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50 Years of The Manhattan Transfer: The Quintessential Vocal Group Kept Harmony Alive When the World Needed It Most

A symphonic album, career-spanning boxed set and tour are in the works to commemorate the gold anniversary of a group that, in 1972, bridged the gap between the Mills Brothers and New York's glam-rock scene.

Manhattan Transfer Group Photo
Courtesy of F. Scott Schafer

Looking back at the last 50 years, you’d be hard-pressed to say the world has gotten a lot more harmonious since then — not figuratively, in the geopolitical sphere, and certainly not literally, in a popular music world that’s become a slave to the rhythm, and to singers’ disinterest in sharing a mic, much less a spotlight. But you can’t fault the Manhattan Transfer for not doing their part — and just about everyone else’s, too — to keep the spirit of harmony alive ever since the group formed in 1972.

At their modern-day shows, attendees may not know whether to weep or to literally get a buzz on from the actual physiological oscillation produced by four master voices meticulously coming together. (A combination of both responses is, of course, allowable.)

“Getting a little philosophical here,” says Transfer co-founder Alan Paul, “we live in a very dis-harmonic world. There’s a lot of clashing that’s going on, and when things harmonize together, people, when they hear it, it affects them.” Agrees Janis Siegel, the other member with a 50-year pedigree: “The sound of harmony always did something to me, viscerally. It released endorphins. The sound of voices singing in harmony provides a vibration that does that to most people — it’s a physical fact, I think.”

But what were the odds of endorphins overcoming ego, and personal harmony trumping any collective’s inevitable obsolescence, to keep a group like the Manhattan Transfer together and thriving for a half-century? As Cheryl Bentyne (the “new girl,” who’s only been in the group for 45 years) says: “It’s a ridiculous milestone!”

The lineup has remained remarkably consistent, all things considered; only once, early on in 1979, was there a voluntary personnel change, when Laurel Massé left the group and was replaced by Bentyne. In 2014, there was a second change when co-founder Tim Hauser was felled by cancer and Trist Curless signed on in his place. But the Transfer has remained an example of the delight and deliriousness that can come out of a détente that exists off as well as on the record.

Bentyne will attest that it simply had to be that way to survive all the way up to a gold anniversary: “If there’s ever misunderstandings or arguments and we go on stage with them, it affects the voice. It affects the harmony. And I’m not making that up.”

If you want to be a stickler for placing asterisks in origin stories, it can be noted that 2022 actually marks the 54th anniversary of there being some sort of group called the Manhattan Transfer. Hauser had been part of an outfit under that banner that came together in 1968 and released one album under that name on Capitol in ’71 before splitting up. That band, which was not a vocal quartet per se, suffered from a diffuse identity, a mistake that would not be repeated when Hauser joined up with Paul, Siegel and Massé in ’72 for an ensemble strictly focused on close four-part harmony and, at the time, a nostalgic but flamboyant look. This Manhattan Transfer was so purposefully out of touch with the times that it took three years to get signed to Atlantic and put a debut album out in ’75.

“At that time, the whole glitter-rock movement was happening, like the New York Dolls, and we really kind of came out of the same thing, dressed very outrageously,” says Paul. “We wanted to not come out in our jeans, but to actually have people look at us — and they did.” However conservative their look might have finally ended up, the Transfer had some links to more flamboyant or outrageous performers: Hauser’s sister was Fayette Hauser, one of the founding members of the famous ’70s San Francisco theater troupe the Cockettes.

“Then we refined it and upscaled it to that black-and-white tuxedos and gowns look. We wanted to visually express what we were doing musically.” Which was definitely not in the same valley as the Dolls. “The foundation of the music came from the vocal groups and big bands from the ’30s and the ’40s — the Ink Spots, the Mills Brothers, the Merry Macs, the Pied Pipers, all these groups that were doing that close-part harmony, and even emulating the sax sections were doing close-part harmony, like the Basie band. We were selling out clubs and every record company had people coming, but nobody would sign us. Then Ahmet Ertegun finally came to see us, and he got it.”

 

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The Manhattan Transfer performs at the 1981 Saratoga Jazz Festival with original member Tim Hauser (second from right), who died in 2014. Courtesy Manhattan Transfer

But the Transfer chafed at being seen as a nostalgia act, notwithstanding the fun irony of reviving older sounds for an audience too young to have experienced it the first time around. The next couple of albums found them moving more into contemporary pop and even R&B with modern-minded producers like Richard Perry and Jay Graydon. Their choreographer, the legendary Toni Basil, was helping them to update their look, which resulted in more futuristic costuming courtesy of Jean Paul Gaultier, before he moved on to Madonna’s pointy bras. Their real breakthrough came in the 1979-81 time frame, when they had a pop smash with a cover of the Leiber/Stoller oldie “Boy From New York City,” pretty much concurrent with a move into serious jazz with tracks like “Birdland.”

Their most symbolically important moment came when, at the 1981 Grammys, they became the first group to win in both pop and jazz categories, on the way to ultimately landing 13 nominations and eight wins. “Vocalese” was the pure-jazz album that endeared them to that community forever, although Ertegun initially fought valiantly against such a risky move. From there, they moved on to a one-off Brazilian album, then returned to contemporary pop, leaving some new jazz converts scratching their heads at a group that would turn a Weather Report instrumental into a vocal number and then cover the Ad Libs or Todd Rundgren. “A lot of jazz people said, ‘How can you guys sing this?’ And we would say, well, it’s apples and oranges,” says Paul. “How do you compare Miles Davis to Jackie Wilson?” Notes Siegel: “Our thing was always that we treated pop songs like jazz songs and we’d treat jazz numbers like pop songs.”

