Twenty years after its initial demise, interest in Happy The Man’s music is at its strongest. Although Happy The Man only released two official albums during its 7-year existence, their impact was strong enough on those lucky enough to be exposed to them to durably endear the group to a cult following that has been growing ever since. And with the passing of the years, Happy The Man’s music has demonstrated a timeless quality which suggests that it was not only ahead of its time, it was also, in many ways, beyond this world.
The story begins, strangely enough, at a US Army base in Germany in mid-1972. Fort Wayne, Indiana-based bass player Rick Kennell, had just been drafted and was stationed there, beginning a two-year stint in the army. Having paid his dues with teenage band Zelda, alongside drummer Michael Beck and singer Cliff Fortney, and subsequently with Monolith, still with Beck but without Fortney (who had moved on to the pre-Ethos band Atlantis), Kennell hoped to resume his musical career as soon as he’d be finished with his military commitments.
Good fortune arrived in the shape of local band Shady Grove, whose line-up included two Americans, guitarist Stanley Whitaker and keyboard player David Bach. Whitaker, whose army officer father had left his native Missouri for Germany four years previously, was soon to graduate from high school, and while in Europe had become familiar with all the major progressive rock bands - Genesis, King Crimson, Gentle Giant, Yes and others. Whitaker and Kennell met and jammed prior to Shady Grove’s gig and discovered they had similar musical aspirations. Soon they made plans to form a band together, although obviously it would be a while until Kennell could actually take part.
Whitaker relocated to Harrisonburg, Virginia, in the autumn of 1972 to study at the James Madison University. Kennell arranged for him and Bach to meet his former musical accomplices, Beck and Fortney, who quickly moved to Virginia to start rehearsals. It was now early 1973, and Whitaker’s elder brother, Ken, having elected to become the band’s sound engineer, suggested the name Happy The Man, a reference to Goethe’s "Faust", and the Bible, rather than the obscure Genesis single which, at the time, nobody in the band even knew existed.
David Bach, who thought it wiser to devote time to getting his music degree than playing his Farfisa organ with the band, quickly left. Finding a replacement proved very easy. Whitaker had met Frank Wyatt in a music theory class at JMU, and both were members of the 18-piece Jazz Ensemble led by their theory instructor Dr. George West. A versatile multi-instrumentalist, Wyatt had started on clarinet, changing to sax in eighth grade (he was All-State Symphonic band first-chair tenor sax in Virginia for 3 consecutive years), but also played piano, albeit less proficiently. He later described his role as keyboard player in Happy The Man as the keyboard equivalent to a rhythm guitarist.
This wouldn’t be problem for Happy The Man since, around the same time, Whitaker made another decisive discovery in the 19-year-old son of Madison university piano teacher Lowell Watkins. The young Christopher, soon known to all as Kit, had received instruction on the piano from an early age, but had only become interested in classical music - and the crucial influences of such composers as Debussy and Ravel - (Whitaker and Wyatt's favorites) second-hand through the work of European progressive bands like Genesis and Gentle Giant. Watkins had finished high school the previous year, and having dropped out of university after just one semester, was now sharing his time between a day job in a factory and a cover band, whose repertoire consisted mainly of reworking's of ELP and Genesis material. In addition to his already considerable skills on keyboards (which actually owed even more to Mahavishnu Orchestra’s synth virtuoso Jan Hammer than the British masters), he’d also taken flute lessons from fifth to tenth grade.
Most of the subsequent months were spent assembling an original repertoire, although Happy The Man’s earliest gigs included a few covers, notably Genesis’s "Watcher Of The Skies", King Crimson’s "21st Century Schizoid Man" and Van der Graaf Generator’s "Man-Erg". The composition work was shared equally between Whitaker, Watkins, Fortney and Wyatt, although the latter would soon prove the most prolific. Typically, the group would rehearse five or six nights a week, , and would painstakingly attempt to master their complex arrangements, which they would faithfully reproduce in their live performances. Happy The Man’s music had little room for improvisation, and the songs were played exactly the same way every time, even down to the solos.
By early 1974, Rick Kennell was finally able to join the band, and soon after his arrival Happy The Man committed their first compositions to tape. These early demos, along with some later ones, were released in 1990 on the "Beginnings" CD. While much more derivative than the band’s subsequent output, these tracks already point to key elements of its future style - the delicate melodies, sophisticated arrangements and floating atmospheres - although the complex structures lack the purity and fluidity of Happy The Man’s best work.
Later that year, after about twenty concerts with the band, Fortney departed, for a variety of reasons. He also planned to devote more time to studying flute. His replacement was another friend of Kennell and Beck’s from Indiana, Dan Owen, who stuck with Happy The Man for about eight months before deciding to leave for pastures new (becoming Genesis’s touring guitar tech, which led to him singing on Anthony Phillips’ album "Sides"), much to his colleagues’ regret. In fact the decision to turn instrumental was taken at that point because they didn’t believe they would be able to find anyone to top him.
