Bassist Rick Kennell: “He’s a meticulous guy. He rehearses. He works on his craft.”

 

The origin of Happy the Man dates back to mid-1972, when guitarist Stan Whitaker and bassist Rick Kennell met at a U.S. Army base in Germany.  Rick was a member of Happy The Man during the ’70s. After the band broke up later in the decade, he worked Stanley and his new band, Vision, until the mid-’80s. He eventually moved into the management end of the business and was involved in the reunion of Happy the Man.

 

ATI:   You met Stanley in Germany. How did that happen?

RK:   I went in the Army in December of 1971. It took me about six months to get through basic training and what they call AIT, which is advanced training for your skill—whatever you’re going to do. I was a clerk typist like Radar O’Reilly in M*A*S*H—just an administrative guy, basically. I got to Germany around the last week of May, and I had only been there a short time, just a matter of days. It was June 2, 1972.

I was walking to the PX, and I saw these long-haired guys unloading a van and thought, “What’s going on over there?” So I walked over there and started talking to them. It turned out they were in a band. They were playing that night on my base at the service club there. We struck up a conversation, and I saw Stan over in the background. He had his guitar and he was playing some Yes stuff. Back in Indiana, the band I was in with Mike and Cliff played a lot of that stuff. And we were into the really, really unusual progressive music that had just come out, and it wasn’t even popular yet.

I saw Stan playing that and I was, like, “Wow, what kind of stuff do you guys play?” When he started telling me, I was ,like, “Holy cow, this is unbelievable.” We spent some time as they were setting up their gear just talking, and I befriended his brother, Ken. Ken actually ended up coming over to the barracks to see my record collection, because he didn’t believe it. He said, “We haven’t been to the States in years, and we don’t know what they’re listening to.” And I said, “Don’t go by me because I’m a little pocket of humanity that’s into this music, and I’m not sure anybody else is or not.”

After we looked through the record collection, Ken went back and told the guys “This guy’s unbelievable. He’s got all this stuff, and he’s into all the same bands.” About that time their bass player had wandered off to go get something to eat or something, and they said, “Hey, why don’t you play? Pick up the bass. Play something.” I said, “Well, what do you guys want to do ?” And he goes, “Do you know ‘The Knife’ by Genesis?” And I said, “Yeah.”

As part of their sound check, I played bass with them on “The Knife” by Genesis. And then we all went their separate ways.  I came to see the show that night and, after the show Stan, came up and said, “Look, we’re all going back to Virginia in a few months to go to school, and we’d like you to be in our band.” And I said, “That’s all well and good, but I’ve got a year and a half left over here. and I’m not going to be available.” And they said, “We don’t care. By the time we get settled in, get the songs written and all that stuff, it’ll be fine.”

They left and that was it. Of course I kept pinching myself and going, “This didn’t really happen. This isn’t going to happen. This is a joke. Things like this just don’t happen.” It was just too cosmic. And sure enough, about the third week, I got a nine-page letter from Stan and a cassette tape with some of the roughs of the original music that was starting to happen, and it said basically, “Start learning your parts. We’re here.”

I waited a short time and went on leave. I got a prisoner shipment so I got a free trip back to the States, because I couldn’t afford to do it any other way. I was flying back from Fort Leavenworth, but I changed my ticket to go through Indiana and grab Mike [Beck]. We popped in his van, drove down to Virginia and spent several days just jamming and rehearsing and trying to get a feel for whether or not it was all going to work.

Then Frank [Wyatt] came to Indiana for a visit in the spring of ’73, and he convinced Mike, and at that point we were talking about Cliff [Fortney], who wasn’t at the original sessions, to join the band as well. Frank pretty much twisted their arms and, the next thing I know, I get a letter that says, “Hey, Mike and Cliff are already here. We’re working on stuff.”

They did one show without me in December of ’73, which was at the student center at Madison. My wife, Leah, was actually there, and it was an interesting show because the fire alarm went off and they didn’t stop playing. They just started jamming to the fire alarm.

I got out of the service like the first week of December and spent a few weeks at home with my parents. By the time I got out there it was probably the last week of January in ’74. That’s when we all were finally together, and everything started from that point.

ATI:   Your friend Dan Owen was vocalist for a short time for Happy the Man, correct?

RK:    Dan was actually one of my heroes, as far as on the local scene goes, back in Indiana. He was a bass player and a singer, and he had a pretty strong influence on me back in the early days as far as his bass playing. Dan was a friend. Cliff and Mike knew him, too, and we used to all hang out together occasionally. When Cliff left the band, we decided to make another go of a singer, so we called Dan. He wasn’t with the band long, but he’s an amazing singer, and I’m still in touch with him. An amazing guy. For the record, Stan considers Dan Owen as his biggest influence vocally, because Stan has developed into quite a vocalist himself.

