How do you get to harmony heaven? Take Manhattan Transfer.
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.
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.
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.
Generosity's did not know how to deal with that.
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.
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.
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."
September 22, 1981