Early days (1973–76)
The group formed in 1973 in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Guitarist Stanley Whitaker and bassist Rick Kennell first met in Germany in 1972. Whitaker, whose army officer father had left his native Missouri for Germany four years earlier, had formed Shady Grove, with fellow US expatriate, keyboardist David Bach, while Kennell had just been drafted and was stationed there, beginning a two-year stint in the army. The pair met when Kennell attended a Shady Grove gig in mid-1972, and discovering a shared love of British progressive rock, decided to form a band together. While the soon-to-be-graduate Whitaker was soon to return to the US, Kennell wasn't due back for a while, but he gave Whitaker the contacts of two former members of his teenage band Zelda, back in Fort Wayne, Indiana: drummer Mike Beck and singer/flautist Cliff Fortney, who both agreed to move to Virginia. The original lineup of the band was completed when Whitaker, now a student at James Madison University, met saxophonist/pianist Frank Wyatt. As Wyatt later recalled:
"Dr. George West was the instructor, and it was the first day of class. I remember there were, perhaps, 60 students in this very large room, and Dr. West was trying to feel out the class by playing two notes on the piano and seeing who could name the interval. At one point in the exercise, a voice shouted out "Dominant seventh… Hendrix!", and it was Stan. I made sure I met the skinny guy with long hair, and we became close friends right away."
This lineup didn't last long however; as Kit Watkins, the son of a JMU piano teacher, replaced Bach early on. When in January 1974 Kennell at last returned from Germany (early shows had been performed without him), the band, named Happy the Man by Whitaker's brother Ken (who was strongly influenced by Christianity), was finally able to operate.
The band's early repertoire included a number of covers - notably Genesis’s "Watcher of the Skies", King Crimson’s "21st Century Schizoid Man" and Van der Graaf Generator’s "Man-Erg" - but they were soon outnumbered by original compositions, penned by Fortney, Watkins, Whitaker, and Wyatt, with the latter providing the lion's share of new material. In 1975 they moved closer to Washington, DC, where they got the attention of DJs at WGTB (Georgetown University radio), who helped break the band in DC. The station played their music, aired their interview, announced and sponsored their concerts and kept them in front of listeners.
In 1974, another lineup change occurred as Fortney (who wished to maintain his flute study) was replaced by Dan Owen, yet another old friend from Indiana. However, Owen's tenure in the band was brief, and after he left in early 1975, the band chose not to replace him; instead opting to make their material more instrumental. Hiring a vocalist was often discussed but never reinstated. There was a deep resistance to giving the spotlight to a frontman; instead, Whitaker would handle all vocal duties over the course of the band's career.
Later that year they decided to move from Harrisonburg to Washington DC, which they accomplished with the help of Dave Knapp. They soon signed a management deal with The Cellar Door - a popular venue where the band would perform many times. The Cellar Door became their management company and helped them get through to the labels, culminating in a showcase in NY in front of iconic American record producer Clive Davis in the summer of 1976. After the presentation, Clive made the comment: "Wow. I don’t really understand this music. It’s way above my head, but my head of A&R, Rick Chertoff says you guys are incredible, and we should sign you, So welcome to Arista."
On June 28, 1976, former Genesis frontman Peter Gabriel, who wanted musicians for his solo band following his departure from Genesis, came down to the band’s house in Arlington for a try-out session, where he presented the band with some of his newly written material, including the song "Slowburn", which they rehearsed. Eventually Gabriel decided against hiring HTM, but this high-profile encounter proved instrumental in securing a five-year, multi-album deal with Arista Records.
The Arista years (1976–78)
Happy the Man's self-titled debut LP was recorded at A&M Studios towards the end of 1976, with Ken Scott (whose groundbreaking work with such luminaries as The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Supertramp, and David Bowie had highly impressed them) handling production duties, and was released in 1977. The album included only two songs with vocals (both of which were compositions by Wyatt).
Much of 1977 was spent on the road. HTM’s management put them on tours supporting various artists, including Foreigner, Renaissance, Stomu Yamash’ta and the Jefferson Airplane offshoot Hot Tuna, with whom they performed to an audience of almost 10,000 at the Field House in Long Island.
