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Members include vocalists Cheryl Bentyne (born c. 1954; raised in Seattle, WA; replaced Laurel Masse, 1979); Ti Hauser (born c. 1942; raised in Ocean Township, NJ); Laurel Masse (born c. 1954; left group, 1979); Alan Paul (born c. 1950; raised in Newark, NJ); Janis Siegal (born c. 1953; raised in Buffalo, NY).

The Manhattan Transfer sing everything from 1940s swing to 1990s rap, with rock, bebop, and doo-wop in between--all in four-part harmony. When they started out, their intention was to perform music that no one else was doing. They wanted to explore the roots of America's pop-music heritage, not for nostalgia, but to create new sounds and provide fresh insight into older songs by reworking them in their jazz-oriented style. "The whole key," explained group founder Tim Hauser in Irwin Stambler's Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock and Soul, "was to sing four-part harmony. Nobody was doing it then, and nobody is doing it now. When you do four-part harmony, you get into jazz." They got into jazz and have become, as Los Angeles Times reviewer and jazz expert Leonard Feather described them, "without peer as a vocal jazz quartet."

The name of the group was taken from a John Dos Passos novel about New York City in the 1920s and was first used in the late 1960s by a previous incarnation of the Manhattan Transfer. The first Manhattan Transfer--Hauser, Gene Pistilli, Pat Rosalia, Erin Dickens, and Marty Nelson--combined elements of rhythm and blues and country into what has been called a good-time, jug-band style. They recorded one album, Junkin', for Capitol Records in 1971. But Hauser left that year, and the group broke up in 1972.

The Manhattan Transfer that followed lists their official formation date as October 1, 1972, but group members had actually met the previous March. After he left the first Manhattan Transfer, Hauser drove a cab to make ends meet. One of his fares was a waitress named Laurel Masse. As the two talked, they discovered their mutual musical interests. Masse, also a singer, was familiar with Hauser's first group. Hauser, who was making demo tapes and trying to get back into the music business, invited her to join him. He met Janis Siegal a few weeks later at a party, where she was singing in a trio backing country-singer Diane Davidson. Siegal also knew of the first Manhattan Transfer, loved their harmonies, and agreed to join Hauser in his new venture.

Rounded Out the Quartet

Deciding to put a new Manhattan Transfer together, the trio needed a fourth member. They found Alan Paul working on Broadway in Grease. They rehearsed every day for six months, perfecting not only their singing, but creating a complete stage show. "We were going to perform," said Siegal in Down Beat. "We weren't going to be introspective on stage. We were going to give out. We were going to dress up." Their act was complemented by costumes, choreography, and acting. In 1973 they began performing in New York City cabarets. The following year they performed at a club called Reno Sweeney's--and knew they had arrived. Said Paul in an interview with Down Beat: "I started realizing it even before we got the record deal, when we were playing Reno Sweeney's and there were lines of people outside. You could feel the energy building. When we moved uptown to the Cafe Carlyle, and [rock stars] Mick Jagger and David Bowie came to see us, that's when I knew there's something going on."

By the end of 1974, the Manhattan Transfer was moving quickly. They signed with Atlantic Records and began recording their first album. The LP Manhattan Transfer was released in April of 1975. That spring the quartet toured Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. In Los Angeles, they played two weeks at the famed Roxy and appeared on the Mary Tyler Moore Television Special. Back in New York, CBS gave them their own television show: a four-week summer replacement series. Television gave them exposure, but perhaps the wrong kind. "To a lot of people it was like selling out," said Hauser in Down Beat. "In retrospect, I feel that those TV shows ... kind of spoiled our underground image and gave a slick commercial feel to the act, which hurt us in the States."

