The Manhattan Transfer is a versatile vocal group that sings many different styles of music but, is essentially a jazz group. Through its showmanship and willingness to sing music as diverse as R&B (rhythm and blues), doo-wop, Brazilian Bosai Nova, and rock 'n' roll, it has managed to have an impact beyond jazz in its 25 year history. The Manhattan Transfer has clearly declined to be stereotyped as a jazz group. Tim Hauser of the Transfer notes that the group modeled itself on the saxophone section of the Count Basie Band, using its sound as a model for its four-part harmony.
The group has kept its basic personnel throughout most of its history. It consists of Tim Hauser, Cheryl Bentyne, Alan Paul, and Janis Siegel. Each contributes a unique sound to the overall ensemble and each is a fine soloist in his or her own right. Working as a marketing executive and a New York cab driver in 1972, Tim Hauser never lost sight of his hope to create a vocal group. One of his passengers was Laurel Masse, who was familiar with Jukin', an album Hauser had made with an earlier Manhattan Transfer incarnation. Soon after Hauser met Janis Siegel at a party. Hauser convinced Siegel to leave her current singing group and join him and Masse in the Manhattan Transfer. He was also able to convince Alan Paul, from the original cast of Grease, to join the group.
The group spent three years working around Manhattan, gaining a cult following. They made their debut in 1975 on Atlantic Records with The Manhattan Transfer. They originally had greater success in Europe and had a string of top ten hits from their next two albums, Coming Out and Pastiche. The group even had its own short-lived television show on CBS.
Masse left the group in 1978 and was replaced by Cheryl Bentyne. Their first album with Bentyne was a major domestic hit. Entitled Extensions, it featured the song "Twilight Zone/Twilight Tone." It also feature "Birdland," a vocalese version of Weather Report's great tune. It earned the group and Janis Siegel their first Grammies. Siegel won for best arrangement and the group for Best Jazz-Fusion Performance, Vocal or Instrumental. In 1981 the Transfer won Grammies for pop and jazz performances. It was the first time that had happened in Grammy history. They won the pop award for "The Boy from New York City" and the jazz Grammy for Count Basie's "Corner Pocket." Over the next few years, they continued their success.
In 1985 they recorded Vocalese, and this album become recognized as their peak effort. Jon Hendricks, the man generally recognized as the founder of the art form which sets jazz lyrics to jazz solos, joined them. The album was nominated for 12 Grammies and won two; best jazz vocal performance and best arrangement for voices. They followed this success with albums featuring Brazilian music, Christmas music, a children's album, doo-wop music, and others.
Overall, the Manhattan Transfer has issued 20 albums over their 25 years. Along the way the group has won eight Grammy Awards.
Janis Siegel and Cheryl Bentyn have each won individual arranger Grammies. Their success has included worldwide sales in the millions as well as numerous sold-out world concert tours. Other awards include being named the "Best Vocal Group" for an entire decade (1980-1990) in the annual Down Beat and Playboy jazz polls.
—Frank A. Salamone, Ph.D.
Bourne, Michael. "Swing." Down Beat. Vol. 64, No. 11, November1997, 42.
Boyd, Herb. "Swing." Down Beat. Vol. 64, No. 10, October 1997, 48.