In late 1977, Beck left the band, and was replaced by Ron Riddle. The band then recorded their second album, Crafty Hands. This time only one track, "Wind Up Doll Day Wind", featured any vocals, which again were performed by Whitaker. This album features Stanley playing guitars made by a little-known local guitar luthier at the time by the name of Paul Reed Smith. Stanley played a 6-string that now resembles a Santana I PRS, and 6/12-string doubleneck custom guitar. The 12-string guitar parts, as well as the guitar solo on "Ibby It Is" from Crafty Hands, is played on his PRS Doubleneck.
The contract with Arista Records was dissolved after Crafty Hands failed to make any significant commercial impact. Undeterred, the band soldiered on, enlisting French drummer Coco Roussel, formerly of Heldon and Clearlight, to replace Riddle, who had departed the band following the completion of the album. Towards the end of 1978 the band started adding new compositions to their live repertoire, and over the next few months enough material was assembled for the band's next release, which was given a working title of Labyrinth, and was demoed in February 1979 at the band house in Reston, Virginia. However, the band failed to secure a new contract, and on May 27, 1979 (a year to the day that Roussel had joined the band), Kit Watkins announced his departure to the British band Camel. The remaining members played one final show at the James Madison University before dissolving, with Whitaker and Kennell immediately forming a new band, Vision, with original HTM keyboardist David Bach. The bulk of the Labyrinth compositions would remain unreleased until 1983, when they surfaced under the title 3rd - Better Late... on Watkins’ own Azimuth label (the later CD reissue added two extra tracks from the same sessions, "Who's in Charge Here" and "Such a Warm Breeze").
Chipster Entertainment Bio
Twenty-five years after the band called it quits, revered prog-rockers Happy the Man are returning to record bins with The Muse Awakens. And, of all places, that reunion is rooted in Baja, Mexico.
It was at a prog-rock festival in Baja in 1999 when guitarist/vocalist Stanley Whitaker was mobbed by scores of fans who freaked when they discovered that a member of Happy the Man was in the house. "I was swarmed by like 75 people from all over the world," Whitaker says. "I was just floored. I was like, 'What the hell is this about?' I was completely overwhelmed."
The band's demise was some 20 years in the past at that point. And for all Whitaker knew, Happy the Man and its two experimental rock albums for Arista Records had been pretty much forgotten about. "We had no idea we had made an impact, no inkling," he says. To his surprise, though, the eager fans regaled him with stories about the band's presence on the Internet, and how interest in Happy the Man's music is still very much alive.
What's more, one of those jazzed fans was a promoter for leading U.S. prog-festival Nearfest, who offered Happy the Man a slot on the following year's bill, providing of course that Whitaker could revive the band.
Left virtually slackjawed by the experience Whitaker, who had for years been dabbling in pop music to little avail, dialed up ex-bandmate Frank Wyatt. Each of the members had kept in touch with one another since their split in 1979, and Wyatt didn't hesitate at all. "I was totally into it," Wyatt says. "There was nothing that I wanted to do more in my life than play in Happy the Man. It's all I ever wanted ."
But not everyone was as eager. While bassist Rick Kennell was also in, keyboardist Kit Watkins wasn't completely sold on the idea: He was interested in a recording a follow-up to the band's second and final album, 1978's Crafty Hands, but he didn't want to play live. The others, meanwhile, were electrified by the idea of reuniting onstage, and were looking ahead to Nearfest 2000, which would prove the band's first gig.
Watkins' reluctance wasn't enough to keep a reunion from happening. Long before he added Robert Palmer, Billy Joel and Whitesnake to his long resume, celebrated keyboardist David Rosenthal had fallen in love with Happy the Man and its albums, Crafty Hands and Happy the Man, the group's 1977 debut. Through a friend, he met Whitaker and Kennell while he was studying at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, telling them how he had transcribed Kit Watkins' solos and Happy The Man songs.
