When it comes to the history of pop music, The Turtles is a group in rare company. Hits like “Happy Together” and “Elenor,” both recorded over 50 years ago, are still popular as ever. Yet selling over 40 million albums is only one of the interesting things that Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman – also known as “Flo and Eddie” – have done in their careers. They have sung backup on recordings for a wide array of artists, including Frank Zappa, Alice Cooper, Bruce Springsteen, John Lennon, The Ramones, Duran Duran, Blondie, T. Rex, and Ozzy Osbourne. They have hosted #1-rated radio shows, long before David Lee Roth, Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider or Quiet Riot’s Kevin DuBrow went into the radio world. They are also among the first-ever artists to have reclaimed their master recordings from their major label, taking the DIY indie route prior to the emergence of punk rock.
The Turtles still hit the road frequently, more often than not as headliners of the Happy Together Tour. When not doing that, Mark is a music business professor based in Nashville. He co-wrote a music business-themed textbook titled Off The Record: Your Ultimate Resource for Success in the Music Business in 2011. Howard – who was born in the Bronx — recently released a solo album, in addition to the 2013 memoir Shell Shocked: My Life with the Turtles, Flo and Eddie, and Frank Zappa, etc.; Penn Jillette wrote the foreword to the book, while Cal Schenkel did its cover art. As owners of The Turtles’ master recordings, 2016 brought the re-issues of two Turtles compilations via FloEdCo and Manifesto Records: the six-CD box set The Complete Original Albums Collection and the two-CD compilation All The Singles. In turn, there seems to rarely be a dull moment for Flo, Eddie or their fans.
Mark spoke to Downtown on the eve of the Aug. 19 release of both Turtles re-issue collections. Mark can be visited online at www.professorflo.com, while Howard keeps his own site at www.howardkaylan.com. All things Turtles can be found at www.theturtles.com.
What do you wish more people knew about The Turtles?
Mark Volman: There’s a tremendous amount of interest in the music of Southern California. That somehow has been reverberated across decades of music, and I think one of the things that we’re always most excited to tell people that they might not know or maybe because every other band in that era was using session musicians, is that The Turtles played on, arranged, and organized all of their music and that was really a big deal for us. But we were on such a small record label that they didn’t have the finances to then pay those session musicians. So I think that we were involved with the making of our music from beginning to end is probably one of the major things.
Everyone knows the major hits of The Turtles and most stars tend to have a love-hate relationship with performing their big hits. Now considering that The Turtles have always made interesting artistic choices, where do you personally stand on having to play the hits when you do most of your touring?
MV: It’s fine now. I mean, I would say we did run into a period in our lives where we did kind of shy away from the hits in terms of wanting to branch out…That was probably the time when we were trying to kind of break away from just the hit record concept and wanted to do a little bit more involved in the album. Radio seems to surge dramatically in the late 60s…FM radio took on an entirely-different scope in terms of the type of music because of the type of sound that FM gave you a playlist, which we were trying very hard to kind of fit in with…So yeah, we were, we were probably shying away just a little bit. But we progressed and understood that more hit records were at the time just as experimental as anything else we were doing…Now we’re very happy that we’ve have them involved with us.
The Turtles have been covered a lot of times over the years. Now… there was a cover for the Great Gatsby trailer by Richard Patrick a couple of years ago. There was a great cover by Me First and the Gimme Gimmes, I’d say about ten years ago. Do you have a favorite cover?
MV: Not really a favorite. I mean I like, I like both of those versions that you mentioned. I think it’s fun to hear. I mean even going back to the 60s with records like “Elenor,” which was covered by a major recording star back in the 60s. A fellow named Gianni Morandi had a major cover of “Elenor” in Italian, which was called “Scende La Pioggia” and it became a big hit in Spain. And those were always fun to hear because “Elenor” blended itself so naturally to an Italian flavor…But I did like the other covers. Both of them that you mentioned I felt were excellent…Even today we get a lot of groups sending us copies to hear new groups that are not that well-known.
Is there a lesser-known Turtles song that you think should have been as big of a hit as “Happy Together?”
MV: Well, I mean there were two songs…They were really, I felt excellent, records. One of them was called “Love In The City,” which I felt was kind of an overlooked record of ours, and also the song, “The Story Of Rock And Roll.” I think those two records which are a part of the massive release, which is coming out…I was surprised that they didn’t do as well as I thought they would. I felt both of those records were very integral part of our growth in terms of our songwriting and production and I think that those haven’t been discovered a lot. The same thing with the record like “She’s My Girl.” For some reason “She’s My Girl” gets discovered a lot when we’re doing an interview and talk with somebody…“She’s My Girl” comes up a lot.
On the recording end, you guys have been doing package tours for years. Is there anyone you haven’t toured with but are still hoping to one day to put on to one of your package tours?
MV: Oh my! (laughs) I’m not really sure, I mean, we’re pretty much know everybody in the touring marketplace. I mean, I think one of the things that we hope can be remedied maybe down the line, would be to possibly discuss further. We’ve had some discussions with Dweezil [Zappa] in the past and one of the things we felt would be fun to do would be a tour with Dweezil where we sing the music of the era that we were with Frank [Zappa]…I feel somewhere along the way we can maybe find a way to do a worldwide tour before it’s too late.
What do you remember about the first gig that you ever played in New York City?
MV: Well, the first place we played in New York City that I remember was a place called The Phone Booth. The Phone Booth was a very successful club that really opened the door to the downtown band having a place to play uptown. And one of the biggest groups that came out of the uptown swing there was The Young Rascals…We ended up being brought in there to play. It was a good place for us to come in and we came back several times.
So it’s very known that you two sang backing vocals on “Bang A Gong” by T. Rex and also songs by Bruce Springsteen, Alice Cooper and Frank Zappa. Are there any songs that you sang on but you had to do uncredited?
