The Manhattan Transfer celebrate 50 years together

Back in 1969 when Tim Hauser first had the idea for a vocal group that could perform jazz, blues, swing, a cappella, bebop, rock, Brazilian music and you name it, I wonder if he imagined the success story that the group would eventually become.

The membership of the Manhattan Transfer as we know it today was established a few years later in 1972. Fifty years later, the group has recorded 30 albums, gone through several personnel changes, won 10 Grammy Awards, earned gold and platinum certifications and Top 10 pop hits, and been inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame — not to mention countless tours, television specials and more.

The Manhattan Transfer are celebrating that 50-year milestone with their latest album, appropriately titled Fifty. 

Founding member Janis Siegel joined us to tell us more about it.

Fifty years, it’s a big milestone. Have you had that moment where you’ve sat back and thought… “What?

Every second. I haven’t really let myself dwell on it that much, because there’s so much work that needs to be done. I’m still in the moment of working, which is my MO. That’s what made Tim Hauser such a leader of the group. He was the dreamer. I’m the worker bee.

Is that the formula? Is that one of the things that helped the group get to this point?

I believe so. It just turned out that way. We had the dreamer, we had someone who could do the day-to-day work… Alan [Paul] was from Broadway, so he knew about movement, choreography, lighting and stage presence. And then Laurel [Massé], our original partner, was the granddaughter of someone who was in a professional choir, so she knew about choral rehearsal, diction and vowel formation.

You’ve all brought so many things to the group. You’ve obviously picked up pieces from one another, right?

Absolutely. I’ve learned from other people, too. I reached out to Jimmy Giuffre when I was arranging Four Brothers, for example, and he opened up a whole new world for me. I learned by doing it, and we all learned from each other. I learned how to perform from Alan, for sure. I was a hippie folk girl.

Were you really? I didn’t know that.

Yup! I played the guitar and everything.

You’ve been working on various solo projects, touring as a solo artist, making records and guesting on other people’s work. How hard has it been to juggle all of that?

It’s essential balance. I love harmony singing. That’s my real love. I love being the alto. I love sitting in the middle of the chord. That’s where I live. I love hearing the chord. I’m in service of the chord. However, there are a lot of things to be learned as a solo artist, such as individual expression, how to be a leader, learning from other people and then bringing that energy back into the group. That has been very beneficial. It’s kept me sane, because the job of the harmony singer is consistency. You have to sing the exact part every night. That’s the goal, anyway. That’s your job. So it’s a little bit of a constriction, in a way. To be able to get out of that and flex your muscles and really learn some other ways of doing things and pick your own repertoire and your own collaborators is very beneficial.

How do you describe the feel of this new record Fifty? What did you want to create when you went into this?

This was actually a pandemic project that was spearheaded by our manager Ed Keane, with the help of our European agent. It really kept us together, planning this thing on Zoom over the course of the year. It had to be done in sections. Ordinarily we would have flown over to Cologne to be there at the instrumental sessions [with the WDR Funkhausorchester], but we had to do it in pieces. And it worked. We wanted to take various transitions in our career and revisit some of the tunes that were instrumental — no pun intended — in our career. The new cut is The Man I Love, which is a vocalese treatment of Artie Shaw’s instrumental of the Gershwin [song].

This interview has been edited and condensed.