During the period when Owen was in the band, Happy The Man embarked on possibly their most ambitious venture ever, the multimedia work "Death’s Crown", which involved a sophisticated light show and a dance troop and was only performed a handful of times. The discovery of a long-lost rehearsal tape ensured that at least the musical part (a continuous 38-minute suite divided into 11 parts) could see the light of day, on the 1999 self-titled CD. At that point, Whitaker and Wyatt were still involved in George West’s jazz ensemble, and Wyatt had forged a lasting creative relationship with Eddie Kinestrick, a former University of New York theater director then working in the theater department at Madison. After HTM broke up, Wyatt and Kinestrick unsuccessfully attempted to produce an off-Broadway musical based on "Death’s Crown."
Owen’s eventual departure proved a turning point in Happy The Man’s career. The band dropped almost all of its previous material and started almost from scratch in a new direction. Wyatt’s composition "Leave That Kitten Alone, Armone" (titled after Kinestrick's 3 legged dog) was the first step, later proving a favorite of the band’s concert (although it was never included on an album because producer Ken Scott didn’t like it), quickly followed by Whitaker’s "Stumpy Meets The Firecracker In Stencil Forest" and Watkins’ "Mr. Mirror’s Reflection On Dreams". A further demo tape was recorded in July 1975, showcasing the new instrumental-based material, before Happy The Man decided to move to Washington, D.C., with a view to gaining a larger following and securing a recording contract. In a matter of months, an hour’s worth of new music was written, and the band quickly gained a loyal following, in large part because of consistent airplay and support from the Georgetown University public radio station WGTB-FM. Before long, HTM signed a management deal with the owners of The Cellar Door, a local venue where the band performed many times.
In mid-1976, the band finally managed to secure a contract with Arista. This was shortly after Happy The Man, through their manager’s business connections, brought the band to the attention of former Genesis lead vocalist Peter Gabriel, then looking for a backing group. On June 28th, Gabriel came down to the band’s house in Arlington for a trial session, where he presented the band with some of his newly written material, notably the song "Slowburn", which they rehearsed. For some reason, the singer went away with the impression that HTM sounded too much like Genesis, which was something he wanted to avoid. But there was also some reluctance from the band’s point of view : although Gabriel’s offer may have included HTM opening each of his gigs with a set of their own material, they were unsure whether this would be a viable arrangement in the long term. Happy The Man felt very strongly about their own music, and wanted to devote a hundred percent of their creativity and energy to it.
Although inconclusive, this brief association with Gabriel dramatically increased the band’s profile, and the contract offered by Arista - a five-year, multi-album deal - certainly reflected that. The label’s boss, former CBS Records executive Clive Davis, seemed to understand that Happy The Man was bound to remain a marginal, if not cult phenomenon, although he was also convinced that a big break could come from the film industry - their music’s cinematic quality, he thought, would be the perfect match for a science-fiction movie. Although Arista eventually unceremoniously dropped the band, they did initially believe in its potential, investing a quarter of a million dollars in the production of its two albums.
"Happy The Man" was recorded at A&M Studios towards the end of 1976, with Ken Scott assuming production duties. The band had all admired his groundbreaking work with such luminaries as the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Supertramp and David Bowie, and invited him to attend one of their live performances at the Cellar Door. Scott was hooked, and spent a lot of time, in the weeks prior to the sessions, listening to tapes of the band’s music to think of production ideas and tricks (such as recording guitar and synth solos at half speed and/or multi-tracking them, as evidenced in what Whitaker referred to as his ‘cartoon music’ pieces, "Stumpy.." and "Knee-Bitten Nymphs...", or the introduction to "Carousel") that could help showcasing the full extent of their talent. His commitment to the project was all the more welcome as Happy The Man’s experience of studio technology was thus far confined to a four-track demo session...
Although Scott’s perfectionism - he would often get the band members to do 20-30 takes of any given section to get it perfectly right - may have ended up taking some intensity and life out of the performances in certain cases, it did however ensure that the exceptional sophistication of Happy The Man’s unique arrangements and sound was captured in all its futuristic glory. This was particularly true of the more ethereal sections, based on dreamy and floating textures created by sustained strings and arpeggiated Rhodes piano, and enhanced with sophisticated harmonic and melodic writing, not to mention the frequent use of irregular meters and rhythmic syncopation.
