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The Manhattan Transfer – 35 Years and Still Swinging

Updated: Apr 9

The Manhattan Transfer

The Manhattan Transfer

35 Years and Still Swinging

By Mark Mussari

Where in the musical landscape hasn’t the Manhattan Transfer taken us?  From their inception in the mid-1970s as a cabaret act with doo-wop tendencies to their be-bop covers to their daring experiments in jazz and swing, Cheryl Bentyne, Janis Siegel, Alan Paul and founder Tim Hauser have applied their uncanny harmonic abilities to some of the most impressive vocal calisthenics ever recorded.

In 2008 the group will celebrate 35 years together – an amazing achievement for a band of unrelated singers.  “One of the reasons why Manhattan Transfer has lasted as long as we have,” explains silky-voiced tenor Alan Paul, “is that in the very beginning we realized we were all very strong individuals, all really good singers. We knew that unless each of us had the opportunity to be the lead singer the group would not last.”

The Manhattan Transfer made another decision early on that has also contributed to its longevity.  “It also worked that we were platonic,” says Paul.  “When we first got together, Tim and Janis were lovers.  As soon as we made the decision to roll up our sleeves and do this – to be a group – they stopped, because it was too risky.”

The band’s relentlessly eclectic nature came naturally.  “We all had different influences,” comments Paul.  “All of us came from different backgrounds, and we brought to the table a lot of different passions.”  The four singers also saw no difference between singing a good rhythm and blues song or singing good jazz.  “It was a matter of the quality and the heart put into a particular song,” adds Paul.  “We always had a very wide scope in terms of our palette – in terms of how we wanted to paint.  I think we realized that to have longevity we needed to be flexible.”

Getting signed to a label proved even more challenging for the fledgling group.  “It took two and half years for us to get a record deal,” admits Paul. “Nobody would touch us.  We weren’t like anybody else—and most record companies didn’t think we were commercial.”   Eventually the quartet caught the attention of record mogul Ahmet Ertegun.  “We were very fortunate,” remembers Paul.  “We were signed to Atlantic Records by Ahmet, and we became his pet group.  He really understood where we were coming from and allowed us the freedom to explore and to try new things.”

The Manhattan Transfer faced certain hurdles early in its career.  “In the beginning we were very nostalgic,” recalls Paul.  “We came out of the cabaret scene in New York.  Our whole persona – the music we were doing – was like the 1940s.”  This approach played particularly well in Europe, where the band had a huge hit with the French song “Chanson d’Amour.”  Although their initial inclination was to continue pursuing their cabaret approach, their first manager Aaron Russo warned them that doing so would forever relegate the band to a nostalgia act.

The Manhattan Transfer

“When it was time to record our second album,” explains Paul, “he told us: You have to drop everything that you’ve done.”  Instead, Russo informed the band they needed to be “more progressive.”  Eventually, the champagne pop was replaced with forays into the vocalese approach pioneered by Eddie Jefferson, more difficult chord progressions, and a catalogue of songs amassed from both deep in the jazz tradition and from such contemporary writers as Tom Waits and Rufus Wainwright.

The band also faced a personnel change in the late 1970s when original soprano Laurel Massé, following a bad car accident, decided not to return to the group.  After a long search for her replacement, they discovered Cheryl Bentyne, whose incredible pitch and dog-whistle upper register added just the edge the group needed.

“When we added Cheryl, we were at a juncture where we said: Okay – here we are. What do we want to do?” says Paul.  “It was a conscious decision to make a radical shift, musically.  We began to listen to more modern jazz and to music across an even wider spectrum.  Out of that time came Extensions.”  The band also made a radical change in the way it looked.  “We hired Jean Paul Gautier, a then rising designer from France,” remembers Paul, “and he designed our clothes.”

In 1980 they won their first of eight Grammys for their expansive version of “Birdland,” the cornerstone of the Extensions album and a milestone in the history of jazz vocals.  “Birdland” also won Janis Siegel a Grammy for Best Arrangement for Voices.

Another track on the album, “Body and Soul,” provided the band’s first true example of vocalese – the application of lyrics to melody lines normally played by instruments – and it was only the tip of the iceberg.

The following year the Transfer became the first vocal group to win Grammys for both jazz and pop recordings in the same year.  The jazz award went to their playful, swinging rendition of “Until I Met You,” and they garnered the pop award for a cover of the Ad Libs’ 1965 doo-wop hit “The Boy from New York City.”

Mecca for Moderns, the album that spawned both songs, also featured one of the band’s most impressive musical moments: “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square,” a stunning achievement in a capella singing.

In 1982 the Transfer won another jazz Grammy for their finger-popping take on the classic “Route 66.”  Their 1983 album Bodies and Souls resulted in yet another Grammy for “Why Not!”

It was in 1985, however, that the band truly hit artistic pay dirt with their album Vocalese, with lyrics supplied by Jon Hendricks to a wide array of jazzy and rocking melody lines.  The album received 12 nominations – second only to Michael Jackson’s Thriller, and won three.  The stomping “Ray’s Rockhouse,” with Siegel’s slam-it-to-the-wall lead vocals, provided yet another pinnacle in the band’s career.

Paul sees an irony in the effect of the vocalese approach to singing.  “It’s really a case of art imitating art,” he says.  “The instrumentalists are impersonating vocalists – and vocalists are impersonating jazz musicians.”

“It wasn’t until Vocalese that we got Europe back,” adds Paul, “but we got it back through the back door.  The Grammys, the credit, the exposure we got for Vocalese – at that time jazz in America had its peak again.”  Paul also feels that the group achieved a new level of “respectability” because of that particular album: “We started going to Europe and playing a lot of jazz festivals and all of a sudden it just turned around for us again.”

Since then the musically adventurous Manhattan Transfer has taken its listeners on excursions through Latin jazz with the 1988 Grammy-winning album Brasil, into swing music with the hugely successful Swing from 1997, a musically inventive tribute to Louis Armstrong on The Spirit of St. Louis (2001), and a gorgeous remake of many of their songs with full orchestra on the lush Symphony Sessions (2006).  Various live albums have captured the band’s on-stage energy and natural vocal dexterity.

As The Manhattan Transfer celebrates its 35th year together, they plan a more extravagant live show and will enter the studio to record a new CD in spring 2008.

With so many groups disbanding after only a few years, how have the four members been able to stay together?  “It takes a lot of inner work to be able to deal with the ups and downs, the emotional stuff within the complexities of the group,” notes Paul.  “Over time we kept getting better and better at it. We learned how to really value what we had – to look more at that as opposed to the things that would hurt us.”  The four singers have all released their own solo albums over the years—with Paul releasing his, Another Place and Time, in 2003.

Paul compares being in a group to being in a family.  “It’s very easy for us to push each other’s buttons,” he says. “We would have fights, big disagreements sometimes, creatively, about direction and things like that.”  Through it all, though, he remains “proud” of his band members and their inspiring longevity: “We got to a place where we all recognized the value of what we have and how that was so much bigger than the four of us – more important than these little petty things that would sometimes come up.”

Paul says that long-time fans often speak to the band after shows. “They appreciate the fact that we’re together – that we’re still up there doing it,” he observes. “It has a deeper meaning looking at how crazy and how disharmonic the world is.”  Except when the Manhattan Transfer are singing – and then the world is in perfect harmony.

Copyright ©2008  All rights reserved. Posted: January 10, 2008.

Photo Credits:#1 © 2006 Joan Allen. Courtesy of Rhino Records. All rights reserved.#2 © 2006 Courtesy of Rhino Records. All rights reserved.

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