"Back in 1990, I worked at Tower Records in Washington D.C., it may have been before that. In 1987 I was dating a girl that had a Royal Crescent Mob record.
"Royal Crescent Mob were from Ohio. The album was kind of like this fun, up-tempo rockfunk type of album. Very light-hearted and fun. She was really into it, we listened to it all the time: Omerta. While I was working at Tower Records, their next record came out, it was called Spin The World.
"I bought the album after work one day, brought it home, and there were a couple of songs on that record that are two of the most beautiful songs I have ever heard in my life. One is called Going To The Hospital, the other is called Corporation Enema.
"The melodies and the voice… so Harold, everyone calls him Happy. Happy was the bass player, but Happy is a phenomenal all-round musician – he plays the drums, he plays the bass, he plays the piano, he sings, he plays guitar.
"I went to see them play at the 9.30 Club in Washington D.C., and when he got up and sang those songs, I’m not kidding it was almost like hearing Stevie Wonder in a small club. It fucking blew my mind. At the time, in the punk rock scene, that was just miles above any of the other musicians in any of the other bands. But those two songs on that record, I swear are two of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard in my entire life.
"So Royal Crescent Mob breaks up, he starts another band called Howlin’ Maggie, where he plays guitar and sings. They had another song called Alcohol, which came out in maybe 1995. Fucking phenomenal, another amazing song. His voice is just so soulful and fucking beautiful. We knew each other back then, and then I didn’t hear from him in a long time, then were connected in the last couple of years.
"One of his newer songs, which is called A Man Needs An Airplane, just listen to that song and tell me that he’s not… it’s like it could be Gerry Rafferty… there’s just something about his sense of melody that’s advanced.
He almost joined the Foo Fighters in 1999 when we were looking for a guitar player. We were asked to play at the disastrous Woodstock in 1999, and we had just finished making our third record, and Chris Shiflett hadn’t joined the band then.
"I’m, like, Fuck, I’m gonna call Happy. He’s more than able to play any of these songs. But it didn’t really work out."
The legend of Happy Chichester
If the walls of Ohio’s most disreputable rock clubs could talk, they’d tell the legend of Happy Chichester. Going by the numbers, The Black Keys might be the Midwest state’s favourite sons. But Chichester is its most intriguing riddle.
To those that know – a circle of trust chaired by Dave Grohl – the man with the eyepatch is a peerless master of melody, a genius multi-instrumentalist and mulcher of genres, responsible for much of modern rock’s sunken treasure. It doesn’t hurt his mythology, either, that Chichester has never played ball with the music business.
Heading into the millennium, this is the man who bought himself out of his Columbia Records contract, and never quite seized an invitation to play guitar for the Foo Fighters. Now independent, operating without a press officer or a proper website, we finally track down this cultest of heroes on Twitter, for an interview granted at the eleventh hour.
“I’m just not that interested,” admits Chichester over Zoom, “in promoting my music.”
Even putting aside the mutual artistic respect, you can see why he would click with Grohl. Beaming beneath a beanie and waving his hands to illustrate his war stories, Chichester is a livewire conversationalist who shares much of the Foo-in-chief’s Tiggerish energy.
Christened Harold – and credited as such on his three-plus-decade songbook – the nickname ‘Happy’ was bestowed at birth, and suits him better. How could he be otherwise, he asks, when a typical day sees him tinkering on solo passion projects at his home studio, with the cream of Ohio’s musician class dropping by for cameos?
“We have this really rich music scene here in Ohio. Y’know, I have friends who played with Miles Davis and Bootsy Collins, or toured the world with Dr. John. Here in Columbus, you’ll find yourself sitting next to the guy who spent ten years playing bass with Ray Charles. It all gets blended together. I sometimes feel like Ohio is the only place where my music makes sense. It’s too eclectic and far-flung for the rest of the world. James Brown, Led Zeppelin and The Meters are all equally important in the way I hear music.”
Case in point is Chichester’s first serious band, Royal Crescent Mob, which he describes today as “a non-stop dancing funk-rock machine”. Having accidentally mastered most instruments as a kid (“My dad wasn’t very tolerant of noise, so I’d get fifteen minutes on the drums, then get run off the kit, fifteen minutes on piano, get run off that…”), Chichester quit college to play bass, but also wrote most of the Mob’s best songs, including the Grohl-endorsed Corporation Enema and Going To The Hospital.
“We had a political edge,” he remembers. “Corporation Enema was this Reagan-era story I’d read in the paper about General Motors in Detroit. These executives had worked there all their lives, and two months before their retirement, the corporation knocked their legs out from underneath them and they weren’t able to get their pensions.
"I wrote Going To The Hospital after coming home from fourteen months of non-stop touring, and getting so sick I thought I was gonna die. It turned out I had strepto and mono, at the same time. My throat closed up. I couldn’t speak for a week. But I wrote that song.”
At their late-eighties peak, Royal Crescent Mob were signed to Warners offshoot Sire, and released the classic Spin The World album. But it was the live show that kicked hardest, says Chichester.
“There was a club in Columbus called Bernie’s where we started out, and at the end of our shows, the venue would just be destroyed. I remember another venue in Madison, Wisconsin, called O’Cayz Corral. Four songs into our set, they had to evacuate the building, because the floor was collapsing from people dancing.”
