Perhaps no vocal group in America – other than the Beach Boys – have been as celebrated as The Manhattan Transfer. Over the last four decades, the quartet has racked up a dozen Grammy Awards, sold millions of albums and made Grammy Award history in 1981 when they became the first group in both pop and jazz categories in the same year.
The group will bring its holiday show to the Phoenix’s Musical Instrument Museum for four shows on Dec. 17 and 18. Vocalist Janis Siegel kindly gave GetOut an exclusive interview on The Manhattan Transfer’s origins, the different styles of music they sing, and the beauty of harmony.
Q: The name Manhattan Transfer refers to the group's New York origins. What was so special about the music in New York during that era?
JS: We took our name from the 1925 novel “The Manhattan Transfer” by the great American author, John Dos Passos. Also, The Manhattan Transfer was the name of a place in Harrison, N.J., where they switched from steam to electric trains going into the city.
I am the only member who actually grew up in New York City. Alan Paul grew up in Newark, N.J., and Tim Hauser grew up in Troy, N.J. and then later, Asbury Park. The music scene at that time was wildly eclectic. We listened to AM radio in my home, and the playlists were broader. On any given day, you heard The Beatles, The Kinks, Eric Burdon and The Animals, The Rolling Stones, Peter Paul and Mary, as well as Eydie Gorme, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, many do-wop, pop and jazz vocal groups like The Platters, The Mamas and Papas and the Hi-Los.
As a teen, I had access to all the incredible musical and cultural events in the city. We’re talking Broadway theaters and musicals, opera and dance. We also attended concerts by Ravi Shankar, Phil Ochs, Richie Havens and Nina Simone. The clubs in the Village featured folk and roots music, like Big Mama Thornton, Seals and Crofts, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Ramblin' Jack Elliot, The Blues Project, and so much more. As a teenager, I performed at a club in Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn. It featured comedians such as David Brenner and Rodney Dangerfield as well as music. My ears were opened at an early age to this musical maelstrom, which was all around me.
Q: The group has not only collected a dozen Grammys, but managed to survive all musical trends of the last 40 years: rock, pop, disco, new wave, techno, grunge, rap, hip-hop, etc. What do you account for the group's enduring popularity?
JS: I think that the original concept of the group has a lot to do with our endurance. The idea was that we should strive to never be categorized or identified with only one type of music. We were able to bill ourselves as 'an American vocal group that explores different styles of singing.' That gave us the freedom to do big band, swing, R&B, doo-wop, pop, Brazilian and jazz music. The wide range and challenge of the different music also kept us, as members, totally engaged and passionate about what we were doing.
Q: For someone who has never seen you in concert, what can they expect?
JS: Harmony singing is what they can expect first and foremost. They can also expect a repertoire that extends back to our first album in 1975 and ends with an offering from our latest studio record, “The Chick Corea Songbook.” They’ll hear all styles of harmony singing, some improvisation and lots of energy. There will be plenty of our holiday songs at these two Phoenix shows.
IF YOU GO
What: The Manhattan Transfer Holiday Show
When: Tuesday, Dec. 17, 7 & 9 p.m; Wednesday, Dec. 18, 7 & 9 p.m.
Where: Musical Instrument Museum, 4725 E. Mayo Blvd., Phoenix
Information: 480-478-6000 or www.mim.org
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