The album is largely instrumental, with Stanley Whitaker taking the lead vocal on the two numbers that do feature lyrics, penned by Frank Wyatt. Although he later pursued solo and band ventures that showcased his vocal talents, Whitaker was initially reluctant to sing, which accounts in part for the low amount of singing on HTM’s Arista albums. In fact, the closing number on the album, "New York Dream’s Suite", initially featured vocals, but those were subsequently removed in favor of a completely instrumental version. This conceptual mini-suite was for the most part mentally composed by Wyatt on the Staten Island ferry, while visiting New York City and staying on the Island with some of the dancers from the "Death’s Crown" troop. Its plot - the story of a man waking from a dream state to the roar of the city - is probably the best description of what the listener experiences after the last notes of the album have evaporated. Reality after listening to a Happy The Man album can only be disappointing.
The weeks following the release of Happy The Man left little doubt that it wasn’t going to be the surprise top-seller of Arista’s fantasies. It did have a certain commercial and critical impact though, and a good part of 1977 was spent supporting it on the road. The band’s management put them on tours supporting various artists, including Foreigner, Renaissance, Stomu Yamashta and Hot Tuna. The latter, a Jefferson Airplane spinoff group, provided Happy The Man with its attendance record, when they performed in front of an audience of almost 10,000 at the Field House in Long Island. Sadly a large number of audiences voiced their distaste for HTM’s live warhorse «Stumpy Meets the Firecracker in Stencil Forest» and the set had to be cut short early in the game. A lost opportunity for superstardom...
Although Happy The Man gained popularity through this constant exposure to the public, there was one major problem - an almost total lack of radio airplay. Despite Arista’s encouragements to feature Stanley Whitaker’s vocals more extensively, the two vocal tracks on the album were still deemed too uncommercial by radio stations to be aired alongside the latest hits. The band entertained the hope that their hard work would eventually pay off, and embarked on a largely self-booked college tour.
Meanwhile, Wyatt, Watkins and Whitaker kept writing new material, which marked, at least in the eyes of drummer Mike Beck, a move to a coarser, harder-edged sound that, he felt, didn’t suit his playing style, which was based at least as much on the use of all manner of percussion than the conventional drum kit. Musical disagreements reached a head early in 1978, when he and the band mutually decided to go their separate ways.
Enter Ron Riddle, a veteran of several Boston-based bands, most of them featuring him alongside keyboard player Greg Hawkes. Their last collaboration was a line-up that, after a couple of personnel changes, went on to become The Cars. After his stint with Happy The Man, Riddle went on to play on some of the Cars’ members’ solo albums, and one of the pieces he’d co-written with Hawkes, «Service With A Smile» (dating back to 1973 and a progressive outfit called Waves), became the second album’s opener and a live favorite, in spite of its tricky 11/8 rhythms.
Riddle was living in Washington, D.C. at the time, and after attending a HTM concert, had forged a friendship with Mike Beck. Both percussionists actually worked on some private recordings, until Riddle was offered the job of replacing his friend. The offer was understandably met with some embarrassment by Riddle, not least because the recording sessions for the new album were to begin in only a week’s time, not to mention in California !
Ken Scott, whose skills as producer and sound engineer had so benefited the first album, was of course retained, and the sessions went smoothly, albeit with Scott’s usual perfectionism, which meant countless takes of each part until everything was played according to his high standards of quality. Of the songs on the album, three - «Service With A Smile», «I Forgot To Push It» and «Wind Up Doll Day Wind» (whose lyrics compared man’s daily routine to a wind-up doll always doing the same things) - had previously been demoed to Arista to sell them on exercising their option for the album; «Open Book» was a theme salvaged from the «Death’s Crown» suite; and the somewhat obscurely titled «Ibby It Is» told the musical story of a surrealistic cartoon character who wanted to become a real person, the name Ibby being a slight distortion of that of a roadie friend of the band named Izzy.
Back on the East Coast, Riddle decided not to join Happy The Man, reckoning he wouldn’t be able to spent as much time working with the band as would be needed. At that point most of the members lived together in the same house, a communal lifestyle which meant an almost total commitment to the band, and Riddle felt his girlfriend at the time wouldn’t allow that. Obviously, he also still felt uncomfortable with the idea of taking Beck’s job. So Riddle left the band after only a few weeks, not having played any gigs with Happy The Man.
Auditions of potential candidates for the drummer’s stool followed, until the ideal man for the job was found. French drummer Coco Roussel was a veteran of such legendary progressive outfits as Heldon, the Magma-related band led by guitarist and philosophy graduate Richard Pinhas, and Clearlight, the ensemble led by pianist Cyrille Verdeaux which he’d briefly joined for a UK tour supporting Gong in 1975. In 1976 he’d moved to D.C. with his American wife hoping to find new and exciting musical opportunities there. These took some time to present themselves, though, and only in June 1978 did he find the band he was looking for : Happy The Man.
