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."
--By Chip Ruggieri, Chipster Entertainment