June 16, 2024

Introducing the Manhattan Transfer’s final show at Walt Disney Concert Hall, writer Bruce Vilanch emphasized the multi-genre status the vocal ensemble built up and maintained over a 50-year-plus career that, from all indications, really was coming to a close Friday night.

“I’m thrilled to be here for the final concert of the greatest pop-rock-jazz-soul-R&B-scat-vocalese-Brazilian group in the history of America,” Vilanch said.

In keeping with that multi-hyphenate spirit, the group’s apparent swan song in downtown Los Angeles’ toniest venue was a happy-sad-ebullient-misty-eyed affair. Two things were left definitively established as part of the essence of swing: clock pendulums, and the Manhattan Transfer.

No revolving doors here. Two members of the quartet have been with the group since its early ‘70s origins, Alan Paul and Janis Siegel; Cheryl Bentyne, for her part, has been in the ensemble nearly as long as those two, having joined up before the ‘70s came to a close; even new guy Trist Curless has a decade’s worth of tenure.

Prior to and following the show, the four members talked with Variety about winding things up with a final tour — and final show — that they decided should coincide with a planned 50th anniversary outing. If the goal was to convince everyone attending that this is a group that should not be quitting, mission accomplished.

“I think we’re going out on top. And that’s the way I always wanted it. I think we all felt that way,” says Paul. “We didn’t want to have it deteriorate. We want to be remembered for our greatness, and we certainly have a wonderful legacy.”

Added Curless: “It’s felt right. This last thing isn’t like, ‘Oh, man, good thing they’re quitting there. They’re flailing.’ It’s not that.”

But there’s no pussyfooting around: “It’s very hard,” Paul emphasizes. “Very difficult. Like Janis says, it’s grieving.” Siegel affirms: “It’s like a death.”

On-stage at Disney Hall, Paul emphasized the road-grind aspects in trying to explain to the audience why they were about to have their last “Java Jive.” “We had so many feelings about this, about stopping. The reality was that the road life just got too hard” with “schlepping. Sometimes,” he said, they imagined that if “it was the future, it’d be like Star Trek — we’d be up there, they could beam us down, we could do a gig and we can go back up.”

Siegel gave the downtown audience the 90-second version of the origin story. “So we got together in 1972 in Manhattan — duh.” The ancient lore of chance encounters made by the late Tim Hauser, another founding member, as he picked up musicians around New York City, were invoked.

“We rehearsed five songs for six months because we didn’t know what we were doing. Really, we were all new to the idea of four-part harmony, close-harmony singing,” Siegel said. Hauser was studying the Schillinger system of composition, she explained, and as they all naively dived in to this more sophisticated technique (none of them with extensive formal education in music), “he wrote out these parts in what we call parallel voices — it was very geometric. And we sang the first eight bars together and we just looked at each other and laughed, and we said, ‘Let’s do this for 50 years.’”  

A few days before this final convening at Walt Disney Concert Hall, when the group still had that and a penultimate show in San Diego yet to go, Variety spoke via Zoom with the four members, who were holed up for a few days in Palm Springs. For all the time they’d had to think about the close of the group’s career, they admitted they had little idea what kinds of emotions might or might not overtake them on the last night of the 50th anniversary tour… and, evidently, the last night of everything, collectively.

“People say when you die, your whole life rushes in front of you — whoosh, you see the whole thing — and it’s kind of been like that,” said Paul, “just reminiscing. And it’s overwhelming.” He wasn’t about to put a pure smiley face on bringing things to a close. “It’s sad.”

“I mean, overwhelming doesn’t begin to describe it really,” chimed in Siegel. “And I don’t think that we’re really gonna feel it till after. I’ve been putting the end to the back of my mind in just getting through and performing these last shows. But I’ve likened it to the states of grieving, of mourning a death. The finale at Disney Hall … we don’t know how it’s gonna be. We’ve never done this before. It’s kind of exciting and unnerving. But we’ll get through it together, and then I think it’ll really start to hit us.”

“I’m not thinking about it, which is the only way I can deal with it right now,” added Bentyne. “I’m trying to just cruise through the two shows as best as I can, and try and hit that fricking high note in ‘Cantaloop’.” That’s the funky signature song based on Us3’s adaptation of Herbie Hancock’s “Cantaloupe” that has Bentyne doing an extended scat solo in a high register at the end. “I’ve got two high notes left in my career.”

Said Curless, “I’m susceptible to emotion. I’ll cry during a 30-second commercial, if it hits me just right. And I’ve unfortunately had to sing at funerals of loved ones or close friends or things like that, and you almost have to make it a game for yourself… wondering if I can get through this entire thing without my voice breaking up.”

If they needed to assure themselves that they’d made the right decision in finally labeling this a final tour, there were plenty of moments over the last couple years to reinforce that much of what happens off-stage for a veteran group is not the stuff of sentimental journeying.

