And he didn’t play any traditional rock musical instrument—unless you count the tambourine permanently implanted in his head and with which he could do all sorts of acrobatic tricks.
But Mark Volman was arguably the heart and soul of the Turtles. Easily identifiable on stage and in videos with his large frame, wild frizzy halo of black hair, thick, black-rimmed glasses, and permanent smile singing the high harmony that was crucial to the band’s sound.
He tells his story—with more than a little help from his friends—in the new book written with John Cody Happy Forever: My Musical Adventures with the Turtles, Frank Zappa, T. Rex, Flo & Eddie, and More (368 pp., $24.95, Jawbone Press).
In a unique twist, Volman’s story is told largely through the 100+ interviews Cody conducted with his musical contemporaries, collaborators, bandmates, friends, lovers, ex-wives, and children. Classic Rockers Alice Cooper, Micky Dolenz, Tommy James, Leslie West, Chuck Negron and Felix Cavaliere are included.
“You never know what you’re going to say until you put pen to page, and it took a long time to feel comfortable as a writer doing this. But I wanted to try something new here,” Volman says from somewhere out on the road. “In this, you think ‘Well, what’s a true story? What’s not a true story?’ I enjoyed the shift.”
The format has its risks because while most of the remembrances are positive or factual, not everyone interviewed sings his praises. Volman is sometimes painted as greedy, shifty, a cheating husband and an absent father, control freak, substance abuser, and ego tripper.
“There is that. And some of it also vindicates me. But only a few people stepped out to air their hostility,” he says. “There’s a lot of different layers there. I just hope that people enjoy it.”
Fans certainly enjoyed the Turtles and their offbeat and always on display sense of humor, even if the rock cognoscenti of then (and now) dismiss them for daring to be fun or include comical interludes and satirical songs onstage.
Starting as a mostly instrumental surf-rock group called the Crossfires, they became the Turtles almost as a joke because there were a lot of bands named after animals and insects.
Their first single was a cover of Bob Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me Babe,” which came out at exactly the same time Dylan’s own “Like a Rolling Stone” did. And their first gig? In front of 87,000 people on a package show at the Rose Bowl.
The Turtles’ signature tune, of course, is “Happy Together.” And as the book points out, had already been turned down by the vocal groups the Vogues, the Happenings and the Tokens.
Written by Garry Bonner and Alan Gordon, it hit No. 1 in March 1967. It not only became a big hit and the biggest of the Turtles’ discography, but an anthem of love and positivity in the 1960s with an incredible afterlife in movies, TV shows, and commercials. And anytime the original recording is used, Volman and Kaylan get paid.
“It gets reborn all the time. It has a life totally of its own. We make it easy to use and realized it’s bigger than whatever we were going to earn otherwise,” he says.
“It showed us the importance of a song in a variety of different [media] and the teamwork that went into not just the performance but the songwriters who were involved. The family of Alan Gordon opened the door for us to take care of that song for them. They knew Howard and I wouldn’t sell it. And lot of offers have come through!”
While turtles can live up to 100 years, these musical ones only lasted in their original form from 1965-70, though Volman and Kaylan would use the valuable name for decades only after a lengthy legal fight for use of it. In fact, the pair seem to have spent a lot of time in court (and usually emerging victorious) concerning the band’s name, royalties, and illegal sampling in rap songs. As when De La Soul illegally sampled “You Showed Me” in their “Transmitting Live from Mars” one of the first legal motions of its kind.
And—more recently—SiriusXM Radio for playing and not offering royalties to groups on pre-1972 recordings. Kaylan and Volman lead a class action suit that in 2016 saw a judgment against the satellite radio provider and a settlement, though appeals reduced that amount.
“I truly believe the Turtles became a bit enigmatic because we were kind of outspoken about problems as a band and had a lot of problems with management. Ultimately, the business that gave us the success was the same one that [used] us,” Volman says, adding that he had to make “seven round trips” between New York and Los Angeles during the SiriusXM suit, which he called “draining.”
In fact, it seems like the pair could practically be lawyers for all the writs and depositions over the years. Most famously when they were prevented from first label White Whale from not only recording and performing as their Turtles but from using their actual real names.
Thus, copping the nicknames of two of their roadies, they became “Flo & Eddie” while working with Frank Zappa, T. Rex, and an entirely separate career as live and studio backing vocalists. Most famously adding the ‘aah-aaah’ choruses that lifted Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart.”
The book shows that Volman and Kaylan were nothing if not masters of reinvention. In addition to gigging, they segued into stints as morning DJs on New York’s K-ROCK and doing music for children’s cartoons like Strawberry Shortcake and The Care Bears.
In the 1990s while in his 40s, Mark Volman returned to school and earned a Master in Fine Arts degree from Loyola Marymount University and was named class valedictorian. He is currently an Associate Professor and Coordinator of the Entertainment Industry Studies Program at Belmont University.
Asked what’s the No. 1 thing he’d tell his students today they should know that he wished he did in 1965, the answer comes easy.
“Publishing! And understanding about performance royalties and those things that can be a financial winner. You’ve got to understand that from Day One,” he offers.
This summer, Volman is on the road as part of the oldies “Happy Together” package tour he’s had a hand in running since its late ‘80s inception. On a personal note, I saw it first in the late ‘80s on the Arena Theatre’s revolving stage, and Volman and Kaylan generously spoke for a while to my teenaged self and a friend after the show.
As usual, the “Turtles” headline, though Volman is the only reptile left. None of the original/classic members play with this group, and Kaylan retired from performing in 2017. Replacing him is Ron Dante (“Sugar, Sugar,” the Archies). Also on board at various stops are Little Anthony, Gary Puckett, The Vogues, The Classics IV and The Cowsills, though it does not include a Texas date.
“Even in high school back in 1962, Howard was much more in the business of going to school and I was a bit of a troublemaker!” he says. Still, it must have been hard initially to look over on stage and not see Kaylan there after a half century performing together.
“It wasn’t completely a shock, and there were times we didn’t [perform] together. Part of it was me being comfortable onstage without him. But I had done some [solo] things around Nashville,” Volman says.
“Howard had some health issues beginning to get in the way. And he had several surgeries this past year. But about two months ago, we talked about doing some podcasting together!”
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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.