Rosenthal would keep in contact with Whitaker over more than two decades. "Because I was friendly with them, I knew that there may be a reunion, I knew what was going on. And I remember telling them that if for any reason Kit doesn’t want to do it, I'd love to be a part of it. I planted the seed, but I never thought anything would come from it," Rosenthal says. Little did he know.
With drummer Ron Riddle temporarily rounding out the rhythm section, the band set out to relearn the songs it hadn't played for more than two decades, blends of classical and symphonic music, jazz and rock. Having practiced tirelessly for five to six days a week when the band first formed in the early 70s, the band members needed a little time to get their chops back, Wyatt laughs, remembering the tough time he had with "Ibby It Is" from Crafty Hands. Joe Bergamini was later chosen to fill the drum chair. Bergamini plays in the band for the Broadway musical "Movin' Out", the instrumental rock/fusion band 4Front and he also performed in a Rush tribute band called Power Windows.
Eventually, Whitaker moved in with Wyatt to begin writing songs. "Just sitting in the room playing with Stan again, I felt like a kid again. I felt like we were right there where we left off," Wyatt says. Having struggled with his stabs at creating pop music with integrity, writing had proved a somewhat difficult process for Whitaker for years. But all that changed when Happy the Man reunited: "It was so much easier, so much more natural. It literally just poured right out of us. This music sort of writes itself." The first song he wrote for The Muse Awakens was, appropriately, the title track.
While the chemistry was still alive, Wyatt was also excited to take advantage of the advances in technology that had happened in the quarter century since the band last released an album. "We were able to present our ideas better, with things like MIDI," he says. "More of my parts could be realized, I was able to sketch them out in ways that I couldn’t before."
The whole idea was to pick up where the other albums left off, Rosenthal says. "We wanted to make the album sound current, but still make sure it sounded like Happy the Man." And that was easy to do: "When we play together, it sounds like Happy the Man. It really wasn’t a chore to make it sound like Happy the Man. We just sound that way when we play together."
Formed in a cramped dorm room at Madison College (now James Madison University) in Harrisonburg, Va., in 1972,the original Happy the Man made complex rock music steeped in classical structures, songs and albums compared to those made by prog-rock giants Yes and Gentle Giant.
When the likes of eventual Arista labelmate Santana were free-form jamming, Happy the Man was doing anything but. While its songs could be epic in length, compared to the standard pop song, the band's largely instrumental music was structured and thought-out. And the records were marked by the varying styles of the band's three writers: Wyatt, Watkins and Whitaker.
"Those albums, the first two Arista albums, I put on a pedestal," Rosenthal says. "They are two of my favorite albums of all time. I love the perfection, the melodicism, the virtuosity of the musicians that wasn’t being thrown in your face in every bar. They could deliver beautiful melodies as easily as they could break loose and burn on rippin' solos. The production was amazing. They were great, great sounding records. The arrangements and compositions were so finely crafted. I had never heard anything so finely crafted outside of the classical world. It was classically arranged, yet they’d use jazz chords, interesting chords. They took chances harmonically, but always in support of a strong melody.
"It's music that's hard to categorize," Rosenthal continues. "And that was part of the difficulty, one of the problems they had back then--nobody knew what to do with it, nobody knew how to market it."
Original members included vocalist Cliff Fortney and drummer Mike Beck, but Happy the Man would lose the former before its bow on Arista, and the latter would be replaced by future Blue Oyster Cult skinsman Ron Riddle on their second album. While lauded critically, Happy the Man's music was a bit of a conundrum for Arista, Whitaker says: "They put us on tour with people like Hot Tuna, and I think they only bought one print ad for our first record. We were making music that we thought had substance, but we had no support from Arista. Eventually, we were run over by the disco machine."
"We were all like 21, 22, 23, and were very bad about business," he continues. "We had musical chops, but we had no business savvy, no business chops at all."
Revisiting those bitter last days of the original band, and pondering both the excitement for the band's music he encountered in Baja, and the ensuing reunion, Whitaker says, "It feels like validation. In a lot of ways, it's like we've come full circle. We're able to make music in the Happy the Man style of old, music full of integrity. In a lot of ways, it's more rewarding, more fulfilling."