booze that anyone in whatever room that he was in at the time, His appreciative admirers would give Hite massive amounts of free drugs and, like other talented artists before and after him, drugs got the best of Hite.
For eleven years Canned Heat chugged along the touring circuit, playing mostly in outlaw biker bars, especially in Australia. There were drug busts, which caused problems whenever they tried to cross an international border, and a revolving door of personal changes on guitar and bass.
On April 5, 1981, Canned Heat was playing a show at The Palomino Club in North Hollywood . The Palomino Club was run by brothers Tommy and Billy Thomas and was the place in L.A. for country and blues bands to play. Over the years notable musicians like Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Lefty Frizzell and hundreds of other like-minded musicians performed on the stage of The Palomino Club. Notorious for its lack backstage security, dozens of well-wishers were in Canned Heat’s dressing room when someone offered Hite a vial of white powder. Thinking that it was cocaine, Hite stuck the vial up his nose to a collective gasp.
“This shit won’t even get me high,” chuckled Hite as he inhaled the vial’s entire contents. Hite immediately turned as blue as a Smurf and fell, all three hundred plus pounds of him, like a tree. Panic ensued backstage and well-meaning fans fed Hite cocaine, holding a straw to his nose with Hite impulsively lifting his head to snort the drugs off a mirror. An ambulance was called and Bob “The Bear” Hite died of a heart attack brought on by a combination overdose of heroin and cocaine. He was thirty-six years old.