Back when pop music had real prestige, The Turtles were one of its finest practitioners. Their success was due in no small part to a DIY approach to music and their collective ear for a great song. The band first hit the charts with a version of Bob Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me Babe” in 1965. From there, they covered songs from bands like The Byrds and recorded tunes from songwriters like Warren Zevon and the mostly forgotten—yet incredibly prolific—Alan Gordon, who co-wrote their signature song, “Happy Together.”
Despite numerous personnel changes, Mark Volman never fully abandoned the idea of The Turtles. He and Turtles bandmate Howard Kaylan departed from the band for a time and joined Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, calling themselves Flo (Mark) & Eddie (Howard). They continued to tour and record as Flo & Eddie (separate from Zappa) through the ’80s until they regained control of The Turtles’ name. Today, Volman and Kaylan bill themselves “The Turtles Featuring Flo & Eddie” and gig around the world with fellow ’60s and ’70s pop acts on their popular Happy Together Tour.
Volman has thrived in the music industry for the better part of fifty years. His incredibly varied career has included work as a backup singer, record producer, screenwriter, and college professor. When he’s not touring with The Turtles, Volman chairs the Entertainment Industry Studies Department at Belmont University in Nashville.
Volman most recently oversaw the creation of a Turtles box set containing newly remastered 45RPM vinyl singles (out now), a perfect tribute for one of the most beloved pop bands of the ’60s. Our conversation with him last week makes it clear why his students have voted him “Outstanding Professor” and why The Turtles’ music endures in 2014.
I remember really liking “Happy Together” as a kid because it was this upbeat song in a minor key, and so it kind of stuck in my mind…
[Laughs] Well, I think that the effervescent minor key to major key was a big part of The Turtles. Ultimately, it shaped the sound of our songs. I think that “Happy Together” certainly is a good demonstration of that; “Elenore” was probably the one that was more famous by kind of the fact that we were lampooning ourselves. Again, I think in the beginning, we had no idea that it was going to end up doing what it did!
Your big hits came in such a brief period of time, and they’re so well-crafted—almost like Rodgers and Hammerstein type story-songs. Is that what you set out to do when you got into music?
Well, we were experimenting with a lot of different [things], and we were fortunate. We came along when songwriting was still thought of as the most important thing. From our standpoint, we never really worried about what material we were doing, whether we were writing it or not; the most important thing was that we had a piece of music we felt we could stand behind. Because our live show played such an integral part of our survival in that era, we wanted to make sure that the music we were performing on record was something we could do on stage. I think sometimes you take for granted the fact that so much of the music that came out of Southern California—The Mamas & The Papas, The Beach Boys…there was a whole slew of artists who were making records, but not playing on their records.