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The Manhattan Transfer perform with Mel Tormé (third from left) and Jon Hendricks at the Playboy Mansion in 1982.

Image became less important over time, but “it was fun to dress up,” says Siegel. “I felt at home in many of those clothes too, because they were visually portraying the music and it made me feel like I was from that era almost, even though I was only in my 20s and early 30s when we were doing that. The primary focus was always the music, so anything that would help that along to make it more entertaining” was fair game. “We didn’t want to be just standing there intellectually kind of just spouting out all these notes and not have it be entertaining. I think it was the right move, absolutely. But it was also the right move to move away from that.”

Another asterisk in their early career: a summer replacement variety hour in prime time for four weeks in 1975. “We were absolutely adamantly opposed to doing it,” says Paul, “because at that time it seemed to us that it was like, if you were on TV, you couldn’t get played on radio.”

Siegel remembers their CBS series as having some issues with the network censors. “We had two sets of writers. We had our writers, who were Bruce Vilanch, Tim’s sister Fayette Hauser, who was a founding member of the Cockettes, and Joel Silver, who ended up being one of the biggest movie producers in the country — those were our writers. And then we had CBS’s writers. So we had to constantly battle between the two sets of writers and what was going to be allowed on TV.” She doesn’t think it’s a crime that it didn’t last longer. “That’s the thing with harmony singers: we went through our whole repertoire, plus solos, by the end of the fourth show!” But recalling some of the guests makes her proud: “We had Bob Marley and the Wailers in their first U.S. television appearance.”

Siegel recalls how the four personalities complemented one another in the earliest days. “We all had fairly designated roles, and that worked very well, for a while. Tim was the dreamer, but then he needed people to manifest the dream. And that’s where the rest of us came in. There needed to be someone who would do the vocal arrangements and rehearse the band, and that was me. And we needed someone to work on the presentation, the stage presence, the choreography, the fashion of it and the attitude, and that was Alan. And Laurel, whose grandfather was a famous choral singer, was very involved with the dynamics of choral singing, so she knew about vowel placement, matching consonants, cutting off together and that kind of thing. So we worked very well together in that way, and there were definitely four personalities — absolutely.” Bentyne has a strong sense of what she brought into the group after Masse left: “The swing factor became, I think, a little more prevalent, in terms of how we would approach a phrase or even a whole song I had. In the Northwest, I didn’t grow up with doo-wop or Broadway, like the others. I love Broadway music, but I came out of the womb with swing music in my bloodstream. ”

When Hauser died in 2014, the choice to replace him wasn’t tough; Curless had already filled in during some of the founder’s illnesses. “The closest thing I can relate it to would be a high school football star who ends up playing on the NFL team with his biggest hero — you have Peyton Manning on your wall and then you get drafted by the team.” (He’s being a little modest; he was established at that point, as his former group, the a cappella act M-pact, just celebrated its 25th anniversary.) Bentyne is clear on what he brought: “We’ve got a low voice (Hauser had had to push make his voice lower), we got a beatboxer and we got a killer scat singer. So we’re very, very lucky that he walked into our lives.”

As an outsider brought inside, Curless may have an even more objective sense of the Transfer’s place in history than the originators could. “When I went through high school and college, every vocal jazz festival I ever went to, you were sure to hear at least four or five Manhattan Transfer arrangements during the day, if not more. There’d be groups that would almost do that exclusively.” If the group’s influence isn’t necessarily immediately evident in today’s bottom-heavy top 10 hits, it’s inescapable in the world of music education.

Plans for a 50th anniversary tour in 2022-23 are necessarily more penciled than penned in at the moment, due to COVID. But fans can count on two album releases this year — a symphonic record they recorded during quarantine with the WDR Funkhaus Orchestra out of Cologne, Germany, then their first career-spanning boxed set, a five-CD release from Concord. And then … more chills and tears and vibrations on a global tour, all things willing.

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In 1987, Manhattan Transfer were the headline act at the Greater Hartford Open Tournament, hosted by Sammy Davis Jr. (center).

Bentyne has been through the ringer and back during her decades with the Transfer. “Coming through cancer twice was not my choice, but” being in the group “kept me going. We’re four people that have four different lives and agendas, though. We’ve lost parents. We’ve had babies, we’ve had cancer, we’ve gone through alcoholism. Basically. I don’t know how we had kids and marriages through all of this, trying to make that work. Well, the kids worked, the marriages didn’t necessarily work,” she laughs. “But we’ve been through just about everything you can name, in the little, tiny four-person society that we are, being harmony singers, business partners and family. It’s quite a complex relationship over the years.”

Siegel is equally mind-boggled at coming through it all. “After 50 years we’ve been through the changes in the world, the changes in the music business, personal changes… Everybody wants the secret of staying together,” says Siegel. “I think the bottom line is R-E-S-P-E-C-T, for everybody’s point of view and communication skills. We have meetings for everyone to sort of present their point of view or ideas, with visual aids or audio aids — and I’ve got the Excel spreadsheets to prove it! I’ve had a lot of tunes that have been rejected, certainly, and everybody has, but you just bring it up again the next day. Consensus decision-making among four people takes patience, and it takes communication skills and it takes empathy. And did I say patience?” she laughs.

But she has another word to describe what the Manhattan Transfer ends up being, when they all agree in the end: “juicy.”

Bentyne says the blend has “really moved people, because the voices together is something that goes beyond what even I think an audience member understands is happening to them, because it really can resonate so beautifully. Not to put any band members’ (individual voices) down, but when you get them together, I think it reaches a very deep place in the soul, I really do.” She’s not leaving her own soul out of it: “I have goosebumps on my legs, just talking about it.”