The famed vocal quartet the Manhattan Transfer is not just pushing 50 but pushing beyond it, having recently celebrated the group’s half-century mark with a new album, appropriately titled “Fifty,” and an anniversary tour that continues into 2023. It’s traditional to give something gold for a 50th anniversary, but what the quartet might really like is a Grammy win, which would stack up as the 11th in their career. “Fifty” is up for best jazz vocal album, marking the first time they’ve been nominated specifically in that category; if they win, it would be the ensemble’s first Grammy in more than 30 years.
Not that the Manhattan Transfer really needs the additional awards validation at this point. Long before the current semi-centennial celebration, there were plenty of laurels to rest on, especially as Grammys go. Some long-established stats: They’re one of only four artists ever in Grammy history to win seven consecutive Grammys for seven consecutive studio albums. In 1981, they became the first artist to win Grammy awards in both pop and jazz categories in a single year. And in 1985, the group’s landmark “Vocalese” album picked up 12 nominations all by itself — still a record for a jazz artist, and at the time the most any album had picked up in a single year other than “Thriller.”
If there’s any additional sentimental reason to favor the Transfer for a Grammy this year, it may just lie in the fact that the group is using the occasion of turning 50 to slow things down a bit after five decades of fairly relentless activity, particularly on the touring front. The current outing is being billed not just as a 50th anniversary tour (it’ll be 51st, as the clock turns over to 2023) but as a “farewell” tour. It doesn’t mean retirement, but it does mean they’re catching a transfer to the taking-it-easier train.
The four members of the group spoke about hanging up their global touring hats as well as memories of their Grammy successes and their five-decades-back origins at a recent appearance at the Grammy Museum, where they also took to the stage to show what has enthralled fans of the human voice — and there are a few of them out there — over a period of generations. (See performance clips below.)
“If you would’ve said that (a 50-year tenure) to us when we we started… I mean, you don’t look that far ahead,” said founding member Alan Paul. “But it’s been such a blessing, such a grace, that we’ve been able to do this for so long, and travel around the world, and that people still want to come and hear our music.”
“If there’s one thing the world needs, it’s harmony,” added Janis Siegel, the other original member still in the group 50 years later.
So why start depriving the world of any of that now? The group members had pragmatic answers for why it may be time to put a halt to at least a certain kind of regimen as that big round number passes by on the odometer.
“Well, it is physically harder, the older we get, with how travel has become just really difficult,” said Cheryl Bentyne, who has logged 43 of those 50 years with the group. “It used to be so easy. I can remember years ago, you’d go through security and you’d just wave and you’re good! Janis and I were taking babies along, and that was even easy, at the time. But now it’s trudging. It’s quite a tough job, you know? And I think it is a good thing to like stop at… 50 is just a beautiful number. So, for now, this is gonna be…” Her voice trailed off under the audience applause. “We’re a bit older than when we started, and the voice changes, too — the range, the width, elasticity — and travel makes that harder too, because you’re not getting enough sleep. You know the rest. You know the story!”
Siegel pointed out what a relative miracle it’s been that the group is still doing what it is, given the rarefied type of collective that the Transfer is. “It’s harder for a vocal group, I think, to last longer,” she said. “Many vocal groups just stop at a much earlier time than we did. It’s just because of the nature of what we do. I mean, solo singers can lower keys and nobody really notices, whereas with the group, if the arrangement is lowered more than a half-step, say, it’s muddy and it wasn’t intended to be that, where the harmony doesn’t ring. It’s getting more difficult.”
But no one is calling this a finis. Can we expect more albums and at least isolated live dates, if not full-scale international tours, post-’23? “Yeah, I think so,” said Paul, to more applause. “We’re not gonna stop.”
The quartet’s current Grammy-nominated album includes some of their greatest hits, recast with the assistance of an adventurous orchestra, Germany’s WDR Funkhausorchester, along with songs they’d never recorded, like “The Man I Love” and “God Only Knows.”
“To give you an idea of what we had to do,” said Paul, “in 2019, we did a concert in Cologne, Germany with the WDR Funkhausorchester, and it was absolutely delightful and such an uplifting experience for all of us. At the end we said we should try and do something (in the studio) together, and everybody agreed. Then the pandemic hit, and so the idea was put on the shelf for a year. In 2020 we started to talk about it again and it unfolded that, yeah, we can do this. We had to come up with a concept of what it was, and seeing that it was going to coincide with our 50th anniversary, we said maybe we should do an album that kind of shows those 50 years and the transitions of the group.
