ProgressoR / Uzbekistan Progressive Rock Pages

Interviews of Prog

Paul Speer
Stanley Whitaker

(Questions by Vitaly Menshikov)

VM: Hello, dear Stanley. Thank you for finding the time to do an interview for our site.

SW: Thanks for the support and helping to spread the 'Happy' word, Vitaly.

VM: First, tell me please the story of how the band was founded.

SW: The band was founded in 1972 by me and David Bach (the original keyboardist). We went to Frankfurt High School in Germany where we were exposed to King Crimson, Yes, Genesis, Gentle Giant, Van der Graf and many others in 1969. We graduated in 1972 and spent the summer touring all the army bases in Germany with a group called Shady Grove. This is where we met Rick Kennell. We had a lot in common musically, (I remember him jamming with us on "The Knife" by Genesis) and he had a drummer friend in Ft. Wayne, Indiana named Mike Beck who'd be real into it. We told him we'd wait for him to get out of the army since we were moving back to the United States to go to Madison College in Harrisonburg, Virginia and put Happy the Man together. At Madison College, I met Frank Wyatt in the jazz ensemble and invited him to be part of Happy the Man. His piano songs were great and he played sax great. At this point David had decided to go in other directions with his music so we 'found' Kit Watkins there at Madison College. Kit was a marvelous keyboardist and was the last missing piece. He was playing with a rock band that Frank and I went out to see to 'check him out' and I remember him playing 'Hoedown' by Emerson, Lake and Palmer (well, Aaron Copland actually) and he played it flawlessly. He noticed me and Frank there and when he went on 'break' he put a tape with Genesis and Crimson on it, so needless to say, he was in! So, it was me on guitar, Frank on sax and piano, Kit on keyboards, Rick on bass, Mike on drums and Cliff Fortney on vocals and flute (another friend of Rick and Mike's from Ft. Wayne, Ind.). We later had yet another singer / friend of their's from Ft. Wayne named Dan Owen come out. But our vocalist struggles convinced us to become just an instrumental band which we did in 1974.

VM: Please don't ignore my traditional question. What did you mean by the band name Happy the Man?

SW: My older brother Ken came up with the name Happy the Man. He had gotten it from Goethe's Faust and the Bible. We liked it because we felt it fit our music and who we were. A bit different... We weren't quite as 'dark and brooding and plodding' as many of our prog contemporaries. We felt our music had some spiritual undertones to it and would hopefully uplift the people who 'got it' and be transforming for us as well them (especially in a 'live' setting). We had three very different composers with Kit, Frank and me and yet it all seemed to fit together quite nicely

VM: As far as I know the history of Happy the Man wasn't quite happy. The first two albums of high quality (the third I haven't heard) were either distinctly underrated or unnoticed at all. As an example, virtually at the same time the UK band was created, that could be compared with HTM with actually the same level of complexity, which enjoyed (deservedly) a huge acclaim on the part of critics and general public alike. How can you explain the fact that your albums of the same level at least were in the shadow then?

SW: Wow, hard to say... lot's of different things contributed to our lack of exposure. We had a record label (Arista) and management who really had no idea how to market and promote a band like Happy the Man. You've got to remember that in the U.S. in 1977 Disco was the reigning music which REALLY made it an uphill battle! Now, had they exposed us in Europe we most likely would've 'hit'.

VM: What, if anything, has influenced the split of the band after the release of two albums (as I know, the third one, recorded in 1979, was in reality released the few years later)? Under-estimation of your own creation, pressure from the direction of Arista, cooperation of Watkins with Camel, or something different at all?

SW: All that... we were dropped by Arista right after the 'Crafty Hands' album was recorded so that was discouraging. We knew they didn't 'get it', but at that current time (1979) progressive music was certainly not 'radio-friendly' so not many folks 'got it'. Like I said, Disco was the most popular music in America! ouch... Then Kit getting the offer to join Camel pretty much killed the idea of continuing the band. At that point in time we didn't know of too many keyboardists who could replace someone like Kit. He was a very special keyboardist. That coupled with the state of music in America pretty much did us in... shoulda' moved to Europe

VM: Some twenty years later the interest to progressive rock has become in a way stronger. Which you couldn't have noticed. And yet, what was the decisive factor of the reincarnation of Happy The Man?

