"Our main goal is to sound like one instrument, breathing and vibrating together," Happy the Man's Rick Kennell told an interviewer on the eve of the release of his group's debut album on Arista Records last year. "We try to make each song a fresh experience, being as versatile as we can without compromising our musical integrity. We do whatever we have to do to keep the music alive."
That's about as clear and precise a description as you're likely to hear concerning Happy the Man's creative philosophy; it has ingenuity, wit, kineticism and a maturity of vision startling in a band so young. A Washington D.C. based quintet, Happy the Man began to spread their reputation beyond our Nation's capital with their self-titled first LP, and Crafty Hands, their second effort, puts them right in the thick cream of bands making adventuresome, progressive music, bands like Yes, Genesis (who once recorded a track called "Happy the Man"), Gentle Giant, Pink Floyd; with this album they take the best influences from their European fore bearers and counterparts and turn them into something personal, and American (the latest addition to the band, it should be noted is of French origin and his contribution should make the mixture even more intriguing). The group fuses elements of jazz, rock, jazz-rock, space rock and classical music into a blend that resists categorization.
Frank Wyatt, the group's keyboard and woodwind player, started out as a clarinet player in grade school in Virginia, moved up to the saxophone in high school, and went on to study music and keyboards a Madison College. That's where he met Stan Whitaker, a guitarist who had gone through the seven-volume "Mel Bay Modern Guitar Method" by the time he was twelve, "stagnated in copy music for a few years", and then when Jimi Hendrix came along had his first inspiration to play seriously. His family moved to Germany, and that is where Happy the Man had it's beginnings, with Stan and Rick Kennell, a bass player that was in a band first called Gritt, then Zelda.
In 1972, Happy the Man located in Harrisonburg, Virginia, their first real home, where Frank, drummer Mike Beck and keyboard player Kit Watkins, who had classical music training from his teacher parents, were living. The quintet used a three bedroom house, with a basement for rehearsals and jamming, coalescing their varied interests and directions. Rick's leanings were toward the Yes/King Crimson axis (although the first significant musical event in his life was hearing the bass line in "And I Love Her"), Mike's drumming was an elaborate free-form exercise based on Harry Partch's theories, Kit was raised with classical piano, and Stanley was into rock and roll, etc.
The combined result was unusual, but highly interesting. While building Happy the Man in their new D.C. environment, the individual members "compromised daily existence so that we didn't have to compromise the music," working as hospital orderlies, bookkeepers or handymen to keep body and soul together. College audiences in the South and Northeast began spreading the word, Peter Gabriel of Genesis heard Happy the Man and was suitably impressed, opening some recording industry doors. The band signed a contract with Arista Records in 1976 and approached their number one choice as producer, Ken Scott, whose credentials as an engineer and producer included albums by the Beatles, Elton John, David Bowie, Mahavishnu Orchestra and The Tubes. Scott heard an old "live" cassette of Happy the Man, auditioned them at the Cellar Door, and proceeded to book studio time in Los Angeles to cut the first Happy the Man album.
Happy the Man was a dazzling debut, mixing infectious electronic themes with dynamic pyrotechnics, serious musical ideas with an evident sense of humor. The reviewers were justifiably knocked out. Circus called the LP "some of the most energetic, evanescent, wondrous and colorful young American pioneer music I've heard". Radio Free Rock said "Happy the Man emerges as one of the year's brightest musical hopes. They will astound you." Soho Weekly News contended that "These five men create electronic and acoustic tapestries with a vision and precision that rivals the best," and from the Boston Phoenix "This Washington D.C. quintet has assembled what may well be the best debut album of the year". WJLA-TV in Washington D.C. filmed the band's first college tour and featured Happy the Man in a music documentary titled "Catch a Rising Star", a show that won an Iris Award for the best locally produced performing arts series.
The band's star continued to rise on their premiere national tour, opening for such diverse acts as Foreigner, Renaissance, Derringer, Gato Barbieri, Hot Tuna, City Boy and Larry Coryell. When the time came to record their second LP, there was a change in personnel as drummer Mike Beck left the group, replaced by Ron Riddle, whose varied background included television soundtracks, a video workshop, a multi-media show in New York, studio work for RCA Records, and playing in rock and jazz bands in Boston. Again helmed by Ken Scott, Crafty Hands is a testament to the inventiveness and virtuosity of the band, spotlighted by Scott's lustrous production. By turns impressionistic (Morning Sun), melancholy, (Wind Up Doll Day Wind), humorous (I Forgot to Push It), searing (Service With A Smile), and complex (Ibby It Is), the album is a clear advance over their prodigious debut. Since recording Crafty Hands, Riddle has departed, and in his place behind the drum kit is Coco Roussel, a French drummer who has played with the well-known Clearlight Symphony from England; Coco has also appeared with the French electronic band Heldon, and has been living in the U.S. for the past two years.
If the music of Happy the Man sounds other-worldly, or at least not quite like the music of waking moments, that's the band's intent. "It's important that a lot of our music comes from the unconscious" explained Rick to a hometown Fort Wayne newspaper. "We want to be able to relate the dream state - everyone's dreams or the collective unconscious - to some form of growth".
--by Marilyn Lipsius, Arista Records