MV: Oh yeah, there were. Probably the most popular group that we sang with that we went uncredited was Ozzy Osbourne. We sang on two albums of Ozzy’s. He was very forthright about telling us up-front that they were going to do that because the group plays to a different type of audience. I mean, even when we did the Alice Cooper record, we did “How You Gonna See Me Now” and we did the album, Goes To Hell. We did a few of those ballad songs that Alice became known for. And there was a couple of them that I was surprised about…So Ozzy just basically let them, the audience who are listening to the songs, to kind of try and figure it out. I think he just kind of leaned towards the opinion that if you just hear background vocals you’re just going to insinuate that it is the band…We were sort of not involved on those records credit-wise but we knew that going in.
Well, going back to Frank Zappa though. Do you feel that there are any misconceptions out there about him?
MV: I think there’s a lot of a misconceptions about him. Most noteworthy was that he was kind of anti-American. There was a lot of people who even today are surprised to find out that he never was an alcoholic; he very, very lightly used alcohol in the later periods of his life. He never smoked pot and if he did…for all of the times he did, it was so miniscule. So yeah, there was a lot of people who when you would talk about Frank and tell them that, they were surprised because they thought that was probably the reason he was so kind of enigmatic. He was very much an enigma.
And I remember in the early touring days he used to tell us when we would go overseas, to be very careful about the things you talk about, because they would always try and direct the answers to be something anti-American. Most of Frank’s interviews at the time were kind of borderline in terms of it being very much like the news. He was more or less making fun of things rather than trying to be apolitical.
Right. Okay, well another thing that’s very interesting about you is that you had success in radio decades before David Lee Roth and Dee Snider took cracks at becoming syndicated radio hosts. What led you to being working on radio or pursuing that path?
MV: Shadoe Stevens’ idea was to…kind of capture something…I never really thought of it as a job. We thought of it as an opportunity to go on the air in the radio. The original concept, we were just doing a weekend show on a Sunday night, it was about an hour long…It was part of a radio idea that Shadoe had. He was very popular in Los Angeles, and Shadoe thought a radio show with us as host, kind of a talk show with music…A station might bring me and Howard in and fill in and do a morning drive radio show…And he really came to us and approached us about doing it in Hollywood. Then what we did, we had a guy go out and offer our show in different cities, giving them the opportunity to sell advertising on our radio show, and put our show on the air for free. We would give the show for free and it would use what we called barter system, which was we got to keep a certain number of commercials for an hour that we were in charge of selling ourselves. So it was a really good, very adventurous idea for that era, because no one was messing around with it. We ended up having about 27 cities at one point…
Then when we had an opportunity to go to radio in New York, we did K-Rock. That was two-year radio afternoon drive-time show on probably the number one station in New York City, so that was a good opportunity. But all of that began clashing at a certain point because it became a really big issue in terms of touring…
And so we started saying no to some concerts and after a while it got hard for us to play live. We told promoters that we weren’t going to be available and they stopped asking us to tour, and so at a certain point we had to make a decision of staying in radio or going back to being a live concert band. We chose the latter, which was to go back on tour and it took about a year to reinvent ourselves…
I think you made the right decision of course. Another thing that’s especially interesting about you and Howard is that you two were probably one of the first, if not the first, major artist to own your master recordings. How did you wind up with the business sense to know to do that, to pursue that path?
MV: We were fortunate to have some good business people who were involved with our career at the time after the recordings became available. We were not knowledgeable about it as we could have been, but we learned very quickly that the most important thing about those recordings was ownership and being able to be…involved in licensing…
As I said, we were very fortunate to have several people involved, including an attorney, who understood how important ownership would eventually be. We learned very quickly how important that was. But one of the things we had to almost put everything on the side…We had a major issue with all of our recordings, like on the international level, because there was no control over who’s just putting out our records. So trying to track down record companies who were, you know, putting out our records without our permission and without remastering…
Eventually we would become a sole proprietor, which allowed us to be very involved with the quality, something which we’ve always wanted to have. That has become a finalized dream with the release of The Turtles box set and the singles…I realized it’s just going to be a wonderful thing for us to have.
So given all the success you’ve had on the recording end, the touring end, we’ve talked about the radio, you performing with other artists, Howard wrote a book….Is there anything that you haven’t accomplished but you’re still hoping to?
MV: (laughs) Wow, it’s kind of crazy when you think about it all. We didn’t do a lot of it just because when something came up we hadn’t done. I mean, nowadays everybody has done it and is doing it…the touring part of it…We’re pretty content right now. We’ve talked about somewhere down the line to really dig deep into the archive to see if there’s stuff that we haven’t released or are aware of.
Cool! Well, when you’re not busy with your music career, how do you like to spend your free time?
MV: Well, I’m a professor at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee. I’ve been a professor in the music business school for 12 years…When summer tour ends, I go back to school. My school is a full-time professor shift, so I’m there until Christmas and once Christmas hits, we’d get a new term. And as summer time approaches, we’ll kind of begin looking at getting the Happy Together Tour out. But I’m pretty busy on my own.
Howard has been really busy with the book and…he had a solo album out a few years ago. Howard pursues more creative elements. I’m a little bit more interested in the business aspect of the ownership of The Turtles, and I kind of look after all of that with Howard. But he kind of comes to me first and then I’ll approach Howard, whether he wants to work on it or not, then we’ll go from there. We’ve pretty much done a lot of stuff. (laughs) Yeah, I think we just keep our eyes open and if something comes up we might be inclined to do, we’ll try it.
So, in closing, Mark, any last words for the kids?
Mark: The vinyl stuff we’re doing is very fun…I hope a lot of people enjoy it because it was fun putting it together.