Vocalist Cliff Fortney: “…definitely one of the best guitar players on the planet.”

When vocals were still part of Happy The Man’s repertoire, Cliff Fortney sang and played flute for the group. Cliff departed the band to concentrate on classical education with flute. Cliff lives in Indianapolis, Indiana, not far from Mike Beck, the former drummer of Happy the Man.

ATI:   Cliff, you were the original vocalist and flutist for Happy The Man. How did you get involved with Stan, Frank and the group?

CF:    Rick and Stan met in Germany. Mike Beck, Rick Kennell and I lived together in Fort Wayne, Indiana. In fact, I lived with Rick Kennell’s family for a good while. My dad was transferred to Lafayette, Indiana, when I was in my senior year in high school, and Rick Kennell’s family took me in, so I lived with Rick for a while. We were around when the army lottery was in place, and Rick’s number was high, so instead of being drafted, he joined the army and was stationed in Germany, where he met Stanley. Rick then called Michael and me, because Stanley knew that he was going to move to Harrisonburg, Virginia. When Stanley moved to Harrisonburg, he met Frank [Wyatt] and Kit [Watkins]. Then Rick told him about Michael Beck and me. Michael Beck and I moved from Fort Wayne to Harrisonburg, VA to meet up with Stanley and Frank. Rick was still in the army, but we met up with Kit, Stanley, and Frank and started rehearsing. Six months later, Rick got out of the army and met us there.

CF:    Stanly and Frank had a band house already established in Harrisonburg. I met Stanley for the first time when Michael and I went out there. We had gotten some demo tapes from Kit, Frank, and Stanley, and that’s the first time we got to hear what kind of music they were playing.

ATI:   Frank convinced you to move?

CF:    Frank came out and helped persuade us to pick up everything and go. Rick, Michael and I played in a band called Zelda in high school and shortly thereafter, so we had played together growing up.

ATI:   So you move to Harrisonburg, and they already had some material. What happened next?

CF:    We started working and I started writing, Frank was writing, and Stanley, too–we were all writing. Our first actual gig was at James Madison University, without Rick. Rick was still in Germany. So Kit Watkins had to do all the bass parts on keyboard. We were also doing a couple of cover tunes. We did Van der Graaf Generator’s “Plague of the Lighthouse Keepers”, which, I think, at the time probably nobody had ever attempted. Someone pulled the fire alarm that first night that we played. It was hilarious.

ATI:   You played to the fire alarm?

CF:    We just kept on playing. Actually, nobody left the building. We found out afterwards that it was a prank, and that somebody had just pulled it. But that was the early start of Happy The Man.

Rick finally joined us. We all lived in this band house in Harrisonburg. A lot of us had day jobs or other sources of income, but we would rehearse religiously, just about every night. The thing with Happy The Man’s music—everything was scored out. We played everything the same, every time we did a song. We didn’t improvise a lot. We made sure all the parts were written out, and we knew what our parts were. We stuck with it, so everything was precise and we knew what to expect. Maybe we should’ve been a little looser on some things, but I think the format we used and the way we wrote overall worked pretty good.

ATI:   Who was writing the lyrics?

CF:    Frank and I. Frank was very good with lyrics. Frank probably wrote most of the lyrics in the early days. After I left, Dan Owen took my place for a while, and then Dan Owen left. They were tired of vocalists, and that’s when they took a turn and started writing more as instrumentalists.

At one time, I talked to their manager about rejoining the band, but at that time, they had pretty much established that instrumental type of writing. I guess they just got tired of vocalists; they have lost two of them! And I left because I was a flute player, and I met a wonderful flute teacher at James Madison; eventually I made the orchestra at James Madison, I was second-chair flutist for three semesters.

I actually went into composition. I switched from a Music Education degree to a Composition degree, but I still played flute. The funny thing is, I ran out of money and dropped out of music school for a while. Then I moved to New York City for about three years, from around ‘76 to ’79. I played with a band called Poor John’s Head. We did the whole Jethro Tull, Thick as a Brick album, front to back. Then I moved back to Fort Wayne for a couple years, where I played on and off with quite a few people. Then, in the early 80s, I moved back to Harrisonburg to finish school, and I ended up with a degree in psychology and a minor in music. Meanwhile, Happy The Man was re-establishing themselves and moving right along. I left just before they recorded on Arista records.

ATI:   Do you think that your focus was right? Do you think you should have stayed as a vocalist in the band?

CF:    I have my regrets. As I said, I did make an attempt to rejoin, but they had already decided to go in that instrumental direction. I was kind of disappointed that I couldn’t get back in, but it was their choice.

ATI:   Do you play now or sing now?

CF:    Presently, unfortunately, I have a disease where I can’t play flute anymore.  I’ve worn all the cartilage off my jawbones; I have rheumatoid arthritis and what’s called Hypocalcaemia, so the bones around my jaw are wearing off. So, I am on hold from playing flute, but I still play keyboard. I’m getting splints put in my upper and lower jaw. I’ll wear them inside my jaw in hope that I can regain some of the cartilage in my jawbone. It’s unfortunate, but that’s what happens the older we get.

I hope to play again. I really do. If I don’t play the flute, I have what’s called a wind synthesizer, and it doesn’t put a stress on my jawbones. It’s a great little instrument. I have a digital recording studio here at the house. It can do just about anything. I haven’t worked in there for a while. I hope to retire early, and when that happens, I plan on doing a CD and releasing a lot of material that I’ve wanted to release for a number of years. Michael Beck will probably be part of it. There are some local musicians here that are really good, and I’ll see if they want to help. I’m not dead yet, but close to it.

ATI:   Are there any records you might have from old days?

CF:    I was in a band French TV and in 2005 we did a remake of a song I wrote for Happy The Man called “Partly the State”. Also, if you Google my name, you’ll see a CD called Lateral Force, I have done some vocals on that. Michael Beck and I had a band called Dog Talk, and I’m on two Dog Talk CDs. We were the best of Indy, and were really popular for about four years from about ’96 to around 2000. I played flutes and keyboards and pennywhistle, and I sang some lead and some back-up vocals on that.

ATI:   Have you heard Stanley Whitaker sing? If you have, what do you think of him as a vocalist?

CF:    He’s gotten better over the years. When Stanley started to sing at first, it was kind of hard to get used to. But on some of the most recent stuff he and Frank have done, I think he does just fine. And his guitar playing is incredible. He’s definitely one of the best guitar players on the planet.

Michael Beck and I are hoping to visit Frank and Stanley this year. We’re heading East. It helps just to have a friendly visit and get together and reminiscence over the years we spent together. We’re all good friends. As far as I know, there’s no animosity towards anybody. When you’re in a music group or a band, it’s like a family, and time heals all wounds.

ATI:   Stan is part of the band, Six Elements. He was brought in as a vocalist, not a guitar player. The “triumph and disaster” concept album Primary Elements required singing, but the person must have lived it in order to sing it. He was just coming out of his cancer treatment and other difficulties, so he lived it.

CF:    And that can make a difference emotionally. With vocalists, you appreciate the fact that someone puts in that emotion. It’s not just singing; there’s something else that goes with it that makes it more real.

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