MANHATTAN TRANSFER: the harmony and the ecstasy

"See, that's what we are, a harmony group!" Alan Paul, the tall Travolta lookalike who sings tenor with Manhattan Transfer, tilts back in a swivel chair and folds his arms. "And we explore all different facets of harmony."

Three members of the vocal quartet -- Paul, Cheryl Bentyne and founder Tim Hauser -- are sitting around Atlantic Records' New York offices (fourth member Janis Siegel decided to rest her voice between shows). They're about to make their concert debut as glamorous Radio City Music Hall just as their new single, "Twilight Zone," is moving up the U.S. pop charts -- a territory normally as alien to Manhattan Transfer as Rod Serling's fictional never-never-land. (Paul says the idea for the song came to him at Hugh Hefner's mansion. "I looked around and said, 'Twilight Zone.'") The group has often been perceived as a nostalgic cabaret act, an impression they're eager to correct. Their latest album, Extensions, not only emphasizes their jazz roots, they point out, but traces their ties to the vocal-group tradition.

"It goes all the way back to the Twenties," says Hauser, the Transfer's diminutive leader. he runs down a list of important singing groups in the twentieth century, from the Boswell Sisters to the Mills Brothers and the Ink Spots in the Thirties, to such groups as the Clovers and the Ravens in the Fifties. "When the whole British thing happened -- and surf music -- it came to an end," Hauser explains. "Except for Motown, but Motown was more of a producer's medium."

Not to be outdone, Paul leaps in with his own litany. "Then there were the jazz groups." Cheryl Bentyne, the Transfer's newest members, watches with amusement as her colleagues match wits. "There was Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross, and the whole French scene with the Blue Stars of France and the Double Six of Paris, which extended into the Swingle Sisters. Then you have groups like the Four Freshmen and the Hi-Los, who went into a group called Singers Unlimited. All these different trips," he marvels, "all harmony groups!"

You don't have to talk with Manhattan Transfer to know that they're A students of vocal-group history. It's perfectly obvious on their records and even more so onstage, where they barely pause for breath before jumping from some funky doo-wop to an a cappella ballad, and from that to a jazz scat. Founded in 1972, the Transfer earned their earliest support from nostalgia buffs on New York's chic cabaret scene, but immediately after releasing their first album in 1975, they hosted a well-received summer TV series on CBS. Although the next two album, Coming Out and Pastiche, flopped in America, they were big hits in Europe; the single "Chanson d'Amour" went to Number One in England and France.

With Extensions, Manhattan Transfer have stepped away from campy nostalgia and headed in the direction of jazz. Accordingly the group has gained a substantial jazz following and even made the cover of down beat recently. The impetus for this move came from Janis Siegel. Hauser says, "Janis was the one who wanted to do 'Birdland' [Joe Zawinul's fusion anthem from Weather Report's Heavy Weather album], and after Jon Hendricks wrote the lyrics, she wrote the vocal harmonies to it. Eventually, 'Birdland' became the symbol of the change."

The other major influence on Extensions was Eddie Jefferson, the late jazz singer who was the first to write lyrics for jazz solos and to whom the album is dedicated. The Transfer wanted to recreate Jefferson's first work, a lyricized version of Coleman Hawkins' sax solo on "Body and Soul," and Hauser, a longtime Jefferson fan, met with the singer two years ago to enlist his aid. Jefferson was amenable, but before the collaboration could take place, he was shot and killed in Detroit. Nonetheless, the Transfer managed to reconstruct "Body and Soul," extending it further so that it was a moving tribute to Jefferson himself.

The Manhattan Transfer's survey of group vocal styles parallels Ry Cooder's investigations into obscure Americana. Yet the Transfer's meticulous recreations of vintage R&B songs have been perceived by some critics as condescending. The group is still smarting from an old Village Voice article charging them with racism. "We were blown away by that -- hurt! -- because it just wasn't true," says Hauser. "I started listening to black music when I was fifteen and completely absorbed myself in it. This was the finest music America had to offer, and much of it was suppressed because the artists were black. So my opinion is, why put down white people who have a background in black music and are trying to bring it forward?"

The quartet's credentials are certainly impressive. Hauser began his career in 1958 singing with a white R&B group, the Criterions. Paul went from nightclub crooning to a long Broadway run in Grease before joining the Transfer. Bentyne (who recently replaced member Laurel Masse) has sung with swing bands on the West Coast. And Siegel, who once led a female trio called Laurel Canyon, developed into an extraordinary jazz singer by immersing herself in be-bop. They've spent so long studying the styles and honing their harmonies that you half expect them to break into song in midsentence.

But not in the middle of the Fifty-ninth Street Bridge. On the way to a radio interview in Queens they're trading stories about Eddie Jefferson when Hauser, Paul and Bentyne suddenly launch into a precise three-part rendition of Jefferson's first hit, "Moody's Mood for Love": "There I go, there I go, there I go, there..."

Noticing my grin, Paul turns to me. "Those chords really have an effect on your body, don't they?" he crows. "Harmony, man!" says Hauser. "It's a completely positive experience."

Rolling Stone, June 26, 1980