SW: Well, the most decisive thing would have to be performing at a progressive music festival in Mexico called Bajaprog in 1998 and 1999 with a progressive band called Ten Jinn from Los Angeles, California where I was living at the time. When word got out that Ten Jinn's guitarist was from Happy the Man I was inundated with autograph seekers, magazine interviewers, television interviewers, promoters and fellow musicians just 'in awe' of meeting someone from "Happy the Man". I was floored! I had absolutely NO idea people knew who we were much less almost 'revered' our music! I immediately got in touch with Rick and Frank to let them know. We discovered over 25 HTM related websites on the internet! It just felt like it was finally time to put it back together. We had tried to reunite the band once or twice before but the timing was just not right.

VM: Watkins is presently not in the band. Don't you know why? Who has replaced him?

SW: We knew there was a great possibility Kit would not be into reforming the band again. He never really liked playing 'live' whereas the rest of us LOVED playing 'live'! That's where the real magic happens with Happy the Man. Anyway, he was interested in doing a new album but, as we suspected, had absolutely no interest in performing 'live'. We also really wanted Ron Riddle on drums (from the Crafty Hands album) who was me, Frank and Rick's favorite HTM drummer! He was unamimously our first choice. We had the most fun playing with him. He was also available and as into it as we were! We knew Kit really wanted Coco on drums (from the third album) so rather than go through any turmoil (we were determined for this reunion to be FUN first and foremost with NO stress) we decided to go with an old friend and Happy the Man fan named David Rosenthal. He's played with lots of 'name' acts over the years like Rainbow, Billy Joel, Cyndi Lauper, Robert Palmer, Steve Vai, Yngwie Malmsteen and is quite an amazing keyboardist. One of the few on the planet that could do this gig the way it needs to be done.

VM: The HTM creation was always relatively collective. The authorship was shared between you, Wyatt and Watkins. What relationships are present now in this regard?

SW: Well, we have four out of five of the original 'Crafty Hands' lineup for the current Happy the Man incarnation. So you've got my toons, Frank's songs, Ron's (he did co-write 'Service w/a Smile y'know), Rick's co-writing a few with us and David Rosenthal has written a few gems totally in the HTM vein! All in all, we feel this will be our best work yet! We're more experienced in life now and have a fresh outlook on the music world thanks to the current rebirth of progressive music (largely due to the internet). Maybe this time around we'll 'get noticed' a little more! (after all, we are the 'grandfathers' now of American progressive rock, right? :-) We did four major shows this past summer and it was truly a rebirth for us as a band. Being a 'headliner' and receiving standing ovations from large crowds who actually knew our music was so refreshing and moving it's hard to put into words... we were all pretty stunned!

VM: On the last compilation of Cuneiform I listened to an unknown composition by HTM, from an unknown album with the word 'death' in its title. Please tell me when, by whom, by which label it was released? It's probably different from your precedent productions, as earlier you had not much to do with RIO.

SW: That's from an early Frank piece called "Death's Crown". It was released by Cuneiform two years ago from some old rehearsal tapes Kit had. I wish it sounded better... The song 'Open Book' from Crafty Hands was from Death's Crown.

VM: Were there also albums by HTM apart from the ones we know and Retrospection of 1990, consisting of your early unreleased composition from 1974-1976?

SW: There's a few HTM cds out there... we have all of them listed under our 'HTM swag' page on our official Happy the Man website. We pretty much consider the first two Arista albums the main 'cream of the crop'. Kit recently remastered them both for One Way Records U.S. re-release and for Musea in Europe. If you don't have them, they sound MUCH better than the original vinyl, the "Retrospective" cd and the Japanese 'safety master' cds that were released 13 years ago in their "European Rock" series. The third self-produced album "Better Late..." has some moments too. The rest are fine I guess if you're a HUGE fan, but if you want Happy the Man at their finest it would have to be the first two albums. ("Happy the Man" and "Crafty Hands")

VM: Finally, your future plans. Shall we hear a new studio album of the reborn HTM?

SW: We're writing and working on new music for the new album right now. We performed five new songs at the shows this past summer that were very well received but the songs we've written since then are some of our best yet. Once we pick the 'cream of the crop' it should be our best record to date! After having no new records in over 20 years, we're taking our time and doing it 'right'. Can't rush a fine wine, y'know... We want this album to be better than the two Arista albums so please be patient Happy the Fans. We're very excited about the music we've written for this record! It's going to be amazing... We also recorded our four summer shows so we may release a 'live' cd eventually. However, our focus is totally on the new studio cd. That's our priority.

VM: I sincerely wish you health and a long and fruitful creation! Many thanks for doing the interview, dear Stan.

SW: Thanks Vitaly for the memory provoking questions. Hope this is what you're looking for.

January 24, 2001

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