A Smash in Europe

Meanwhile, though, their popularity soared in Europe. The Manhattan Transfer single "Tuxedo Junction" was a hit, and their 1975 European tour received overwhelming ovations. In Germany, they appeared on the television show Star Parade and won a German Grammy for Best New Group. In 1977, "Chanson D'Amour," from their second album Coming Out, became a hit in France and England. They went on the road again, playing MIDEM, the music business convention in Cannes, France, where they performed for recording executives from all over the world. With their third album, Pastiche, the group's standing in the United States began to improve. The next release, Extensions, solidified their popularity with American audiences and won them their first Grammy, for Siegal's arrangement of the song "Birdland."

During these early years the Manhattan Transfer experienced internal problems and change. Relations with management became strained because the group disapproved of their continual supper-club bookings, which were financially successful but artistically unsatisfying. Financial disputes even led the group to court. In 1976 the quartet acquired new management that helped turn their fortunes around. Then, in 1979, Laurel Masse left the group. Finding a replacement was cause for anxiety. Said Hauser in Down Beat: "We didn't want 50 million aspiring singers calling us. We wanted somebody who could blend with our sound, who could cut it as a soloist, and someone we could get along with. Up until the seventh lady there were women who had one or two of these elements, but not all three. And then Cheryl [Bentyne] walked in. She sang 'Candy' and it was the sound. "

Solid Backgrounds

As a teenager, Cheryl Bentyne sang with her father's swing band; she was part of Seattle's New Deal Rhythm Band in her early twenties. After moving to Los Angeles, she sang locally until joining the Manhattan Transfer. Like Bentyne, the rest of the Manhattan Transfer had had previous pop-music experience. Hauser was in the rock group the Criterions in the 1950s and a member of the folk outfit the Troubadours Three during the following decade; Siegal, who started singing professionally at 12, recorded with the Young Generation before forming the country trio Laurel Canyon in the early 1970s; Paul had a history on Broadway, from performances in Oliver as a child to Grease in the early 1970s, with nightclub gigs in the interim. Hauser, Siegal, and Bentyne all have active solo careers in addition to their work with the group.

From the outset, the Manhattan Transfer demonstrated that they could handle a variety of musical styles. Their first three records focused on early rhythm and blues, rock, and swing but also featured newer, original works by group members and other contemporary musicians. With their fourth album, Extensions, the group moved into the area of jazz fusion and the technique of vocalese. Vocalese, in which vocals are added to instrumental jazz pieces--the voices imitating the sounds of the instruments--was popularized in the 1950s by the group Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. To help them perfect their technique, the Manhattan Transfer enlisted the aid of Jon Hendricks. He wrote the words to Siegal's arrangement of the old Weather Report tune "Birdland" and taught the quartet how to blare and wail like trumpets and saxophones. In 1980 "Birdland" won Bentyne, Hauser, Paul, and Siegal their first two Grammy awards--and the respect of music critics who began to take them seriously as jazz artists.

Bridged the Jazz/Pop Gap

Mecca for Moderns again featured the hallmarks of Hendricks, on the cuts "(The Word of) Confirmation" and "Until I Met You" (originally titled "Corner Pocket"). But the Transfer also recorded songs in a contemporary pop style. "We always wanted to bridge the gaps [between jazz and pop]," said Siegal in Down Beat. In addition to the Hendricks collaborations, Mecca included "Boy From New York City," the group's first tune to hit Billboard's Top 10 pop chart. Bodies and Souls, their next venture, was their one attempt at a pure pop album. Making it for commercial reasons, they thought it would sell. The results were unexpected: Bodies and Souls made the top twenty on jazz charts, but failed financially.

The Transfer's 1985 release, Vocalese, on the other hand, was pure jazz. Once again the group worked with Jon Hendricks. Hendricks, who wrote all the lyrics for the album, took a year off from his own group to collaborate with Hauser and company. The Transfer recruited other fine jazz musicians as well, including jazz and pop vocalist Bobby McFerrin, renowned pianist McCoy Tyner, and trumpet giant Dizzy Gillespie. Although initially Atlantic feared that an all-jazz album would fail, Vocalese triumphed financially as well as artistically, earning 12 Grammy nominations and three statuettes.