The horrors of the circuit, says Chichester, were all part of the fun. “Apparently, Dave Grohl and his sister used to watch us at the old 9.30 Club in Washington D.C. You’d load in the back, opposite the stage door of Ford’s Theatre where Abraham Lincoln was shot – and the rats were the size of cats! One time, our drummer Carlton [Smith] and I were driving around D.C. at two in the morning.
"We stopped at a red light, and all these hookers are coming up to the van, and Carlton’s like, ‘We’re not interested in what you’re selling, but we’re looking for a place to eat’. We went to this crazy place that was like a glorified deep fryer, serving crackheads in the middle of the night. And while we were in there, greasin’ out, somebody stole all the gear. So we’re rolling through the alleys of D.C. and we actually found our stuff – and stole it back. We had some amazing times out there. I feel lucky to still be alive.”
Chichester is still stopped on the street by strangers telling him what Royal Crescent Mob meant to them. But his happy-go-lucky tales of that period aren’t quite the full picture. “I definitely had my dark encounters with alcohol. It’s not to be trifled with. It’s the heaviest drug you’ll ever do. I mean, I got kicked out of Paisley Park for being blackout-drunk at a Prince party.”
Not by Prince himself, surely?
“No, but I blew my opportunity to actually meet and jam with him. We were on tour with Living Colour and I was in such a dark phase. We had just recorded Spin The World, and I don’t know why, but sometimes at the end of a project, I go into this phase I call ‘the trough’. I have to find something new to occupy my creative energies, otherwise I fall into a void of real dark stuff.”
The Sire deal didn’t last, and Chichester grew frustrated at having no outlet for his growing stockpile of unused songs. He left the Mob amicably in the early-nineties, and the lineup remain friends. “When the election was called here in the States, the guys were all texting together. We were all totally relieved by the result, because none of us are big fans of fascism.”
The backstory behind the name of Chichester’s next project, Howlin’ Maggie, takes some beating.
“My grandfather was shot by my grandmother, who was called Maggie, during their dark days of alcohol consumption,” he explains. “He survived – and so did their marriage.”
Adapting his talents to this new band, Chichester proved he could outwrite most of the alt.rock scene, while moving into a frontman role that gave full rein to his sublime, slightly Jeff Buckley-esque vocal. The pick of the catalogue is probably the fabulous Alcohol, from 1996’s debut album Honeysuckle Strange.
But music aside, leading a band was harder than it looked. “It wasn’t too drastic a change for me to be at the front, singing and playing guitar. But having to get all the guys in the van at ten every morning to get to the next city – all that stuff was difficult for me. Because at the start, I was managing the band as well, and that wasn’t my forté, really.”
He might have had an easier life, we suggest, if he’d taken up Grohl’s offer to join the Foo Fighters in 1999. Chichester recalls the conversation. “Dave called me and asked about playing at Woodstock. I was eager to help and be involved. He had a studio set up in his house, and asked if I wanted to come visit. He sent me a CD of material, and I was ready to go, but then I didn’t hear back, and then I guess some things had changed.”
Any idea what happened?
“Dave is just such a super-good-hearted person. I think what he heard on his end was that I was still finishing the second Howlin’ Maggie album. And probably, Dave was not wanting to be a home-wrecker, like, coming in and cannibalising the band. So he let it go, and I kept working on that album.”
No regrets, then?
“No, not really. Y’know, I don’t know if I would have been a great fit for the Foo Fighters. Somebody like Chris Shiflett is just an ace guitar player, and I don’t really consider myself that great of a musician. But it’s kind of amazing that Dave Grohl asked me to join the Foo Fighters.”
Howlin’ Maggie got that second album – 2001’s Hyde – over the line. But by then Chichester had grown itchy again, buying himself out of his Columbia deal and self-releasing Hyde on the PopFly label founded by his wife, Laura.
“The decision to leave Columbia was the easy part,” he shrugs. “I’d already been on a major label once, and I’d had a second album come out and been ignored, and you get the word midway through your tour that you’re being dropped. Y’know, I’d already been through that [with Royal Crescent Mob].
“This was at the beginning of the digital distribution world of music, where it was supposed to be this great level playing field. I thought the days of the big-label deal were done. So I got off the label, put my studio together and have just continued like that ever since. It was the beginning of iTunes, when they sold songs for ninety-nine cents, and the artist got sixty-seven cents. If we still had that today, artists would still be empowered, y’know?”
It didn’t quite work out that way, of course. But by diving into a solo career that runs under his own steam, this eternal square peg has achieved the artistic carte blanche that he values over any sellout stadium.
It’s left him free to release solo cuts as beautiful and diverse as alt.funk floor-filler Sanctify, or Grohl’s pick A Man Needs An Airplane – and two fingers to the commercial consequences.
“I hope people like my solo work,” he considers. “But have you seen the new Frank Zappa documentary? They’re asking him, ‘Why do you go to such expense and trouble to put an orchestra together to perform your compositions’. And he says, ‘Because I just want to hear it. And if other people want to hear it too, that’s great.’”
There is new material taking shape, he says, although it doesn’t yet have anything as conformist as an album title or a release date. In the meantime, Happy Chichester is living up the billing.
“To be honest with you, yeah, I’m a very happy person,” he smiles. “And I don’t know if that’s because it’s my name, or because I’ve had the incredible good fortune of being able to record and write my music. But being happy, yeah, it’s my natural state. And as long as I get to hit my drums and play music for few hours every day, it’s pretty easy to stay happy.”
Get Happy Chichester music - including several of the tracks mentioned in this feature - from Bandcamp. Sales benefit CRC, a Columbus charity that feeds families.