The origins of Happy the Man date back to mid-1972, when guitarist Stan Whitaker and bassist Rick Kennell met at a US Army base in Germany. Whitaker and keyboardist David Bach moved to Harrisonburg, Virginia, ostensibly to attend James Madison University. Kennell introduced Whitaker to drummer Mike Beck and singer Cliff Fortney, who both quickly moved to Harrisonburg. Following Bach's departure, the remaining members teamed up with keyboardists Kit Watkins and Frank Wyatt. Kennell also moved to Harrisonburg in early 1974 after his discharge from the service. The band devoted an average of six to eight hours a day to nurturing and honing their sound and developing their seamless ensemble work. Two talented singers, Fortney and Dan Owen, passed through the band's ranks, but were understandably overwhelmed by HTM's intimidating instrumental prowess.
By the time the band relocated to a Washington, DC 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 on the Georgetown University radio station WGTB. Happy the Man was the "house" band at the noted Washington club The Cellar Door, attracting ever larger audiences. They also won the attention of Peter Gabriel, who seriously contemplated hiring them to accompany him on his first post-Genesis solo album and tour.
In 1976 the band was signed to an eight-album deal by Arista Records, which released the eponymous Happy the Man album a year later. Like the follow-up Crafty Hands, it was produced by Ken Scott, whose previous credits ranged from David Bowie to Mahavishnu Orchestra. Not surprisingly, commercial radio ignored Happy the Man's dazzling compositions, with their deviously complex time signatures, darting melodies and impeccably crafted harmonic interplay.
Beck was replaced in late 1977 by Ron Riddle, who stayed long enough to record Crafty Hands, but did not perform a single concert with the band. Riddle was in turn replaced by French drummer Coco Roussel, formerly of Heldon and Clearlight Symphony, who remained in the band until its ultimate disintegration in 1979 when Watkins decided to join the English band Camel.
After HTM's demise, Kennell, Whitaker and David Bach formed the short-lived rock band Vision. Watkins has released numerous excellent electronic music recordings during the '80s and '90s on his private Linden Music label. Wyatt has been constructing homes in Hawaii and Virginia. Kennell founded a music management company in suburban New York. Riddle composes film scores in his upstate New York studio. Whitaker has been involved in numerous musical projects, mostly recently with the LA-based progressive rock band Ten Jinn. The HTM discography was completed during the 90s with the Cuneiform Records releases 3rd...Better Late, Happy the Man Live, and the archival rock opera Death's Crown, as well as the Retrospective compilation on East Side Digital.
With the upturn in popularity in progressive rock in the late 90s, and with the Watkins-remastered One Way Records re-releases of the first two classic albums, Whitaker felt the time was finally right for a return to glory for Happy the Man. He moved back to Virginia, where he and Wyatt began composing new songs. Kennell eagerly agreed to the developing reunion project. Ron Riddle re-claimed the drummer's chair, bringing together the Crafty Hands-era lineup with one exception. Keyboardist David Rosenthal, who had transcribed all of HTM's music while a student at Berklee College of Music in Boston, has replaced Watkins. Rosenthal has an impressive pedigree, having performed for years with rock luminaries Rainbow and Billy Joel. His superb compositional skills have fit seamlessly into the Happy the Man tradition, and will be evident on the forthcoming new album. He is the worthiest of successors to the Happy the Man keys position.
Note: Much of this biography was taken from George Varga's liner notes for the One-Way Records re-releases and the Retrospective compilation, with his kind permission. Varga is a music critic for the Copley News Service and the San Diego Union.
--By Rob Laduca, originally published in the NEARFest 2000 Program Guide