As a member of Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, Mark Volman (a.k.a. the Phlorescent Leech) once sang that he was a “portly maroon sofa” who sat “at the right hand of God.” Such irreverent wordplay wasn’t unusual for Volman, who, with co-vocalist and emcee Howard Kaylan (a.k.a. Eddie), routinely sent up everything from organized religion to his own rock ’n’ roll lifestyle.
Prior to their stint with the Mothers, Volman and Kaylan had fronted The Turtles, a group known as much for partying with the likes of Jimi Hendrix and The Beatles as for hit songs like “You Showed Me” and the ubiquitous “Happy Together.” It might come as a surprise, then, that a voice of impropriety like Volman might end up on the faculty of Baptist-identified Belmont University.
For Volman, the road between rock ’n’ roll and academia wasn’t much different than that traveled by many middle-agers who’ve settled into gratifying second careers after years of searching. After a prolonged absence, Volman returned to school in 1994, enrolling at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. Years before, in high school, he was the class clown with a solid 1.9 G.P.A., but this time things went differently. He completed a master’s program and was valedictorian of his class. More importantly, though, he had found his calling.
“In the process of going to school, I started having discussions about the possibility of my teaching a business course in music,” Volman says. “There was nothing like that happening in Los Angeles at the time, so when I graduated in 1997, they hired me to teach that class. Successful artists are few and far between, and I wanted to attach an element of reality to things. Failure is an option, a good option because it teaches you to pick yourself up. Just because you put out a record that doesn’t succeed, that doesn’t make it a bad record.”
During his studies, Volman, now 58, relied on a textbook written by Larry Wacholtz, who teaches at Belmont’s Curb College of Entertainment and Music Business. After graduation, Volman contacted Wacholtz. “Jokingly, I called Larry to introduce myself and tell him I thought his book was one of the best. He was like an uncle who said, ‘If you ever get to town, you should look me up.’ So here comes his ‘cousin’ to town, and Larry asks if I wanted to set up a job interview.” Volman had been teaching at Lee University in Ohio, but earlier this year, Belmont offered him a position teaching three classes: two survey courses on the music business and one on the history of the recording business. “My career has become part of those classes,” Volman says, “and teaching is a natural extension of what I’ve done for the last 43 years.”
Those years had their ups and downs, and all of it finds a way into Volman’s lectures. He and Kaylan began performing together in high school as The Crossfires. In 1965, the band signed with White Whale Records and changed their name to The Turtles. Later that year, The Turtles’ version of Bob Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me Babe” reached the Top 10. More hits followed—“Happy Together,” “She’d Rather Be With Me,” “Elenore” and “You Showed Me”—before contractual and creative differences with their label forced the band to split up and relinquish the rights to their name.
By 1970, Volman and Kaylan (now known as Flo and Eddie) had reemerged as part of the Mothers of Invention. The duo put out several records and appeared on four of Zappa’s most outrageous recordings, including 200 Motels and Live at the Fillmore. After dissolving the Flo & Eddie Band during the early ’80s, Volman and Kaylan started a syndicated radio show and worked on animated features, including Dirty Duck, Strawberry Shortcake and The Care Bears.
“The story of the Turtles is pretty sad,” says Volman, “but how can you teach the music business if you haven’t experienced failure? Our [initial] career ended in an 11-year legal battle after which we couldn’t use our own names or the name ‘The Turtles.’ One of the questions I ask on my exam is, ‘What does the term “individually and collectively” mean?’ That’s the term on the contract that bound The Turtles to White Whale Records; it stopped me from using my own name. That clause is still a part of management and recording contracts today, and I want the young people I work with to understand the power of such terms.”
Volman’s isn’t just a cautionary tale. Over the years, he’s worked on both sides of the music business fence, as an artist and a manager. “He definitely knows what he’s talking about—to have been in the business so long and to be that successful, and to have seen so many aspects,” says Sam Hunter, one of Volman’s students. “On the same day, he taught us how not to get ripped off as an artist and how, as a manager, we could rip the artist off.”
“I had a student five years ago who wanted to be in management,” Volman recalls. “A year after graduation, he came back and told me he’d signed his first artist; he was taking 50 percent! I thought to myself, ‘I don’t remember teaching him that.’ But then I remembered teaching about Elvis and Bruce Springsteen, how they had been caught up in those kind of deals and it took years to get out of them.”
Business-wise, things have righted themselves for Volman. He retains ownership of his master tapes, and, for the last 22 years, he and Kaylan have been touring again as The Turtles (featuring Flo & Eddie). In addition to Volman’s teaching responsibilities, the band performed over 60 dates this year. “I’m touring while I’m teaching, so I’m a living part of this class,” he says. “My students get to visualize it firsthand.”
Volman has also put his hard-partying days behind him. A committed Christian, he and his wife and business partner, Emily Ector-Volman, are active members of Harpeth Presbyterian Church, where they sing in the choir and work with the youth. “[Howard and I] were pretty typical during the ’60s and ’70s,” says Volman. “We were doing some experimenting with Indian religions and certain toxins. But at a certain point, you stop. It just wasn’t working financially, mostly, and by 1985, Howard and I made a deal with each other to hang it up.”
For Volman, it often seems that miscues have had as much to do with his success as his hits. Without the lawsuit, for example, there would never have been a Flo & Eddie, and The Turtles might have been Volman’s swan song. When asked how he conveys these more serendipitous aspects of the music business, Volman can admit only a practical approach. “I can’t be there when these students make a decision,” he says, “but I want to be the red flag. I get paid to come here and reveal the indignities and the sad stories that a young band from high school went through. But I try to put it in a package so that [my students] can learn from my mistakes and at the same time understand the industry as a whole. Most professors don’t have that background. They may have played in bands in high school, but I’m part of rock ’n’ roll history.”