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Uprooted from his home in Brooklyn, followed by a year in Utica, young Howard Kaplan found himself in Westchester, California as his father found a job with Hughes Aircraft. Since students at his school were required to play a musical instrument, Howard chose the trumpet but later switched to clarinet, which seemed more natural. It was his first foray into music but also the start of a career that this twelve-year old would never forget.
Howard, who now signed his name as “Kaylan” was bitten by the music bug when the only station he could get on his transistor radio, was KDAY an R&B station, which featured the current artists of the day. Inspired, he would rush home after school to watch American Bandstand.
Once Howard saw the groups on TV playing the saxophone and not a clarinet, he convinced his music teacher to make the switch. A schoolmate by the name of Chuck Portz asked Howard if he’d like to join their band, the Nightriders. With a loan of $125, the group cut a record and appeared on a local TV show called Dance Party, hosted by future game show host, Bob Eubanks.
Now in high school, Howard was in his words, a “real nobody.” Still, he looked forward to his favorite class, a cappella choir. It was in this class that he met class-clown Mark Volman. Howard and Mark hit it off instantly. When Volman discovered Howard was in a band, he wanted to join. Since the Nightriders were an instrumental group and Mark didn’t play an instrument, he became the roadie. Mark’s dad objected to his son not sharing the meager pay so he bought his son a sax. Howard learned years later that Mark took lessons from the same clarinet teacher as he did. So now the band consisted of Howard on tenor sax, Mark on alto sax, Chuck on bass, Al Nichol on lead guitar, Jim Tucker on rhythm guitar and Don Murray on drums. Being a surf band near the beach, they were the top band in the community.
Changing their name to the Crossfires, the band became popular around the L.A. beach scene and eventually landed a gig as the house band for the Revelaire Club in Redondo Beach playing for visiting stars the Drifters, Dick and Dee Dee and Bobby Vee.
By 1964, the Beatles changed the direction of rock music. For Howard and Mark, that meant they put down their saxophones to become singers as the group drifted into a cover band. It was also the time for Howard to enter UCLA. Since he won a full scholarship sponsored by the Bank of America, his parents were extremely proud of Howard as he was the first family member to attend college.
Intimidated by the size of the classes, Howard volunteered as a campus DJ at the school’s radio station. He found his place as he was given a number of weekly slots on Bruin Radio. “One lunchtime, I came home from school early with no intention of attending my afternoon classes. My father also came home to enjoy a midday meal. I was busted. When he asked what I was doing there, I told him I was going to quit school because I was no longer interested.”
“We work and slave for you — we’ve given up everything and this is how you repay us? Just what do you intend to do with your life, idiot?” his Dad asked him.
“I told him I intended to make hit records instead. Dad was livid. I promised him that if I didn’t get a hit record within six months, I would return to school and never bring up the music business again. I was underestimating myself. It didn’t take that long.” (1)
Still working the weekly job at the Revelaire, Howard was approached after a show by two guys in suits, Lee Lasseff and Ted Feigin, and told him that they were starting a new label. They were so impressed with the band’s version of Mr. Tambourine Man that they wanted to take them into a studio and make a record…a folk-rock record!
After a few songs previously put to vinyl that went nowhere, Howard thought this might be their last chance. Plus, he remembered his promise to his parents.
The label without a name had a group that needed a new name as the band headed into their folk-rock era. Reb Foster, owner of the Revelaire Club suggested the Turtles. “We laughed right out loud. You have got to be kidding. Turtles are fat and ugly…why would we want to be called that?” the group asked. Reb told them, “Look, you’re on a new label and the name has an l-e-s ending, just like the Beatles, and it’s an animal name too. The public is going to think you guys come from England, and England is hot!” (2)
The Turtles first release, It Ain’t Me Babe for the new label, White Whale, hit the Billboard Hot 100 chart in August of 1965 and climbed to number eight. (3) Howard fulfilled his part of the bargain with his parents just four months after their agreement. As a way of thanking his Mom and Dad, Howard bought them a new color TV and sent them on a trip to Hawaii. He never had to hear about bad career choices again.
