Happy the Man is surely not the only band whose music has transcended time, but it may well be the first whose time has transcended music.

Today, a full 10 years after this critically acclaimed Virginia quartet’s demise, interest in Happy the Man’s music is approaching an unprecendented high, as befits a band whose music still sounds ahead of its time. 

"Earlier in 1989, the Japanese record company BMG Victor re-released Happy the Man’s first two albums, 1977’s Happy the Man and 1978’s Crafty Hands, on CD as part is its European Rock Series. (The fact that Happy the Man was an all-American band that recorded for Arista Records seems to have escaped the Japanese, but never mind that).

In addition to these welcome, if geographically distant, re-releases, two other Happy the Man CD’s are now pending in the U.S. (on the WMAS label): The first featuring the band’s early, pre-Arista work; the second featuring what would have been the band’s third Arista album, had it not been unceremoniously dropped by the label for creating wonderfully adventuous music that defied both easy categorization and radio-friendly consumer appeal.

Best of all, though, is this 15 track CD, Happy the Man – Retrospective, which presents the definitive musical compilation by what is likely the greatest American band most people have never heard of.

Six of the selections here are from the band’s first album; six are from its second’ and three are from its third, which was briefly released in 1983 as Happy the Man 3rd Better Late… on Azimuth Records, a small label founded in 1980 by the bands keyboardist, Kit Watkins.

Together, these 15 compositions offer a welcome testament to Happy the Man’s dazzling artistic vision, instrumental virtuosity and imagination. Perhaps the greatest tribute that could be paid to this uniquely gifted band is that nearly all of its music sounds just as fresh, exhilarating and impossible to categorize today as it did more than a decade ago.

Witness Happy the Man’s masterful use of dynamics, tonal colors and counterpoint; its ability to execute finger-breaking time signatures and intricate harmonies with deft ease; the lattice-like melodies and ingenious thematic variations that surge and recede with unusual grace and power; and the fact that no moatter how complex or demanding its music became, the band always sounded relaxed , uncluttered and in total control.

Indeed, long time admirers regard describing Happy the Man’s music as an invitation to gush euphoric praise. Critical objectivity, however, dictates that a brief band history be given before commencing any such exercise in verbal euphoria.

The seeds of Happy the Man date back to mid-1972, when guitarist Stanley Whitaker and bassist Rick Kennell met and jamamed prior to a concert by Whitaker’s band Shady Grove, at a U.S. Army base in West Germany. The two discovered a shared affinity for Yes, Genesis Gentle Giant and other seminal progressive rock bands whose music Happy the Man used as the inspiration for its own, equally adventurous work. 

Whitaker subsequently relocated to Harrisonburg, Virgina, with keyboardist David Bach, ostensibly to attend college, while Kennell completed his stint in the Army. Kennell, an Indiana native, introduced Whitaker to drummer Mike Beck and singer Cliff Fortney, who relocated to Harrisonburg. Following Bach’s departure to concentrate on studying music, Whitaker, Beck and Fortney teamed up with keyboardists Kit Watkins and Frank Wyatt.

After being discharged from the service, Kennell moved to Harrisonburg. His arrival in early 1974 completed the lineup of a band that would later earn lavish accolades for producing music “of unrelenting power and beauty” that ranked Happy the Man as the “Best contemporary electric group in America, period,” to quote suitably impressed reviewers.

Determined to create music that sounded like nothing heard before (or, as we now know, since), the band devoted an average of four hours a day, five or six evenings a week to nurturing and honing their sound and seamless ensemble work. Two talented singers, Fortney and Dan Owen, passed through the band ‘s ranks, but were understandably overwhelmed by Happy the Man’s intimidating instrumental prowess.

Nevertheless, when it came time to record its two Arista albums, the band had developed a considerable amount of vocal material, and elected guitarist Whitaker to assume singing duties. This move was encouraged by Arista, which hoped the inclusion of vocals would help the band gain radio airplay. (Alas, it didn’t). 

By the time the band relocated  to a Washington, D.C. suburb in mid-1975, it was armed with an impressive array of original compositions that quickly won it a loyal local following, in large part because of consistent airplay and support from the local public radio station WGTB-TM. It also won them the attention of ex-Genesis singer Peter Gabriel, who spent a grueling day and evening jamming with the band and considered hiring them to back him.

Arista Records signed Happy the Man to a five-year, multi-album contract in mid 1976, and paired them (at the band’s request) with producer Ken Scott of Mahavishnu Orchestra, David Bowie and Supertramp fame. Following the release of its eponymous debut album the next year, Happy the Man began opening concerts for the likes of Stomu Yamashta, Gato Barbieri and Renaissance, and encountered the beginning of unrelenting radio resistance to its unclassifiable music.

Drummer Beck departed in late 1977 because of proverbial musical differences. His replacement, Ron Riddle, stayed long enough to record Happy the Man’s second album Crafty Hands, after which he left without having performed a single concert with the band. He was in turn replaced by French drummer Coco Roussel, formerly of Heldon and Clearlight Symphony, who remained with the band until its ultimate disintegration in 1979, when Watkins decided to join the English band Camel.

Could Happy the Man’s music find the commercial success today that it eluded it in the mid to late 1970’s?  Sadly, I think not, given the even more restrictive musical climate that prevails for daring bands who refuse to cater to the fast-food consciousness of most radio programmers and their captive audiences.

Still, that’s all the more reason to treasure Happy the Man now. Music this good deserves to be re-released over and over again unti, at last, it receives the universal recognition it so richly deserves.

George Varga, Music Critic, San Diego Union/Copley News Service.