It’s a little bit unfortunate that Stan never spent any time on his voice back in the day when we got signed. He was thrust into the role of the singer, and you know Stan. He’s a meticulous guy. He rehearses. He works on his craft.  But there was really no time. It was, like, “Okay, we need to have a couple of vocal songs on the record, because the record company wants them.” Stan was just thrown into this thing, and he did the best he could at the time. I know from talking to him over the years that he was very unhappy with the quality of his voice at that point. Of course, he’s spent many years getting it up to speed, and it’s a great voice now.

Stan really didn’t enjoy singing back then much. It was a chore for him because he was this incredible guitar player and his voice just wasn’t up to that level. I know that always bothered him.  I guess he got really driven after he met Peter Gabriel to work really hard and get his voice up to par. And God bless him for that. It’s a beautiful thing.

ATI:   Talking about Peter Gabriel, how did that whole situation in ‘76 go? What’s your recollection?

RK:   Through Dale Newman and my contacts with the Genesis organization. Dale, Dan’s partner, went to work for Genesis, and he was Mike Rutherford’s guitar roadie for a number of years and, eventually, he was their studio manager. He called me and said, “Hey, there are some changes going down in Genesis, and it looks like Peter’s heading out, and you guys came up as a possible thing.”

I put the managers in touch and, sure enough, there he was, hanging out with us and playing volleyball and swimming. We were in the rehearsal studio for a long day working on some of his stuff.   Peter wanted us to be in his band. We were thinking maybe we could open for him, and then he could come out and join us. He definitely wasn’t into that idea either, so it was a mismatch—and then Arista caught wind of it.

We were already being considered by a couple of labels and when they heard that Peter Gabriel was interested, that pushed it over the top. I think Arista’s interest grew quite significantly when they found out Peter was interested in us and rehearsing with us.   I always thought that, if we would have hooked up with Peter at that point, it might have been a whole different story, as far as our success goes, but you never know. How do you know that?

ATI:    After the band broke up in ’79 when Kit Watkins left—you, Stanley and Rocky Ruckman played together in a band called Vision, correct?

RK:    Yes, we moved up to New York and put a rock band together. We had met Rocky—he opened for one of the Happy the Man shows—and Stan and I were both just blown away by his voice. Stan was, like, “Look, let’s try to go a little more vocal and a little more rock and see what happens.” So we moved up to New York and put the band together and went from there.

ATI:    Tell me a little more about that band? What’s your recollection of the history of that band.

RK:    In the early phases of it, we moved up near Woodstock, which was really remote. We were at a place called Lexington where there was a conservatory theatre during the summer and, during the winter, there were a lot of empty buildings; some were heated and some of them weren’t. We rented the whole complex, because there were the band members and the wives and the road crew.

We all broke up in little groups and lived in different houses and rehearsed a lot and eventually got a deal with Michael Kleffner’s front-line management—almost. We weren’t signed. We were courted by him, and he was drawing up the papers, but, in the eleventh hour, Dee Anthony, who was managing Peter Frampton and Humble Pie, stole us away from Michael Kleffner.

Around ’79 or ’80, we were gearing up for this one show we did at the Ritz, which was a showcase for nine or ten different labels. We had been together for about a year. Through the relationship with Dee, we were turned on to Eddie Kramer, who handled Hendrix and Zeppelin. He took us over.

There’s a little studio which was really more of a rehearsal studio—it was equipped as a recording studio, but it was small and a little bit awkward for really big projects. Bands like Foreigner and Hall & Oates used to rehearse there all the time. Eddie knew the owner really well—a guy named Mike Scott—and he made a deal with him on spec. We went in and recorded like—I don’t know—eight songs or ten songs in like a day.

It was a one-day thing. Eddie went in the next day and mixed them.   He actually might have even mixed on the fly the same day. It was crazy. We were so well-rehearsed that we could just do one or two takes and he’d go, “Okay, fine. Next.” We’d do the next one. He might have even done the whole thing in one day. if you listen to it, you can almost tell he was mixing on the fly. It doesn’t sound like a finished record here and there, like the fades aren’t quite right—if you’re really being critical, you’ll hear that it was done very quickly.

Then we had this big showcase set up, and we put all of our eggs in one basket. We did this big showcase, and all the labels passed. It’s hard to describe. It was an orchestral rock thing with heavy metal vocals over it and it didn’t work.