In 1965 and 66, the Turtles were like any other group with a hit record — they went on tour. After opening for Herman’s Hermits at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, the band joined the Dick Clark tour in Chicago for the next six weeks. They were added to a roster that included Tom Jones, Peter & Gordon, the Shirelles, Brian Hyland, Ronnie Dove, Billy Joe Royal and Mel Carter for the Midwest leg. Howard and Mark couldn’t believe their luck when assigned permanent bus seats next to Gordon and Tom Jones respectively … until they had a WTF moment. Once the bus was rolling to the next city and darkness fell, the newcomers were expected to sleep on the floor below their seats as the tour’s stars stretched out above them.
When the group wasn’t touring, they were in the studio recording their debut album. Not just any studio, but at Western Studios, home of the Beach Boys, Jan & Dean and many others. Lasseff and Feigin listed themselves as producers but it was the work of Bones Howe who, as the engineer of so many of the Wrecking Crew hits, led the group to find their own sound. Whether the producers were on a budget or just cheap, the Turtles played their own instruments on their records.
Top Row L-R: Howard Kaylan, Mark Volman, Johnny Barbata Bottom Row L-R: Jim Tucker, Al Nichol, Jim Pons
(Photo by Tony Gale)
The Turtles next single, Let Me Be, released in the fall of 1965, followed by You Baby, released in February of 1966, topped the charts at 29 and 20 respectively. The next two singles, Grim Reaper Of Love and Can I Get To Know You Better stalled out of the box at 81 and 89. (3)
Fearing that the run of good fortune might be ending, two members, Don Murray and Chuck Portz quit the band. Johnny Barbata replaced Murray and Chip Douglas was the new bass player. With new band members and failed attempts for a new hit, the group sensed the pressure for a new hit.
Since they didn’t write the A-sides to their songs, the process that took days of listening to numerous demos began. On a scratchy, well-worn demo sent from New York, they heard something that caught their attention. According to Howard, “One of the composers, Gary Bonner strummed his acoustic guitar while the other, Alan Gordon sang in a bizarre falsetto while pounding on his legs to get a rhythm going. Their voices were abysmal.” (4) Later, they learned everybody in the business rejected the song. However, they loved it.
Still, the song was a work in progress as Happy Together, took eight months to perfect. It was band newcomer Chip Douglas, who arranged the background vocals, wrote the horn parts and eventually played bass on the song that brought it all together.
The lead vocal was completed in one take with the throwaway line “How is the weather?” added as a joke. Once the background vocals and the orchestra were added and mixed, Howard knew the group had something special. “Happy Together remains the only time I’ve left a recording session knowing that I had just made a number one record. It was not only the Turtles’ biggest hit, it changed just about everything for us! It still defines me.” (4)
Happy Together was released on February 11, 1967 (3) and reached number one on March 25, 1967, where it stayed for three weeks. (5)
The Turtles would hit the Billboard charts seventeen times between 1965 and 1970, the year the group disbanded. Five of those songs landed in the top ten, as Happy Together was their only number one hit. (3)
Howard Kaylan tells the story of Happy Together in this YouTube video.
Here are the Turtles lip-synching their number one hit.
1) Howard Kaylan and Jeff Tamarkin, My Life With the Turtles, Flo & Eddie and Frank Zappa, etc….Shell Shocked, Page 27.
2) iHoward Kaylan and Jeff Tamarkin, Page 29.
3) Joel Whitburn, Billboard Top Pop Singles 1955-2002, Page 727.
4) Howard Kaylan and Jeff Tamarkin, Page 54.
5) Joel Whitburn, Billboard Hot 100 Charts, The Sixties.
The Turtles perform Happy Together on The Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday, May 14, 1967. L-R Mark Volman (with trumpet); Jim Pons (bass guitar); John Barbata (on drums); Howard Kaylan (lead singer); Al Nichol (guitar) and Jim Tucker (guitar, far right).
Photo courtesy of Getty Images