“The problem was that with the pandemic, we could not get together and record. So once we picked the songs, when we picked our arrangers, orchestrators and vocal arrangers (including Grammy winners Jorge Callandreli and Vince Mendoza) and got all that done, our band in New York, led by Yaron Gershovsky” (on view in these Grammy Museum clips as the pianist), “put down all the rhythm tracks in New York and then sent that to Germany, where the orchestra played.
“To complicate it a little bit more,” added Paul — prepare to get deep in some musical weeds — “when you hit an A on the piano here in America, A vibrates at 440, but in Europe it’s 442.” (The very savvy Grammy Museum crowd murmured loudly, with audible “whoas,” at this bit of revelation.) “So to the ear it’s maybe not that much of a difference — about seven degrees, a little bit higher — but the pianos had to be tuned here and everybody had to come up to match what the orchestra would be doing.” Producer Dave Thomas and their mixer, Tony Shepperd, shepherded that international summit to its conclusion.
Siegel explained that it’s not purely a best-of because the group picked choices “that we felt could benefit from a symphonic treatment. So that left out some things that were hits or more obvious, but (allowed for) pieces like ‘Twilight Zone’ that certainly deserved the more symphonic treatment.”
Speaking of “Twilight Zone/Twilight Tone” — an unlikely 1979 hit based on Bernard Herrmann’s “Twilight Zone” theme that cracked the top 30 on the Billboard Hot 100 and reached No. 4 on the disco chart, of all places — that song got a truly unlikely revival in 2022 when it was prominently sampled by rocker Jack White, along with another Transfer classic, on his “Fear of the Dawn” album. “That was a wonderful homage,” said Paul. “Jack got in touch with Jay Graydon [the song’s co-writer and original producer] and I and said, ‘Listen, I have a song that I’m working on and it’s kind of based on ‘Twilight Zone’ and ‘Night in Tunisia.’” And so it worked out. If you listen to his latest album, it’s on there and it’s called ‘Here in the Twilight’ — it’s very cool.”
The origins of the group, which was officially founded in October 1972, were explored during the Grammy Museum appearance. It’s worth noting, for the record — as recounted in a full Variety profile of the group published back in January 2022 — that there had been a different-sounding group that briefly operated under the same name in the late ’60s, with founding member Tim Hauser being the only commonality. By 1972, Hauser was looking to form a new group, albeit using the same moniker, that would have a stricter vocal focus than the earlier incarnation.
“I mean, it was so serendipitous in a way, how we met,” said Paul. “You want to hear the skinny of the story? Tim had an earlier group that was called the Manhattan Transfer, and they were together for a couple of years and did one album on Capitol Records called ‘Jukin’,’ but that group broke up. Tim was hacking a cab, and he wanted to do a demo record because he was trying to get a deal. And one night he picked up Laurel Massé, who was a waitress and a singer. And he said, ‘Would you like to sing on this demo I’m doing? I can’t pay anything.’ … You tell ‘em the next chapter.”
Continued Siegel, “Well, it sounds like the script for a B-movie — it sounds as if we’re making it up. But it actually happened (again) through a cab in New York City, when I was with my group, Laurel Canyon, and we were just about to get our own record deal…. We had just finished a gig at Kenny’s Castaway New York City, and we were having a party after the show in a hotel. And Tim picked up our percussionist, who put his drums in the back seat and sat in the front with Tim and — yak yak yak — ‘What do you do besides your cab?’ ‘I’m a musician’ … So I showed up at the session and now Tim, Laurel and I find ourselves together…”
“Chapter three,” interjected Paul. “I was in the original cast of ‘Grease’ on Broadway at the time, swinging out on a rope, and Laurel was dating the drummer… The guys in the ‘Grease’ band were doing a gig after our show, so I went down to see them, and Laurel and Janis and this other girl were singing. I remember Janis was 19 years old, and she sang Aretha Franklin’s ‘Dr. Feelgood,’ and I went, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe the voice coming out of her… Laurel approached me and said, ‘You know, Janis and I and this other guy are putting a group together. Somebody recommended you. Would you be interested?’ And I was totally not interested in being in a group, because I was always on my own, but I went down to Tim’s apartment because I wanted to meet Janis.”
