Happy the Man
|This article does not cite any references or sources. (March 2010)|
|Happy the Man|
|Years active||1973–1979, 2000–present|
|Labels||Arista Records, Azimuth Records, Cuneiform Records, InsideOut Music|
|Past members||Mike Beck
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. Now a student at James Madison University, Whitaker met saxophonist/pianist Frank Wyatt in music theory class. Initially, David Bach was the main keyboard player, but sometime in 1973, Kit Watkins, the son of a JMU piano teacher, replaced him. When in January 1974 Kennell at last returned from Germany, the band, named Happy the Man by Whitaker's brother Ken, inspired by Goethe's Faust, was finally complete. The name may also have been inspired by the title of a 1972 Genesis single.
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 Whitaker, Watkins, Fortney and Wyatt, with the latter providing the lion's share. In 1990, a compilation of demos from 1974–75, Beginnings, was released by Cuneiform Records in their Wayside Music Archive Series. It consisted of all previously unreleased compositions, some dating back to the original line-up with Fortney. In 1974, Fortney was replaced by yet another old friend from Indiana, Dan Owen. In 1999, Cuneiform put out a second archive CD, Death's Crown, consisting mostly of the title track, a 40-minute suite penned by Wyatt and recorded in the band's rehearsal room in 1974, when Owen was in the band (the CD also includes an early version of "New York Dream's Suite", also with Owen on vocals).
This is how "Death's Crown (An Afterlife Fantasy) came about:
In 1974 Edward Kenestrick, a theatre professor at NYU, left New York to return to Harrisonburg, where he had taught prior at Madison college. There he met up with Happy The Man and spent the next three years working with them, providing lighting and multimedia design and touring direction. Members of the band were mostly destitute, surviving on food stamps and part time jobs. For a time the entire band lived together in a warehouse in Harrisonburg.
Kenestrick worked extensively at a dinner theatre outside Harrisonburg, The Blackfriar. Several band members were enlisted to play for productions there, including "The Fantasticks," directed by Kenestrick.
Kenestrick approached the band with an idea for a piece about one of his favorite figures, that of The Hanged Man in the Tarot. Wyatt ran with it, and the piece was developed to be a live performance with dance and multimedia. The piece was retitled as "Death's Crown" in conversations between Wyatt and Kenestrick, with the other band members concurring. There was only one performance, at the Blackfriar Theatre in late December, 1975. It was choreographed by Nancy Jo Morrisey, the house choreographer at the Blackfriar and was extremely well received, but never performed in that way again, proving the deleterious effect of the ephemeral nature of theatre. The band continued to perform the music from the piece in several versions, "Open Book Without Words" devolving to "Open Book." Projections were continued as well, but there were no more live performers other than the musicians.
Later, in 1976, HTM was signed by Clive Davis at Arista records, and Bob Steinem, brother to Gloria, became the band's day to day manager. During that time the band lived at a house Steinem rented for them in Winchester, VA. Kenestrick traveled back and forth from NYC to VA with his friend Lloyd Halverson in Lloyd's Dodge pickup. Band members often visited NYC, particularly Frank Wyatt, and stayed at Kenestrick's loft on 26th Street in Manhattan. It was these visits that inspired Wyatt's song, the "New York Dreams Suite."
Other visual artists who worked with the band at that time were Steven Witt, Susie Rappold (Frank's girl friend), Jeff Garringer, and John Hornberger, both also from Ft. Wayne. They provided light show effects, inspired by Kenestrick's work at the Fillmore East (his NYU office was on 2nd Avenue, where he could reach out the window and touch the FE banner), and slide shows, often using photos of great art woks. The visuals were keyed to the band's music; the content was often antiwar in nature. Their trips to New York included their signing with Arista, the audition for which was facilitated by Halverson's scheduling and transportation.
After Dan Owen left in early 1975, the band chose not to replace him and favor more instrumental material. Later that year they decided to move from Harrisonburg to Washington DC with the help of Dave Knapp. They soon signed a management deal with The Cellar Door - also a popular venue, where the band would perform many times. Vocals were often discussed but never reinstated. There was a deep resistance to giving the spotlight to a singer/front person.