“This last tour that we did, especially in Europe, was bittersweet,” said Paul. “Because every show was sold out, and our fans wee all coming out to be with us. But this last tour, especially, was the tour from hell. And that’s really the main reason why we’ve made this decision, because it was just so hard on our bodies and on our minds, being so completely exhausting. Four buses broke down — four different buses! And we had the wonderful flood in Italy. It was torrential rain, and all of our wardrobe, got soaked. So we had to finish doing our shows in mold, basically.”

But they gathered no moss, even on a tour that was as grueling as any they’ve ever done. “Every time we hit the stage, we’re right there. 150%, we always give — it’s always there.”  

And not just on-stage. Behind the scenes, there was no long-festering, Fleetwood Mac-style, personality-incompatibility-that-broke-the-camel’s-back tension that factored into the decision to part. The group has always insisted that if there was any tension in the ranks, you would hear that un-closeness coming out in what is technically as well as spiritually known as close-harmony singing.

“We’re a family,” Paul said. “Just because we’re not gonna tour, it doesn’t mean that we’re gonna not be together. Hopefully.”

* * *

The backstage area Friday at Disney Hall was crowded, not least of all because the Transfer was being joined for these final few SoCal shows by the Diva Jazz Orchestra, an all-female complement of horns, reeds, et al,. as well as their usual three-piece backing group. Vilanch was on hand, wondering how much of his gag-filled speech he could get in without risking pushing the show into union-busting overtime fees. Claude McKnight of the a cappella group Take 6, which toured with the Transfer in recent years, had his own speech ready. Los Angeles Deputy Mayor Jacqueline Hamilton, who is actually a card-carrying superfan, was also carrying a giant proclamation naming Dec. 15 as Manhattan Transfer day in Los Angeles.

MIA, although not many people knew it at the time: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who had been scheduled to read a congratulatory note from Vice President Kamala Harris. The legendary ballplayer fell and broke his hip while walking up to the auditorium after parking. The Transfer members, who were among the few people even aware he would be showing up, were told only that a health issue had sidelined him, so they wouldn’t get too distracted by the specifics of his injury. A fill-in was drafted: McKnight remembered that his cousin, Mervyn Warren, who produced one of the Transfer’s most remembered albums, had said he was coming. Warren hadn’t even jockeyed for the guest list — he just bought a third-row ticket the day they went on sale — and he was happy to step in for Abdul-Jabbar.

The show itself proceeded without incident, unless you can call massive amounts of head-bobbing and mostly sublimated emotion an incident. Fans who had flown in from overseas mixed with elder segments of the local glitterati. The show opened and closed with the full Diva ensemble, with moments in the middle with just the core band that allowed for more improvisational jazz, including stunning solos by the group’s pianist and musical director since 1979, Yaron Gershovsky, who had a short speech of his own to deliver.

In the closing stretch, the two women in the group each hit notes that only the proverbial dogs could hear — or at least only those without chronic tinnitus — with Siegel sounding uncannily, even spookily, girlish on their biggest U.S. hit, “Boy From New York City,” and Bentyne sending scat heavenward on “Cantaloop.” Then they went from for-the-dogs to for-the-birds on an epic, nine-minute encore version of “Birdland,” which found them adopting the bent-over, fingers-snapping pose many associate with the group from back in the day.

And, amid a few rarities on the set list, there was apparently the biggest rarity of all… a full-group embrace, among a quartet that hasn’t always worn its vulnerability quite so fully on its tuxedo sleeve in concert as much as its moxie.

At the after-party at the Biltmore after the show, Bentyne said, “I didn’t get emotional until we would touch each other. Or when I would look at the band in row. I loved us group-hugging. That was fun. We never do that. We do it offstage sometimes.”

She added, “It wasn’t sad. It was emotional, but all in the right ways. Because I knew this was the last time on these notes, notes, notes, and then they were gone. We all put our best foot forward; I just had a good time singing knowing that that was gonna be the last time I did ‘Cantaloop,’ or whatever.” Bentyne had been thinking about hitting her peak on that song in particular, a few days earlier. “Got it too!” she exulted. “I went, ‘Thank you, God.’ That’s beyond what I should be singing.”

Said Burless, “It was a blast. Even though I knew I was doing those things for the last time, we did those songs so much in the last year, especially in the last month, that I was feeling super comfortable, not having to worry or think about them and just really focus on just enjoying the time. And like I said a few days ago, I’m a sap, so if I allowed myself to think too much about it, I’d be a mess. What got me through it was focusing on (a task). The space is very cacophonous — amazing for the orchestra [Disney Hall is the home of the LA Phil], but sometimes amplified music with big, loud drums isn’t honestly the best thing in there. So I had to really focus to hear sometimes, and that process helped. I didn’t lose it crying too many times.”