“Cherchez la femme,” said Siegel.
“So then we talked about this concept that Tim had about doing four-part harmony, close harmony, kind of like the big band groups, like the Count Basie sax section, and applying it to contemporary records,” said Paul. “And in the whole scene in New York, everything was changing. Vietnam was over. A lot of the folk clubs were turning now into cabarets. It was the beginning of glitter-rock, and we kind of came out of that scene. That’s how we started.”
Although glam-rock may be hard to picture in retrospect as a scene the Manhattan Transfer came out of, the group was a bit more outrageous circa 1973. It helped that Tim Hauser’s sister, Faye, was in the collective known as the Cockettes and helped the new quartet out as a stylist.
“I remember Tim wore a Howdy Doody mask around his neck,” said Siegel. “And Faye had me wearing a diaper. Which I probably will be wearing again soon,” she added, leading the audience to crackup.
“See,” said Paul, “the whole thing was, we wanted people to notice us. We didn’t want to come out in jeans. And so Faye dressed us to be as outrageous as we possibly could. So we wore a lot of makeup and wigs, and Janis and I used to wear glitter on our lips.”
“Which probably accounts for the lead poisoning we have now,” quipped Siegel.
“But the New York Dolls were doing it on one side, and we were doing it on the other,” noted Paul. “And we got our sound together. We worked very, very hard in the beginning, six months of just grinding every single day, getting sound, that blend of matching vibratos, so that basically we became like one voice. So we came out, we looked outrageous, and people would say, ‘What is this?’ And then we’d open up our mouths and they’d go, ‘Oh, okay, there’s something here.’”
They established personas as part of their stage act at the time. “We most certainly did characters back then,” recalled Paul. “You know, Tim was always the hipster — his pseudo-ego was El Dorado Caddy.” Turning to Siegel, he said, “You were kind of like…”
“Ingenuous Jewish girl,” said Siegel.
Paul: “And I guess I was kind of like the suave guy.”
Siegel: “Matinee idol.”
Paul: “And Laurel was kind of the mystery woman. She would never tell anybody about her past or anything.”
Siegel: “She was the WASP princess.”
Bentyne: “I did not know this!”
It took a while for anyone at an actual record company to recognize the Something There, with Bette Midler finally convincing Ahmet Ertegun to see the quartet, which led to their Atlantic album, three long years after their formation, in 1975. By that time, they’d adopted a more nostalgic style. “We went uptown with the tux and everything else,” said Paul. “It was a classier look. Our logo is like that, and we did that for quite a few years — really until Laurel left the group. She was in a bad car accident and had to leave, and that’s when everything shifted. You know, that was the end of the first wave. And then Cheryl came in.”
It’s been 43 years since Bentyne joined the quartet. Does she still get any “new girl” jokes? “Until about two years ago,” Bentyne said.
Although they only occasionally fit in with anything happening in commercial pop, the group scored hits, starting with a cover of the gospel classic “Operator” off their first album. In 1977, “Chanson D’Amour” went to No. 1 in the U.K. while having no chart success anywhere else, establishing a tradition of having different songs do well in different parts of the world. There was a major-network summer replacement series that helped make them a household name in the U.S., however short-lived it was. And not long after “Twilight Zone” was a minor top 40 hit, they had their biggest American success with a remake of the classic pop song “The Boy From New York City,” which reached No. 7 in 1981, off the same album that found them starting to move more into real jazz with songs like “Birdland,” a song that had the Transfer delving into the vocalese style and won them their first jazz Grammy at the same time they won their first pop award.
The “Vocalese” album in ’85 really established the Transfer as a force the jazz community reckoned with, with a full collection of tunes done in the style where lyrics are written to well-established instrumental jazz parts. Atlantic’s Ertegun “had to be talked into ‘Vocalese,’” recounted Siegel. “I mean, there was screaming matches between Tim and him about that record. But we finally got our way, like the petulant children we were, and thank goodness we did. And then we sort of proved Ahmet wrong,” most of all with the album’s 12 Grammy noms.
Trist Curless came into the group in 2013, at the time as a fill-in for the ailing Hauser, and permanently the following year after Hauser’s unexpected death. He already was part of a well-established a cappella group called M-pact. He didn’t exactly match Hauser’s vocal range — but that was OK, because Hauser hadn’t even been singing in his most natural vocal range all those years.
