The band was formed by Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman in Westchester, California in the 1965, as a surf rock group called The Crossfires. With the help of DJ and club owner Reb Foster, The Crossfires signed to White Whale Records, and, adjusting to the prevailing musical trends of the time, became a folk-rock group known as The Tyrtles, the misspelling an ode to The Byrds that was soon dropped. Similarly to The Byrds' career, The Turtles' first break was with a Bob Dylan cover, It Ain't Me Babe, which was a Top Ten hit in summer 1965 (see 1965 in music) and the title track to their first album. Their second single, Let Me Be also appeared in the top 30 that fall. Their third single, You Baby charted in the top 20 in early 1966. However, their second album You Baby never entered the top 200, and of several singles released that year only two (Grim Reaper of Love, Can I Get to Know You Better) entered the top 100.
In the beginning of 1967, a heavy touring schedule combined with a lack of recent chart success were cited by Don Murray (drums) and Chuck Portz (bass), who left the group to be replaced by John Barbata and Chip Douglas, respectively.
It occurred to the band that, for eight months, they had been performing a certain song on stage that was moderately popular with the fans, but had yet to be recorded; originally written by songwriters Garry Bonner and Alan Gordon, Happy Together seemed almost a parody of itself, and had been rejected already. Their biggest hit and signature song, "Happy Together", considered 1960s pop at its best, provided a turning point for The Turtles. With its tongue-in-cheek atmosphere, incessant background guitar riff, addictive chorus and backing vocals, simple drum and organ lines, and even an oboe playing along during the second chorus, it spent three weeks at #1 on the American charts in 1967, the only Turtles record to do so. The album by the same name was released in April and charted at a high of #25.
1967 became The Turtles' most successful year in the charts, with another song written by Bonner and Gordon, She'd Rather Be With Me, which reached #3 on the US charts in the late spring, and actually outcharted Happy Together overseas. Two other top-15 singles followed, You Know What I Mean, and She's My Girl, which marked a shift by the band towards psychedelic music as the genre became more popular. Golden Hits was released later that year, charting in the top 10.
1968 was a fairly successful year: The next two singles, Sound Asleep and The Story of Rock and Roll charted in the middle of the top 100, but were never received quite as well. Later in the year, The Turtles released a concept album called The Turtles Present the Battle of the Bands, in which the group pretended to be eleven different bands, each with a song. "Elenore" and "You Showed Me" were Top Ten singles. Elenore may be the only Top Ten single to contain the lyrics et cetera. Kaylan and Volman then rebelled against White Whale's attempts to push The Turtles towards Monkees-style studio chicanery, and they recorded Turtle Soup, a critically well-received album that was inspired by The Kinks' Village Green Preservation Society. In spite of Turtle Soup's critical success, commercial acclaim was low and the band soon began disintegrating. In 1970, The Turtles released More Golden Hits, which contained the singles Sound Asleep and The Story of Rock and Roll, and in 1971, a B-sides and rarities album, Wooden Head, their last album. With the demise of The Turtles, White Whale Records was left with few, if any, commercially viable bands, and soon folded.
Kaylan and Volman joined the Mothers of Invention as Phlorescent Leech & Eddie, since the use of The Turtles was prohibited by their contract with White Whale. Flo & Eddie, as they soon became known, also recorded for children's movies like The Care Bears and Strawberry Shortcake and began hosting their own radio show on KROQ in Los Angeles and WXRK in New York City. In 1984 (see 1984 in music), Kaylan and Volman regained the use of The Turtles and began touring as The Turtles... Featuring Flo and Eddie.
Also in 1984, they released a new greatest hits cd on Rhino Records, 20 Greatest Hits, and in 1988, released another, Turtle Wax: The Best of The Turtles, Vol.2. Music Club Records released a greatest hits album in the UK in 1991, Happy Together: The Best of the Turtles. Repertoire Records in Germany also released a greatest hits album, titled Elenore, in 1993, and the same year, re-released Happy Together. Sundazed Records re-released all of The Turtles' non-Greatest Hits albums in 1994. In 1999 Varese Sarabande released Happy Together: The Best of White Whale Records, which included many of the Turtles' singles.