Through it all, still

'Happy Together'

Despite quite possibly every setback imaginable,
the minds behind the popular 1960s band,
the Turtles, are still together.

By Bill McFarland

Northeast Times Staff Writer

Like their cousin in Aesop's fable The Hare and the Tortoise, the moral of the Turtles' story is the same: Slow and steady wins the race.

For a couple of guys who started out together in a high school choir, Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan still perform for their loyal fans as the Turtles, featuring Flo & Eddie, more than 40 years later. They will appear with Rob Grill & the Grass Roots (Midnight Confessions, Temptation Eyes, Sooner or Later) on Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Scottish Rite Auditorium in Collingswood, N.J.

"There was a four-year legal battle in the end, which is probably the reason that the group broke up (in 1970)," Volman said by phone from his home in Tennessee, explaining the demise of a band that has since been resurrected and still flourishes.

"Howard and I had been together for eight years, and we had lost three members who had been with us since high school. When the lawsuits were filed, we couldn't work together as the Turtles anymore."

Their story is as wacky as it is complicated, and it is filled with personnel changes, different managers and producers and a record company that didn't exactly have the band's best interest in mind.

It all began at Westchester High School in Los Angeles in the early 1960s when Kaylan formed a band with choir mates Al Nichol (lead guitar), Don Murray (drums) and Chuck Portz (bass). Volman heard about the group and joined, as did rhythm guitarist Jim Tucker.

A local disc jockey and club owner, Reb Foster, discovered the band, signed a deal with a new record label, White Whale, and changed the name from the Crossfires to the Turtles. The first song recorded by the Turtles, a cover version of Bob Dylan's It Ain't Me Babe, climbed to the Top Five on the national record charts in 1965, and the group was an instant success.

Follow-up records included the smash hits Let Me Be and You Baby, both penned by the songwriting/producing team of P.F. Sloan and Steve Barri, making the Turtles one of the top American bands in 1965 and '66.

Unfortunately, three more releases failed to chart after their initial splash, and the lack of success, along with a constant touring schedule, led to changes in 1967, including some behind-the-scenes shenanigans that ultimately led the Turtles toward bankruptcy.

Murray and Portz left and were replaced by John Barbata (drums) and Jim Pons (bass), and a song that the Turtles had been performing in live shows, but never recorded, returned the group to the top of the charts.

Happy Together, written by Garry Bonner and Alan Gordon, was the band's biggest hit, and three more Bonner-Gordon compositions, She'd Rather Be With Me, You Know What I Mean and She's My Girl, also made the Top 20 on the American charts and made the Turtles international stars.

After a self-produced single failed to make the Top 40, White Whale wanted to bring in a new band to back Kaylan and Volman. The group responded by making a concept album, The Turtles Present The Battle of the Bands, which many other groups at the time were also doing as a response to the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

"Sgt. Pepper gave us the OK to do whatever we wanted, and Battle of the Bands became our response to that," explained Volman. "That album opened the door creatively for the Turtles. We were bound and gagged before that by the (record) label."

The concept was that the group assumed 11 different identities and recorded songs in 11 genres. The end result were the last two singles to reach the Top Five on the charts — Elenore, written by Kaylan, and You Showed Me, originally recorded by the Byrds and written by Gene Clark and Roger McGuinn.

Again, White Whale began to pressure Kaylan and Volman to fire the band and do voice-overs to tracks recorded by studio musicians. Their response was the 1969 LP Turtle Soup, produced by Ray Davies of the Kinks. When neither the album nor two singles from it reached the Top 40, the Turtles disbanded, and Kaylan, Volman and Pons joined Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention.

Unable to use "Turtles" nor even their own names, due to contract issues, they billed themselves as the Phlorescent Leech & Eddie, later shortened to Flo (Volman) & Eddie (Kaylan). After a stint with the Mothers of Invention, Flo & Eddie released a few albums in the 1970s and eventually went into broadcasting with a weekly radio show.

Among their financial disasters was an audit of White Whale that showed a $160,000 shortfall while the Turtles were turning out hit records. Also, a road manager ousted the group's manager in 1967 and borrowed $550,000 of the Turtles' money to pay the manager off. This same road manager sold his half-interest in the band to a management firm and then disappeared with the proceeds from a Turtles' tour. Suits and countersuits were filed, which led to the long legal battle.

"Howard and I came closer together when we got an offer to join Frank Zappa," said Volman. "There wasn't much left of the Turtles, what with all of the lawsuits and stuff. When everything was finally settled in 1974, there wasn't any money left (at White Whale), so the courts awarded us the Turtles' master tapes.

"We had to pay off all of our legal fees, so we offered the other (former) members a chance to stay involved (with the Turtles), if everybody came up with $15,000, but they all turned us down.

"Howard and I sort of became curators of ourselves, but we really didn't know what it meant in 1974," Volman continued. "Music from the 1960s was dead, and disco was just around the corner, so who would have thought that the Turtles' music was going to be worth anything? At the time, our live show was mainly Flo & Eddie stuff with a few Turtles songs mixed in."

At that time, however, the duo finally got some sound advice.

"Howard and I were looking for somebody to pay our legal fees," continued Volman. "If we had found somebody who would have paid the bill and given us, say, $20,000 each, we probably would have taken it, but we had an attorney at the time who insisted that we hold on to the masters, and he kept assuring us that they would be worth something some day.

"It was a risk and kind of a big leap of faith for us because we weren't very smart about the business end (of the music industry), but in the long run, it worked out for us. We were very fortunate. We really didn't do anything with (the master tapes) until 1984, when we got an offer to join what was called the Happy Together tour."

Thus began the comeback. That tour occurred during the upsurge in popularity of 1960s music as baby boomers yearned to hear the songs that they listened to while growing up.

And ownership of their music, and the accompanying publishing rights, allowed Volman and Kaylan to finally get that financial monkey off their backs.

"It took years for us to pay off the legal fees," said Volman. "I don't think we got into the black until 1989, so it took us fifteen years, plus a lot of blood, sweat and tears of touring to keep the songs out there for people to stay interested in the Turtles' music.

"Happy Together ended up paying our legal fees many times over."

This story was published on Jan. 16, 2008, in the Northeast Times in Philadelphia, which owns the copyright. It may not be reproduced anywhere else without permission.


Visit the the Turtles Web site.

Return to home