How do you get to harmony heaven? Take Manhattan Transfer. Please.

Janis Siegel first met Tim Hauser in 1972 when she was singing with a folkie female trio called Laurel Canyon and moonlighting with a pop-funk band called Trust Me, made up of young session musicians and another singer named Laurel Masse. Hauser, a cabdriver at the time, picked up Trust Me's conga player, who invited him to the band's after-gig party. Hauser was a weirdo wearing long hair, cowboy boots, and an earring; he'd started his career singing doo-wop with greaser groups in Jersey and had recently led, with Gene Pistilli, a short-lived singing group called Manhattan Transfer. Siegel was a petite girl from Brooklyn with a huge, impressive voice; she started singing at 12 with the Young Generation -- a sort of would-be ShangriLas produced by Richard Perry for Red Bird Records -- and with Laurel Canyon had been singing backup for a country singer and touring colleges trilling the likes of Joni Mitchell's "Woodstock" and Cat Stevens's "Lisa Lisa." Suddenly, this runty beatnik was courting her, coming over to her house playing her all these big-band records by groups she'd never heard of: Glenn Miller and the Modernaires, the Pied Pipers, the Ink Spots, the Four Vagabonds, Three Cats and a Fiddle. Four-part harmony was it; Siegel was sold. She and Hauser and Laurel Masse and a suave tenor named Alan Paul who they pulled out of the Broadway production of Grease revived the Manhattan Transfer and, with it, the history of harmony group singing.

Tim Hauser: The guys who played for us used to jam up at Dr. Generosity's on Tuesday nights, so they said why not come and try it? We had worked five or six tunes, put together a little choreography and some clothes -- that was a scene! We looked like four characters out of a perverted Fellini movie.

Alan Paul: We wanted to draw attention, and we did. I had on this black tails tuxedo coat with rhinestones on the lapels, black pants, and red boots with three-inch heels, so I was about six-foot-three. And I had painted on a pencil-thin mustache, I had a little goatee, my hair was slicked back, and I had dyed a white tuxedo shirt black and wore it with a white ascot and a diamond stickpin.

T.H.: I wore unmatching flower prints -- blue flower-print pants I got from Tomato DuPlenty and this red flower-print jacket and some other print shirt. I had a Howdy Doody mask around my neck and a panama hat with a heart in it and plastic fruit around my neck. Janis did Marlene Dietrich from The Blue Angel: white-silver wig and silver dress. laurel was in a black dress with dominoes all over, and they both had, like, toys hanging from their earlobes.

A.P.: And the girls' makeup -- they had blotted out their eyebrows and painted them in way up here, like Divine, and had flames painted underneath. And for eyelashes they had feathers attached from the ends.

T.H.: Dr. Generosity's did not know how to deal with that.

A.P.: They thought it was really jive. Then we started to sing, and they started to listen, because we had our shit together.

Now almost ten years later, Manhattan Transfer no longer play Upper West Side boites; they'll be at Radio City Music Hall, if you please, this Saturday and Sunday. After all, they're at the peak of their popularity thanks to the Top Ten hit "The Boy from New York City" -- ironically, a song first recorded by the Ad Libs for Red Bird Records. They no longer dress quite so flamboyantly; more flush than flashy, you know. They no longer have Laurel Masse; she was replaced two years ago by Cheryl Bentyne. But they still have their shit together. As curators of the pop harmony group tradition, Manhattan Transfer have made a musical mission out of what might have remained a nostalgic whim.

They have refined an eclectic repertoire whose only common thread is the thrilling blend of tight, precise, four-part harmonies. It's not just pop, although they've reclaimed from the trash pile tunes by the Chiffons, the Videos, and yes, the Ad Libs. It's not just doo-wop, though Alan Paul's throbbing falsetto on "Gloria" is as sweet as anybody's. It's not even just white; Janis Siegel can summon an authentically church wail for the uptempo gospel number "Operator." The group has made its biggest strides in the field of jazz -- last year they won a Grammy for their dazzling rendition of Weather Report's "Birdland" (lyrics by Jon Hendricks, arrangement by Janis Siegel) -- but Manhattan Transfer will never be strictly a jazz vocal group; when they headlined the "Salute to Eddie Jefferson" in last year's Newport Jazz Festival, they were blown off the stage by the effortless swing of Jon Hendricks and his family. Never mind the stagey slickness, though -- when it comes to versatility, discipline, and genius for inducing harmonysteria, Manhattan Transfer is unsurpassed among singing groups.

When I spoke to Janis Siegel last week at Atlantic Records' offices, she indicated that you can expect the full array of Manhattan Transfer's goodies at Radio City next week: some jazz, some gooch, some a cappella, a lot from the latest album Mecca for Moderns (a little too smooth for my taste, but it has its moments), plus such unrecorded delights as Lambert, Hendricks & Ross's "Doodlin'," the unaccompanied "Just Keep on Doin' What You're Doing," and -- if we're lucky -- Siegel's spectacular, heartrending solo version of "From Vienna With Love" (a vocal transcription of Joe Zawinul's recording on Rise and Fall of the Third Stream), which stopped the show at the Transfer's Radio City gig last spring. But there are surprises planned, too: special appearances by jazz-tap dancers Chuck Green and Dorothy Bradley (whose late husband, Baby Laurence, taught Manhattan Transfer all their moves) and Frankie Lymon's Teenagers, now led by the fantastic singer Pearl McKinnon, formerly of the Kodoks.

But the best news that Siegel had was that she will going into the studio in October with producer Joel Dorn to do a solo album. Not a jazz album, unfortunately -- "The record company wants hits" -- but one that will feature a variety of "pure forms": R&B, jazz, gospel ("I hate fusion music"). Some of the material slated for the record includes the Annie Ross/Hampton Hawes tune "Jackie" (about a bebop mouse), California pianist-composer Dave Frischberg's "Do You Miss New York," a Staples Singers number called "Hammer and Nails," and -- if we're lucky -- "From Vienna with Love." Probably nothing by Cat Stevens, though.

Siegel's solo project won't interfere with her group work; Manhattan Transfer will have a "best of" package out for Christmas and may do the soundtrack for a new animated film by George Lucas called The Rushers of Din. But anyone who has heard Siegel will concede that she is easily the group's finest singer; she has such curiosity and control, such friskiness and finesse that reviewers can't help likening her to the young Ella Fitzgerald. Siegel knows it, but she's proceeding cautiously; after a nasty throat injury last year, she realized she had to learn to sing right if she plans to be crooning jazz in her golden years. "Eventually I think I will make the commitment entirely to jazz," she said. "But now there are too many things I like to do."

Soho News, September 22, 1981