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Manhattan Transfer, The

Manhattan Transfer, The

Manhattan Transfer, The, tight harmony and vocalese group gone pop. membership:Tim Hauser (b. Troy, N.Y., Dec. 12, 1941); Alan Paul (b. Newark, N.Mex., Nov. 1949); Janis Siegel (b. Brooklyn, N.Y., Jul. 23, 1952); Laurel Massé (b. Holland, Mich., Dec. 29, 1951); Cheryl Bentyne (b. Mount Vernon, Wash., Jan. 17, 1954).

Tim Hauser had sang in doo-wop groups during his youth. He then formed a jug band under the name of Manhattan Transfer, which released the album Jukin’, a commercial nonstarter. Following his initial brush with failure, Hauser was driving a cab in N.Y. Coincidentally, he picked up Laurel Massé, a session singer, in his cab. She recognized his name from Jukin’, and he got her phone number. Not long afterward, he met Janis Siegel. She had recorded for Lieber and Stoller’s Red Bird records in her teens as part of the Young Generation, and was also doing session work. He convinced them both to become part of a new Manhattan Transfer. He recruited Alan Paul from the original cast of the Broadway show Grease, and in 1972, the four vocalists were under way.

Through the mid-1970s they built up an audience, first playing N.Y.C.’s gay bathhouses. They started getting cabaret bookings at clubs like Trudy Heller’s and even rock venues like Max’s Kansas City. Atlantic records signed them in 1974, and they released their eponymous debut album in the summer of 1975. It reached #33 and eventually went platinum, helped by a summer replacement show that the band hosted on CBS-TV. The single, “Operator,” hit #22.

They went into the studio with pop producer Richard Perry and released Coming Out. While it only hit #48 in the U.S., their French cover of “Chanson D’Amour” became a huge hit in Europe. Their next album, Pastiche (1978) only reached #66 in the states, but did far better in Europe. They toured Europe that spring, and an album recorded on that tour hit #4 in the U.K.

Before they went into the studio to record their next album, Masse left the band; Cheryl Bentyne replaced her. With producer Jay Graydon, they made the album Extensions. While it didn’t chart, one of the album’s standout tracks is a vocalese version of Weather Report’s “Birdland,” with lyrics by master jazz vocalist/songwriter John Hendricks. It won a 1980 Grammy Award for Best Vocal or Instrumental Jazz Fusion Performance. The single “Twilight Zone/Twilight Tone” reached #30; the album hit #55.

1981’s Mecca for Moderns continued in the vein of sophisticated swing, with a jazzy update of the Ad Libs’ 1965 hit “The Boy from New York City.” The Manhattan Transfer version reached #7, the group’s only Top Ten single in the U.S. At the 1981 Grammys, the tune won for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal. Additionally, the track “Until I Met You (Corner Pocket)” won for Best Duo or Group Jazz Vocal Performance. The album topped out at #22.

The early 1980s saw a series of albums that featured further pop-jazz vocal outings. They attracted only middling sales for the group, despite numerous awards and accolades from the press. In 1985, the group hooked up again with John Hendricks. He wrote all of the lyrics for the band’s next effort, Vocalese. The album earned 12 Grammy nominations, second only to Michael Jackson’s Thriller in total number of nominations. They took home two awards: one for Best Duo or Group Jazz Vocal Performance, and one for Bentyne (who joined in 1979) and Bobby McFerrin’s vocal arrangements. Two years later, taking a somewhat different tack, they recorded English versions of popular Brazilian songs for the album Brasil. It became the first entire album to earn a Grammy for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal, and peaked at #96.

The 1990s again saw the group moving between experimentation and more mainstream efforts. 1991 ’s Offbeat of Avenues, was an eclectic affair. With contributions from members of Steely Dan and Take 6, along with jazz greats Mark Isham and Jeff Lorber, among others, the album entered the top 200 at 179 in its first week, then disappeared. Still, they took home a Best Contemporary Jazz Performance Grammy for the tune “Sassy.” They then recorded a Christmas album that featured Tony Bennett, and also did a children’s record, reprising the 1945 Paul Tripp classic Tubby the Tuba.

The group returned to the pop arena with 1995’s Tonin’, consisting of mostly covers of songs they sang in their teens. The album had an impressive guest list: Bette Midler, Phil Collins, Ben E King, Ruth Brown, James Taylor, B. B. King, Smoky Robinson, Laura Nyro, among others. Nonetheless, it topped off at a torpid #123. In 1998, they released Swing, another eclectic, star-studded affair, featuring such diverse artists as jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli, country star Ricky Skaggs, and Tex. swing band Asleep at the Wheel. Despite this talented group, the album made the jazz charts but not the pop.

Discography

Jukin’ (1969); The Manhattan Transfer (1975); Coming Out (1976); Pastiche (1976); Extensions(1979); Mecca for Moderns (1981); Bodies and Souls (1983); Bop Doo-Wop(1983); Mantra: Live in Tokyo(1983); Vocalese (1985); Brasil (1987); The Offbeat of Avenues(1991); The Christmas Album(1992); The Manhattan Transfer Meets Tubby the Tuba(1994); Tonin(1995); Swing(1998).

—Hank Bordowitz

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