When I go back and listen to it now, I understand why it didn’t work, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t great. I can see why record labels were shying away from it, because it wasn’t commercial enough to be commercial, and it wasn’t heavy metal enough to be heavy metal. It wasn’t in a nice, neat category, which is what they liked, especially at that time.

The very next day we found out that we didn’t get signed, and everybody was looking for Rocky, who went to the flea market. Eddie had bought him a pair of riding boots for riding horses, and they were really expensive—maybe $1000 or something.  Rocky was at the flea market selling his boots. He literally had his car packed up, and he was going to be on his way to Florida the next day. It was like, “If I can’t do this, then …” In the meantime, we were doing another showcase at a club for Lindsay Wagner. She’s a movie star, and there was a movie called Nighthawks with Sylvester Stallone that she was starring in. She was very friendly with Dee, and they came up to see us in a club because they were thinking of getting us to do the music for the movie.

Rocky completely blew his voice out. We don’t know exactly how it happened, but we were on the third song and, all of a sudden, he had no range. We literally stopped playing and took a break. Dee Anthony came back to the dressing room, asking “What’s going on? What’s going on?” And we’re like, “We don’t know. We don’ know.”   We went back out, and Rocky was rewriting all the melodies on the spot because he couldn’t hit any of the high notes. And I honestly don’t know, to this day, what happened, but he lost probably six or seven half steps on his range in that one night.

I know he wasn’t feeling great before the shows. I don’t think he actually had like a virus or a cough or a cold, but he just wasn’t feeling up to par, and I think there was actually something physically happening with his throat. When he strained it like that, and he kept singing and pushing it, I think he did some damage. I think that, combined with the fact that we didn’t get a record deal, made him head down to Florida. I guess he’s been in cover bands pretty much since then.

ATI:    He’s an interesting character. Even now he sounds pretty darn good.

RK:   Yeah. He always had a great voice. It was a shame because he had such a high range. He was probably one of the top ten rock ‘n’ roll singers ever until that happened to him. But the bottom line is we replaced him, and we replaced the keyboard player at that point.

We got David Bach back in the band, and we got David’s friend from Texas, Brad Busby, and we kept doing original stuff. But as the band started moving toward being a cover band, to be honest with you, I lost interest. I’d rather work at the post office. I’m not in music to play somebody else’s stuff. It’s just not me. I’m not cut out for it. I hung in there for awhile, but as I saw all the changes coming and I saw what was going on. We ended up doing a Styx show and a Journey show, and it just turned into this cover thing that I just wasn’t enamored with.

After that, all the bands I was trying to cope with wanted to do covers, and it eventually deteriorated into me not wanting to be there. My music career was definitely on hold, but I was very successful, in my own way as a producer.

A few years later, I was in LA, and I was hanging out with Fred Brown. It was when Stan was living out there.   We went out to see Stan play a solo gig, and it was all original. Stan did an hour of all original tunes, standing up with his acoustic guitar. His voice was great. Fred kept saying, “The songs aren’t quite there yet, but what a great voice and what a great thing.” Stan was working at an insurance company during the day. He had a band called Spirit Noise, a trio he was doing a rocking thing with, and he was writing all these acoustic guitar songs.

To be honest with you, I think it was the most productive period of his life. He was writing great stuff. He was healthy. He was happy. He was working during the day. He wasn’t out there playing cover tunes. You know what I mean? To me, that’s the quintessential Stan. He eventually moved back to Baltimore, I loaned him the money to get a little sound system, so that he could start playing gigs. I didn’t realize he was going to do a cover thing, and I was really disappointed when I found that out. He’s got so many originals, and he’s so intriguing and interesting to listen to.

But you know what? He probably couldn’t get a lot of these gigs without playing the covers, and I understand that. There was just something about seeing him in LA. It was eye-popping. It was eye popping for me. I had never seen him that healthy, that happy, that well-adjusted. He wasn’t scrambling for money because he had the insurance gig. He was really in a good place, and I like to think about that a lot when I think about Stan.

ATI:   Interesting. According to Stan, he wasn’t all that happy during that period of his life.

RK:    Is that right?

ATI:    He felt that as things didn’t work well at all, probably because he was in a very difficult situation. He couldn’t make enough money just playing music, and because he had to do something other than the music, he considered it a defeat.

RK:    Maybe I’m wrong about this, but I think that was probably one of the most productive writing periods in his life. I think there were also some very productive periods back in the Happy the Man days, but he was just cranking out song after song after song during that period, to the extent that he’s still going back and dipping into those songs and updating them for some of his current work.  I’m simply saying, even though he was experiencing a lot of frustration and he considered that to be a down period, he wrote a lot of good stuff then. He really did.

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Comments

  1. jp says:

    You have an error… Kit’s name is Watkins with a W

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