Off to Brazil

After Vocalese the quartet continued to explore new territory. For Brasil, they traveled to the Amazon Basin. Fascinated with the tropical sounds they found there, the Transfer used the talents of top Brazilian musicians. Milton Nascimento, Ivan Lins, and Djavan all contributed songs; the group Uakti harmonized, and Djalma Correa provided percussion.

Hauser, Siegal, Paul, and Bentyne also continued to bridge the jazz/pop gap. With their 1991 release, The Offbeat of Avenues, they added the distinctive sounds of the 1990s to their trademark style. Many of the cuts on Offbeat, including the title track, feature a complex interplay of voices mixed with the smooth blend of harmony that characterizes the quartet's jazz sound. "Women in Love" even included a rap introduction. This album was further significant in representing a new creative direction for the group, Transfer members having written most of the material.

The group's next release, four years after that of Offbeat, was Tonin' in 1995. The album featured classic pop and R&B songs from the 1950s and 1960s and star contributors including Phil Collins on "Too Busy Thinking About My Baby," Bette Midler on "Gonna Take a Miracle," Ben E. King on "Save the Last Dance for Me," Smokey Robinson on "I Second That Emotion," and Chaka Khan on "Hot Fun in the Summertime." Despite the impressive lineup of guest artists and the well-known material, Richard S. Ginell of All Music Guide called the album "just a detour into the tent of nostalgia that [the group] had long outgrown." Manhattan Transfer toured in support of Tonin', both in the United States and Europe.

New Stylistic Direction with Swing

Swing, which as its name suggests contains songs from the swing era, was released in 1997 and climbed to number one on Billboard's Top Jazz Albums chart. About the group's change from their usual jazz focus, Siegel told Down Beat: "We got to a point where we said, 'You know, guys, we're not going to get on the radio. Why don't we do what we want to do?' And we all looked at each other and said, 'Let's make a swing album.'" Spirit of St. Louis, a nod to Louis Armstrong, was released in 2000 and reached the number three position on the Top Jazz Albums chart.

Perhaps unfairly, the Manhattan Transfer's versatility and flexibility have occasionally been something of a liability to them. They have received negative criticism from jazz purists for their pop work. In fact, some critics considered "Boy From New York City" a sellout; People's Joanne Kaufman, for one, accused the Transfer of making "a bid for crossover success." But the group's diverse audience remains unfazed by their continuing stylistic exploration. "Our audience is wild," said Cheryl Bentyne in an interview with Down Beat' s Michael Bourne. "They're very colorful, every age, shape, and size of person." This audience is also sizeable--the quartet's concerts, including a well-received 1992 acoustic jaunt--regularly sell out. Though the music press may have difficulty labeling their style, and radio stations may suffer distress over programming their music, category is markedly less important than quality to the Manhattan Transfer. They don't care what label a piece might have; they sing it "because," as Siegal pointed out in the Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock & Soul, "we like it! Because it's good music!"

More than 30 years after the group's inception, Bentyne told the Indianapolis Star in 2002 that it is as important as ever that the group sings because they like it: "You can't just go after a market--we have to be true to what we do."

by Robin Armstrong

The Manhattan Transfer's Career

Group formed in New York City, October 1, 1972; performed in cabarets, 1973-74; signed with Atlantic Records, 1974; released first album, Manhattan Transfer, 1975; toured major U.S. cities; performed in four-week summer replacement television series, c. 1975; toured Europe; released albums including The Offbeat of Avenues, 1991; the platinum-selling greatest hits compilation The Very Best of Manhattan Transfer, 1994; the children's album Manhattan Transfer Meets Tubby the Tuba, 1994; Tonin',1995; Swing,1997; Spirit of St. Louis, 2000; and the live album The Manhattan Transfer, 2002.

The Manhattan Transfer's Awards

Grammy Awards, Best Jazz Fusion Performance, 1980; Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal, 1982, 1988; Best Jazz Vocal Performance, Duo or Group, 1981-83, 1985; Best Contemporary Jazz Performance, Instrumental, 1991.

Famous Works

Further Reading



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