Happy the Man

Happy the Man is an American symphonic-rock band that released the 1977–78 Arista albums Happy the Man and Craft Hands, both comprised of lavish, intricate pieces (mostly instrumental). Their near-completed 1979 third album appeared posthumously in 1983 as 3rd – “Better Late…”

Keyboardist Ken Watkins joined Camel for their 1979 album I Can See Your House from Here, then went solo with the 1981–82 albums Labyrinth and Frames of Mind. Demos from HtM’s pre-Arista period appear on the archival CD Beginnings.

Members: Stan Whitaker (guitar, lead vocals), Rick Kennell (bass), Frank Wyatt (keyboards, saxophone, woodwinds), Kit Watkins (keyboards, flute, 1972-79), Mike Beck (percussion, drums, 1972-77), Cliff Fortney (vocals, 1972-75), David Bach (keyboards, 1972), Dan Owen (vocals, 1975), Ron Riddle (drums, 1977-78), Coco Roussel (drums, 1978-79)


Background

Happy the Man had its roots in Shady Grove and Zelda, two unrecorded early Seventies bands that operated 4,000 miles apart on different continents.

In 1972, American teenager Stan Whitaker (the son of an Army officer) lived with his family in Germany, where he attended school and played guitar in Shady Grove, a rock band with keyboardist and fellow expat David Bach. One night, bassist Rick Kennell (a young draftee stationed in Germany) saw them perform and introduced himself.

Whitaker and Kennell discovered their mutual love for English symphonic rock and decided to form a band together in the states. Stan was due back sooner than Rick, who handed the contact info of his Zelda bandmates: drummer Mike Beck and singer–flutist Cliff Fortney. Both musicians relocated from Fort Wayne, Indiana, to join the new band in Harrisonburg, Virginia, where Whitaker enrolled at James Madison University.

On his first day at JMU, Whitaker befriended pianist–saxophonist Frank Wyatt, a classmate under Dr. George West (JMU’s “King of Jazz” from 1970–1996)>. Stan’s ability to name intervals by ear impressed Frank, who joined the new band. Meanwhile, Bach cleared for another BMU attendee, keyboardist Kit Watkins (b. 1953), who studied piano from age five to thirteen and played in multiple amateur bands. Whitaker introduced Watkins (an avowed Yes and ELP fan) to the music of Genesis, Gentle Giant, and Van der Graaf Generator.

In January 1974, Rick Kennell arrived in Harrisonburg. The now-complete band named itself Happy the Man, a phrase picked by Whitaker’s brother, Ken, in reference to the biblical verse “Happy is the man who finds wisdom” and the early 19th-century tragic play Faust by German polymath and Romantic playwright Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832). (Genesis also used the phrase as the title to a rare 1972 non-album folk single.)


Early Recordings

Happy the Man rehearsed at their shared band house at Rockbridge Circle, Harrisonburg. Their early setlist included covers of Genesis (“Watcher of the Skies”), King Crimson (“21st Century Schizoid Man”), and VdGG (“Man-Erg”).

In February 1974, they taped two originals — Fortney’s “Partly the State” and the Wyatt–Whitaker epic “Gretchen’s Garden” — with two mics into a 2-track recorder. In April, they performed at the Menninite Broadcasting headquarters on Virginia Avenue, where staffer Abe Ritenhouse engineered two songs: Wyatt’s “Passion’s Passing” and Fortney’s “Don’t Look to the Running Sun.”

Fortney, the vocalist on all four tracks, left soon after the Menninite session to focus on flute studies. Happy the Man hired singer Dan Owen, a friend of the Zelda camp from their days in Fort Wayne. Owen wrote the lyrics to “Death’s Crown,” a 38-minute suite composed by Wyatt in eleven parts. Its thematic basis was the Hanged Man (XII), the twelfth Major Arcana in tarot cards.

Happy the Man recorded “Death’s Crown” and another Wyatt original, “New York Dreams’ Suite,” in late 1974 at their rehearsal house. They composed “Death’s Crown” at the request of James Madison Uni theatre professor Edward Kenestrick, who staged productions at The Blackfriar, a dinner theatre in Greater Harrisonburg. He cast several band members in The Fantasticks, a Blackfriar revival of the 1960 musical by Harvey Schmidt.

In early 1975, Owen left Happy the Man, which de-emphasized vocals in their subsequent live set. That July, they demoed three new originals: one each by Wyatt (“Leave That Kitten Alone, Armone”), Watkins (“Broken Waves”), and Whitaker (“Portrait of a Waterfall”). Soon after, they moved to Washington DC and befriended the DJs at Georgetown University’s radio station, WGTB, which aired the band’s music and sponsored their local concerts.

(Meanwhile, Kenestrick directed a single performance of Death’s Crown in December 1975 at the Blackfriar Theatre, choreographed by Nancy Jo Morrisey.)

Happy the Man established a residency at The Cellar Door, a DC hotspot with a management company that linked them with industry talent scouts. On June 28, 1976, ex-Genesis frontman Peter Gabriel visited the band at their Arlington house, where they rehearsed “Slowburn,” a song from his debut album-in-progress. He almost hired HtM before labels circled with contract offers. Meanwhile, they demoed another Wyatt original, “Merlin of the High Places.”

At the insistence of Arista A&R Rick Chertoff, label head Clive Davis signed Happy the Man, which found a manager in Bob Steinem, the brother of Ms magazine founder Gloria Steinem.


Happy the Man

Happy the Man released their self-titled debut album in August 1977 on Arista.


Craft Hands

Happy the Man released their second album, Craft Hands, on September 21, 1978, on Arista.


3rd – “Better Late…”

In February 1979, Happy the Man recorded their third proper album, which got vaulted due to Kit Warkin’s departure and Arista’s termination of their contract. In 1983, Watkins issued the contents as  3rd – “Better Late…” on Azimuth.


Beginnings

In 1990, Cuneiform Records issued Beginnings, a compilation of 1974–75 Happy the Man demos.


Death’s Crown

In 1999, Cuneiform Records issued Death’s Crown, which gathers Happy the Man’s 1976 musical suite with another unearthed demo (“Merlin of the High Places”) and a pre-Arista version of “New York Dreams’ Suite.”


Discography:

  • Happy the Man (1977)
  • Craft Hands (1978)
  • 3rd – “Better Late…” (1983 — recorded 1979)
  • Beginnings (1974/75 demos)
  • Death’s Crown (1974–76 demos)

Sources:

1 thought on “Happy the Man

  1. Original draft (2018): “Happy the Man are an American symphonic-rock band that released two albums on Arista in 1977 and 1978. Known for its lavish and intricate sound, the band largely focused on instrumental works.
    Formed in 1974 in Harrisonburg, Virginia, Happy the Man attracted a fervent mid-Atlantic following during the mid-1970s and recorded a slew of demos that would later see release on Cuneiform. Securing a deal with Arista, the band released Happy the Man in 1977, followed by the sophomoric Craft Hands in 1978. The following year, the band recorded a third album that was ultimately issued in 1983, after their initial breakup.
    Following his split from Happy the Man, Watkins briefly joined Camel for the 1979 album I Can See Your House from Here and subsequently launched a solo career.”

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