On June 28, 1976, Peter Gabriel, who was looking for a backing 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, notably 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 appeared in 1977. It remains one of the most important albums in American progressive music. Two long, episodic instrumentals, Watkins' "Mr Mirror's Reflection On Dreams" and Wyatt's "New York Dream's Suite", are the obvious pieces de resistance, but both contribute other gems, such as the opening piece, the spacey/orchestral "Starborne", which immediately establishes the trademark HTM sound, or Watkins' tone poem "Hidden Moods". Whitaker's tunes, such as "Stumpy Meets The Firecracker In Stencil Forest" with its addictive, jagged and bouncy melody line, allowed the band to venture into more rocking territory. The album included only two songs with vocals (with lyrics by Wyatt and singing by Whitaker), but they are among the weaker cuts.
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, who replaced him with Ron Riddle, previously a member of an embryonic incarnation of The Cars. Riddle appeared on HTM's second (and most acclaimed) album, Crafty Hands, but although he was a full member for the duration of the process, even contributing the album's striking opening track, "Service With A Smile" (co-written with The Cars' keyboard player Greg Hawkes, in 1973), he left before he had played a single gig with HTM. The compositions and performance on the second effort were even more refined, and many tracks were instant classics - from the atmospheric "Morning Sun" and "Nossuri" to the upbeat "Steaming Pipes" and "I Forgot To Push It", and the more epic "Ibby It Is". Another highlight was "Open Book", an excerpt from the abandoned "Death's Crown" suite. This time only one track, "Wind Up Doll Day Wind", featured any vocals.
Split and rebirth
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, as a new member in May 1978 and resuming live performances. Towards the end of 1978, new compositions were introduced in the live repertoire, and over the next few months enough material was assembled for a proposed third album to be entitled Labyrinth, which was demoed in February 1979 at the band house in Reston, Virginia. Sadly HTM failed to secure a new contract, and on May 27, 1979 (ironically on the latest line-up's first birthday), Kit Watkins announced his departure to the British band Camel. After playing a final show at the James Madison University, the band dissolved, with Whitaker and Kennell immediately forming a new band, Vision, with original HTM keyboardist David Bach.
Although the bulk of the new compositions would remain unreleased until 1983, Watkins recorded "Eye Of The Storm" on Camel's I Can See Your House From Here, and two more tracks, "Labyrinth" and "While Crome Yellow Shine", on his 1980 solo album Labyrinth, recorded with the assistance of ex-HTM drummer Coco Roussel. Watkins and Roussel gigged as a duo with backing tapes in 1980-81, and would go on to collaborate on their 1984 duo album In Time and Roussel's 1992 solo CD Reaching Beyond. The 1979 demo was released as 3rd - Better Late... in 1983 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").
The band continued to be a cult favorite in progressive rock circles even after they broke up, the interest in their music fueled by CD reissues and various archival releases. In 1999, the Arista albums were remastered by Watkins and reissued by One Way Records in the USA and Musea (with a two-part biography of the band) in Europe. Then, following several aborted attempts over the previous decade, the group reformed for NEARfest 2000 in their Crafty Hands line-up minus Watkins, replaced by David Rosenthal, and they (with new drummer Joe Bergamini) released a new album in 2004: The Muse Awakens. Whitaker and Wyatt have released another album, Pedal Giant Animals since, and have formed a new band, Oblivion Sun. Although HTM never formally dissolved, they have been inactive for several years.
Visual Artists Ed Kenestrick, Suzanne Rappold, Steven Witt, Jeff Garringer
Lighting and Road Crew Kenny Bailey, Wayne Garber, Steven Meeks, Ricky Smith
- 1977 Happy the Man
- 1978 Crafty Hands
- 1978 Live
- 1983 3rd - Better Late... (recorded in 1979, released in 1983)
- 1989 Retrospective (compilation spanning 1977 to 1979, released in 1989 by East Side Digital)
- 1990 Beginnings (unreleased material from before 1977)
- 1999 Death's Crown (unreleased material from 1974 and 1976)
- 2004 The Muse Awakens