Remembered Paul, “When the group first got together, I was singing the bass and Tim was singing tenor, because he had a group when he was a teenager called the Criterions, and in that group, he sang second tenor. But after a couple of tunes, we just said, ‘You know what, let’s switch.’ And that became the sound.”
Siegel noted that when Curless came in, “It did sound different because Tim had had a higher voice, a beautiful, light, almost tenor-ish voice, and yet he loved singing the bass… Tris is a really a true bass, so we did have to adjust to that different resonance, a different vibration. And I think we have.”
Said Paul, “I mean, he brings this wonderful element, this sound of the bottom that sometimes we didn’t get with Tim. Also, you know, it’s like apples and oranges, because Tim actually had small feet. I think he wore a size seven. So it was very, very hard to slip into those shoes.”
Said Curless, “I think the anxiety was just not wanting to mess it up, because I revered it so highly. I appreciated it so much from hearing these records — they love when I say it this way — in high school, junior high school. Friends from that period (said), ‘Wow, Tris, it’s so great to see you living out your dreams,’ and I usually just for ease say, ‘Oh, thank you. Yeah, it’s been really fun.’ But in my mind I’m like, ‘My dreams? No way was this in my dreams.’ … I’m not sitting there as a junior in high school like, ‘Oh yeah, someday I think I’m gonna gonna be in this band.” No, no. … But after doing it, I realized, oh, I’ve kind of practiced for this my whole life.”
It echoed the moment in 1979 when Bentyne joined the group, after they’d auditioned fewer than 10 women. Siegel lived in L.A. at that time, and Bentyne remembers circling the neighborhood for about an hour before showing up for her audition there, so anxious was she about being called to possibly join her idols.
“We first had to decide that we were gonna go on, which we did decide,” remembered Siegel. “And then Cheryl came in and within the first 30 seconds, we knew. … I think we opened a bottle of champagne, at that rehearsal.”
“Yeah,” said Bentyne, “I thought, what are these guys doing? (Are they) party animals? … I think I fit in also because I grew up with swing and Dixieland music. My father was a clarinet player, so I was a naturally swingin’ kinda gal, you know. So when I walked in, it was like a wave went over me, with these voices singing together. I’ve never heard anything like it.”
Neither had anyone else, which is why the Manhattan Transfer still stands nearly alone at the top of its field, with arrangements that are studied in vocal-group classes to this day more than any others.
“We live in a very disharmonious world right now,” said Paul. “I think it’s part of our DNA that we’re affected by the sound of chords, by the sound of harmony. At a metaphysical level, in a sense, it does affect us. It affects how we resonate… And not that I have anything against it necessarily, but if you’re in your car and you drive next to the van and the guy is just pumping out a lot of that low end, that affects you in a way, you know? And I think that that in a way is a reflection of the world that we live in right now. So I think the nature of harmony — people want that. They need that, in a sense. And that’s what we try to give.”
“There’s an aggression too, in a lot of music today, and our music is a little more romantic and warmer,” Siegel added. “What Alan says is 100% correct. It’s all vibration, and the vibration that comes from the four of us to you in the audience, and to us, too. It’s healing, I think.”
Said Bentyne, “The trick is to make it sound as easy as possible when it comes out of our mouths on stage. The work is in the blood, sweat and tears that builds up to that so we can let go of all of it. It’s like an actor learning lines, and then you gotta throw ’em away and just become that character. It’s the same way with our music. We learn it, we learn it, we learn it, and then we become another element of that music without all of the stuff that went on before. So that’s real important, that it looks and feels spontaneous, hopefully, like the first time we’ve done it.”
Curless believes there’s something unique about listeners’ relationship with a vocal ensemble. “I think with the audience, there’s a different connection than the same amount of excellence from a big band, where you can appreciate the excellence and enjoy it. There’s some different level because everybody has a voice. Not everybody can play the saxophone. So the sax section stands up and starts and stops together, and you understand, ‘Oh, that takes a lot of work to be together,’ but you don’t really know. You don’t really know the amount of hours; you haven’t experienced it. But everyone’s sung in their car and sung in the shower. ‘Oh, I know what it takes for me to just match this person on the radio that I’m singing with. Those four are doing all that madness.’ So whether they’re conscious of it or not, I think the vocal stuff really gets to audiences more, because there’s a direct appreciation of what it must take to do that.”