Said Paul, in a quiet moment backstage afterward: “It was everything that I hoped it would be, and I was able to hold it to the end, and then I lost it.”

Manhattan Transfer says goodbye at Walt Disney Concert hall performance
James Gavin

Tribute was paid at the L.A. concert to the missing two original members: Tim Hauser, who died in 2014 and was permanently replaced by Curless, who’d begun filling in for him a year earlier as the co-founder’s cancer progressed; and Laurel Massé, who departed the group after a leave of absence following a car accident in 1979. Massé is still very much around, and she rejoined the group for a few numbers at a New York stop earlier in the farewell tour.

“It was delightful,” Siegel said of having Massé back for a show. “She was with us for seven years and went through all of our growing pains with us, and it was really warm and wonderful.” “I agree,” said Paul — “it was a nice closure of the circle, having her sing with us.”

Ben Vereen was among the small number of intimate friends greeting the group backstage before the party moved a few blocks away. He has known the Transfer since they first met and worked together on an unusual network special in the early ‘70s, “Mary Tyler Moore’s Incredible Dream.”

“This is the end of an era,” Vereen said. “They teach (the next generation) and bring ’em along, and hopefully they will — they’ve got to — keep it going. But the Manhattan Transfer, you know — I’ve known ’em so long, and now they’re finished.” He immediately took that back. “Singers, they say we are never finished. There’s always ‘…and let’s get together one more time.’ There’s always that.”

Vereen was especially prompted to remember Hauser, who died in 2014 and was permanently replaced by Curless, who’d begun filling in for him a year earlier as his illness progressed. “We were so blessed to have him, so blessed. My man’s covering for him nicely,” he said of Trist. Still, Vereen said, “There’s no one like Tim. He was the best. God bless him.”

The Manhattan Transfer performs at the 1981 Saratoga Jazz Festival with original member Tim Hauser (second from right), who died in 2014.
Courtesy Manhattan Transfer

Also remembering Hauser intently on this final night was the late singer’s sister, Faye Hauser, a former member of the Cockettes, who were already finding some fame on the New York City scene when her brother was starting up the Transfer. She designed their eclectic early looks in the early ‘70s, which looked more like glam-rock gear than the tuxes and ballgowns they settled into by the time they made “Tuxedo Junction.” She also migrated with the group, and with her friend Vilanch, when they all came out to L.A. in 1975 to work on a summer replacement series starring the quartet that lasted for just a handful of episodes on CBS.

“Tonight was bittersweet for me, because I love my brother so much,” said Hauser. “I was trying to keep my emotions at a low ebb because I didn’t want to start crying during the show, because it really encompassed everything. They did music from the very beginning, all the way through their career, and every time they sang a song, another vision would come to mind and I would play a scenario in my head that went along with the song at the time. It made me miss my brother so much because, I mean, this was his dream.”

She recalled how Tim Hauser had four-part harmony groups in high school as they grew up — not necessarily the going thing in their native Asbury Park in the ‘60s. “Tim used to go to New York to the Alan Freed show, and one time when we were kids, we went to see Frankie Lyman and the Teenagers, and Tim went backstage — and they welcomed him and let Tim stand in the center of their group and circled around him and harmonized to warm up for their show. That was a pivotal moment for Tim — an epiphany for him. Tim was obsessed, and his life took one direction, and it reached the pinnacle in the Manhattan Transfer.”

“It was just the two of us” as sort-of sibling soulmates, “and we were tight, so it’s hard for me to watch them without him, actually, and to hear the sound without his voice. But, I mean, I’m so tight with the rest of the group, too. We’re interconnected like a spider web — only in the best way. I mean, Janis and I, that’s a whole other history. We were the naughty ones!”

She remembers coming out to L.A. to write for the summer TV series, where she, Vilanch and future film producer Joel Silver formed the writing core of the show. “CBS loved it, they absolutely loved it,” said Hauser. “We thought it was going to go big and Tim and I would drive up Laurel Canyon Boulevard and look at the hills and say, ‘Where shall we live? But then the ratings… it was too far ahead of its time.”

Vilanch recalled a pivotal moment during the making of that network show when he realized the group’s impact would long outlive the series itself.

“Nobody watched,” the future Oscarcast writer remembered. “We were on at 7 Sunday nights, in the summer,” as a replacement for Cher’s hit series, “and Disney was on the other channel… So we didn’t really get a rating, so we were kind of desolate about it. I came into the studio one day after a few of the shows had aired. We were shooting the last one at CBS Television City, and at a big soundstage across the hall was ‘The Carol Burnett Show.’ I was walking along to our studio and I heard the kids singing, and I thought, ‘It’s weird, we’ve done that number already.’ And I looked in, and on the Carol Burnett set, they were all in their tuxes and ballgowns: It was Carol Burnett as Janis, Vicki Lawrence as Laurel, with her red head, and Harvey Korman as Tim, and they were doing ‘Tuxedo Junction.’