Although this was to be an artistically successful move for Roussel, Happy The Man was at that point entering a period of intense difficulties. Arista’s diminishing interest for the band became most apparent when, following the disappointing sales of «Crafty Hands», the label decided to drop them. This followed disagreements on the album’s sleeve design (Wyatt personally went to New York to refuse to let Arista use the proposed cover, which depicted a man at a peephole with a bucket of chicken in his hands, saying ‘service with a smile!’ - the band found Mario Grimaldi’s art and insisted on using it) as well as HTM’s uncompromising musical direction.
The termination of the Arista contract in turn led to management problems, and in a matter of weeks Happy The Man was left without either a management or record deal. Although disillusion began to creep in at that point, creatively the band was still at its peak, and a wealth of new material was composed. This was thankfully witnessed by a demo tape recorded in February 1979 at the band house in Reston, Virginia. It was to prove their last recording.
When the tape failed to interest any record labels - interest in progressive music was at an all-time low in the late Seventies - and Watkins received the lucrative offer to join British group Camel for the band’s new album and lucrative world tour, by May 1979 Happy The Man was no more. The final demo tape resurfaced four years later as the «Better Late...» album, released on Watkins’ own Azimuth label. In the meantime three tracks on it had seen the light of day on other projects - «Eye Of The Storm» on Camel’s «I Can See Your House From Here», and «While Crome Yellow Shine» and «Labyrinth» on Watkins’ solo album named after the latter.
After his involvement in Camel, which ended in 1982, Kit Watkins devoted his time and creativity to a successful and acclaimed career as a solo artist in a more ‘new-age’ vein, but also collaborations with Coco Roussel - their duo album «In Time» (1985) and Roussel’s solo «Reaching Beyond» (1992) - and a memorable guest appearance on Richard Sinclair’s «R.S.V.P.» (1994).
After turning down an offer from Peter Gabriel to play on his third solo album, Stanley Whitaker formed the band Vision with Rick Kennell and original HTM keyboardist David Bach. A more commercial proposition than Happy The Man, it eventually deteriorated into a cover band. In 1985, Whitaker and Bach formed One By One, followed in 1993 by Avalon. In 1994, Whitaker moved to Los Angeles and started gigging with local prog band Ten Jinn. He was later featured, in special guest capacity, on their second album, «As On A Darkling Plain», and also appeared with them at the Baja Prog ‘98 festival in Mexicali, where he performed a medley of HTM classics «Stumpy...» and «Steaming Pipes». While remaining active in solo capacity, he also formed the power trio Spirit Noise in 1996.
After Vision came to an end in the mid-80s, Rick Kennell made a successful career move to business management in the entertainment industry. In 1994, following the failure of a first attempt to re-unite Happy The Man, he had plans to form a trio with virtuoso keyboard player Jordan Ruddess (who instead moved on to the Dixie Dregs and Dream Theater) and Ron Riddle.
Frank Wyatt moved to New York City, and with his collaborator Eddie Kinestrick managed to find some backing to produce a musical based on «Death’s Crown». The project went as far as initial rehearsals, but came to an abrupt end when investors pulled the finances in favor of a much more profitable commodity option on Wall Street. Wyatt subsequently took a job as a carpenter, building stage sets, briefly worked as a PA in the film industry, and moved to Hawaii - a major obstacle to any HTM reunion until the advent of digital and Midi technology. Although he kept composing during these years, much of the output was lost following a burglary at his house in which most of his gear was stolen and never recovered.
Of the other former members of the band, Mike Beck and Cliff Fortney were reunited in The Dr.Bob Band in the early 80s, and more recently Dog Talk. Ron Riddle was Blue Oyster Cult’s drummer from 1986 to 1991, then worked with bass virtuoso Stuart Hamm, while enjoying a successful career in advertising and film music and running his own studio.
A reunion of Happy The Man was attempted in 1993-94, but geographical and scheduling problems couldn’t be overcome. The closest thing to a reunion so far took place in 1996 when Kennell, Whitaker and Riddle all contributed to a project by Kennell’s wife Leah Waybright, a classically trained player (who incidentally studied at James Madison University with Kit Watkins’ father), "Beauty Gone Wild". With all members now relocated to the East Coast of the USA, no practical difficulties can now prevent the project to go ahead, and the year 2000 should witness the release of a new studio album, as well as Happy The Man’s first live performance in over two decades (at the second edition of the NEARfest progressive festival in June), with a line-up of Whitaker, Wyatt, Kennell, Riddle and newcomer David Rosenthal on keyboards, replacing Watkins who is unwilling to perform live again.
--by Aymeric Leroy
Thanks to Frank Wyatt, Kit Watkins, Dan Casey, Anil Prasad, George Varga, John Covach and Morgan Roussel for their help and/or source material.