“I ran, back in the days when I could still run, across the hall. The kids were sitting down and I said ‘Cheer up! Carol Burnett is doing an impression of you on her show.’ I said, ‘You know what this means? She would not do this if she did not think that everybody in America knows who you are. And she thinks you’re the next big thing.’ And here we are, 50 years later. Something I’ve learned in 50 years in show business: Carol Burnett is never wrong.”

* * *

How final is this farewell? KISS, another group celebrating its 50th anniversary after starting on the New York Club, also just did its purportedly final show, but had an asterisk to that, noting it was the final concert they would ever do in makeup. Maybe, I suggest, the Transfer could also pledge to leave the door open for future shows, if only sans makeup?

They laugh at that, but they really are shutting the door on future shows.

Probably. Maybe? Most likely. With the possibility of the door being open, like, a crack.

“I don’t think we know that,” says Siegel. “But we’re not gonna tour anymore, and we’re not gonna record anymore. Maybe there’ll be something one-off somewhere, or a little weekend somewhere. Because a lot of fans are angry that we didn’t hit the U.K., that we didn’t hit France, that we didn’t hit Germany, that we didn’t hit the Pacific Rim, that we didn’t hit Australia, that we didn’t hit New Zealand. So I don’t know.”

“Let’s say we don’t know,” agrees Paul, not wanting to give fans undue hope. “What we’re doing now is definitive. And it’s also unprecedented. We’ve never experienced anything like this before. We can’t really know.”

They each have some plans in the meantime. Paul wants to write and produce behind the scenes, is looking to finish up a long-in-the-works documentary about the group, and envisions doing solo performing at some point. Bentyne definitely has solo shows in the planning, but just two, to be exact; she’ll be at the Purple Room in Palm Springs Jan. 26-27, and then will take an extended, indefinite break from there.

Siegel looks to be the busiest straight away. She teaches music at NYU, for one thing. But outside of academia, she has shows booked for Birdland in New York in January with two major guitarists, to be followed by an album coming out this spring — “The Colors of My Life,” a tribute to the music of Cy Coleman — in conjunction with the group’s longtime pianist, Gershovsky. “So in other words, Janis isn’t doing anything,” says Bentyne, as they all share a laugh about Siegel, the most musically restless of the group.

Curless, the youngest member of the group, is reconnecting with some folks he had to leave behind when he joined in 2013, both as a touring singer and in his other career, as an audio engineer. “The last year has actually been letting those people in all of those fields make sure that they understand that I’m not in the Manhattan Transfer busy-ness anymore,” Curless says, “so if they think of me as someone who might do something that they are thinking about, the very next thing they think isn’t, ‘Oh, but he’s probably busy doing the Transfer,’ so they move on to another person.” If you need someone to man a mixing board or do the most technically demanding, Jon Hendricks-style vocalese singing in the world, his shingle is out for either.

What’s clear is that the Disney Hall show did mark the end of an era, as far as true vocal groups go. There are successors, but we won’t likely see a display of harmonic quartet prowess like that again in this or possibly any future lifetime. Pop music culture has shifted away from harmony as a priority, needless to say, and as much as the Manhattan Transfer remains the most influential vocal group in the realm of formal music education, the ensembles that come out of the university world don’t often have the same slightly rough-edged personality, let alone the potential to have hits, traverse genres and change the musical world.

“There will never be another Manhattan Transfer, but we certainly have spawned a lot of vocal groups — that are different than us,” says Siegel. “New York Voices is one that comes to mind. They’re a generation removed from us. But they’re from academia, and they do different repertoire. They’re just different — and wonderful, certainly.”

“Take 6, absolutely, in their way,” adds Paul. “But it’s interesting, because, I mean, what Jan just mentioned about academia… We’re old school. We didn’t come out of that world.”

“When I came in, with ‘Extensions,’ and our first recording was ‘Birdland,’” says Bentyne, “we were singing around one mic. Today, singers go separately on their separate mics; they EQ them perfectly and get ’em in tune and get ’em to blend. It just doesn’t have that soulful thing where voices come in and out, and there might be little quirks or little off notes. That’s what made us us. That was heart and soul. And as much as there’s great groups — please don’t get me wrong — it’s a different kind of recording. It’s perfection. Now, sometimes it doesn’t have the heart, but it’s got the great notes and you go, ‘Ooh, that’s a cool chord.’ But I think people feel differently when they listen to us. They feel how we were standing together and really singing together. You can’t replicate that anymore. That’s a lost art.”

Before they go, any last thoughts?

Siegel brings some levity into the room. “Any last words?” she repeats, putting it into the parlance of a condemned woman. “I didn’t do it!”

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