JANIS SIEGEL: THE HIGH OF HARMONIES
PCC Talks With The Manhattan Transfer Singer


By Paul Freeman [ May 2015 Interview]

For The Manhattan Transferís Janis Siegel, harmony is a way of life.

At 12, Siegel and her girlfriends formed a harmony trio, The Young Generation [later renamed Laurel Canyon]. They went on to record for the Red Bird label, which specialized in girl groups like The Shangri-Las.

But itís with 10-time, Grammy Award-winning group The Manhattan Transfer that Siegel found fame.

In 1975, Siegel joined Tim Hauser, Alan Paul and Laurel Masse (who, after being injured in a car accident, was replaced by Cheryl Bentyne] in the innovative Manhattan Transfer. Acclaimed albums, awards and a CBS TV variety series followed. Their big hits included ďOperator,Ē ďTwilight Zone,Ē ďBirdland,Ē ďThe Boy From New York CityĒ and ďChanson DíAmour.Ē The group was among the first inductees in the Vocal Group Hall of Fame.

Tim Hauser passed away in 2014, but The Manhattan Transferís sound continues to thrill. Trist Curless now fills his spot.

LondonJazz said of the group in 2010, ďThere's no act remotely like New York's Manhattan Transfer. The close harmony vocal quartet can do everything from Doo-Wop to Broadway schmaltz, from big band swing to fusion. In a long career, they've steered a Grammy-encrusted course between jazz credibility and the sweet smell of pop success.Ē

Many diverse collaborations have also enlivened Siegelís career, including those with Fred Hersch, Bobby McFerrin, Turkish modern classical composer Ilhan Mimaroglu, Australian flautist Jane Rutter, violinist Nadja Solerno-Sonnenberg, R&B singer Leon Ware and the Beaux Arts String Quartet.

Siegelís latest of many outstanding solo albums is ďNightsongs.Ē Her rich alto sounds as beautiful as ever. She took time to chat with PCC.

POP CULTURE CLASSICS:
What is it about Manhattan Transfer that has made the group so timeless, the sound so enduring?

JANIS SIEGEL:
Well, one thing is, I think, no matter what is happening in popular music, people will always want to hear the sound of the human voice, in harmony, especially. Thatís sort of a timeless thing. Also the Transfer has been kind of eclectic, stylistically. We never tied ourselves down or associated ourselves with one particular style. From the very first record, we always did whatever struck our fancy, actually. And I guess, if you had to define it, it would be sort of exploring the different facets of American music, specifically doo-wop and rock íní roll and R&B and jazz and bebop, swing music, Vocalese, scatting, improvisation - that kind of stuff.

PCC:
Being eclectic certainly became a strength, but early on, were you worried that being difficult to categorize might work against the group?

SIEGEL:
Well, I think itís all a double-edged sword, you know. Yes, I mean, we were never really worried, but record companies certainly were [laughs]. In those days, if they couldnít describe it in one word, they didnít know how to market it.

PCC:
In the beginning, the jazz community embraced the Manhattan Transfer music. Were they put off, the more elitist element, when the group moved in more pop directions?

SIEGEL:
Yeah. I think the jazz purists were like, ďWhat?!! Why arenít you doing more Vocalese. What?!,Ē when we did ďBoy From New York City.Ē But we fooled them all, when we won two Grammys, for Best Jazz and Best Pop in one year.

PCC:
So when did you first fall in love with harmony?

SIEGEL:
As a kid, really, while I was in grade school, I think. The first record I ever bought was ďLollipopĒ [The Chordettes], the one that had all the cool harmony in it. And then, really, when I was 12, I was a member of a three-part harmony group [The Young Generation]. My girlfriends and I got together to sing harmony.

PCC:
Were you singing girl group numbers?

SIEGEL:
Yeah, exactly, in fact, we were on the label for girl groups, which was Red Bird Records.

PCC:
When the voices are meshing perfectly in harmony, is that a unique rush, to be in the middle of that?

SIEGEL:
Itís a complete rush. And I, as the alto, am in the middle of it. And thatís what I love. I like to hear the chord and my function in the chord.

PCC:
How did you personally first discover early swing?

SIEGEL:
Well, that, specifically, I would give total credit to my deceased partner, Tim Hauser. He turned me on to all that. I mean, I was a jazz fan already, but I was more like bebop and free jazz and blowing and John Coltrane and Monk, all of that stuff. I wasnít really into the vocalists. And I certainly didnít know anything about swing. So it was really Tim that started my education and started me on the path.

PCC:
Meeting Tim was serendipity?

SIEGEL:
Yes, it was total chance. It was absolutely 1000 percent just chance. I was singing with my girl group and we were playing at a club in New York City. Tim was driving a cab. And he picked up our conga player and brought him to a party that we were having. Thatís how I met him.

PCC:
Was it similar musical tastes, a sense of adventure in music that drew you together?

SIEGEL:
Well, at the party, he said, ďListen, Iím doing a demo. I need some singers to sing on spec,Ē which means you donít get paid, but if he sells the project, then youíll get paid. So I gave him my phone number and I showed up. And thatís how I met Laurel Masse, because he had met Laurel in the cab, as well. She actually got in his cab [Laughs]. Yeah, I met Laurel in the studio. And Tim was doing a demo for a solo deal for himself. And it was very eclectic. It had some bluegrass on it, which I loved. And it had some early jazz, like ďMinnie The Moocher,Ē but done with banjos and stuff like that. I thought it was really intriguing music.

PCC:
Beyond finding it intriguing, did you view it as having huge potential?

SIEGEL:
Yeah, I did. But more than that, I knew that thatís what I wanted to do. When I heard four-part harmony, I said, ďOh, my God! That is thrilling and I want to do that.Ē So it was really my gut that moved me forward. Itís not like I intellectually figured out it would be popular or it had commercial potential, because it really didnít [laughs].

PCC:
Working out intricate vocal arrangments, like on ďBirdland,Ē what was the process like?

SIEGEL:
Well, thatís kind of my favorite thing to do, is adapting instrumental arrangements for voices. And thatís Vocalese, basically. Working in tandem with Jon Hendricks, to me, thatís perfection. Jon would write the lyrics and then I would voice out how I thoughtÖ it was kind of like casting a play almost. Like who should sing that solo? Well, someone with a round tone. Itís a male singing, so maybe Alan, maybe like a French horn or a trombone. Well, this is a trumpet and that could be Cheryl. And voicing it so that it really captures the feeling of the original instrumental.

PCC:
Were you able to learn a lot, working with Jon Hendricks?

SIEGEL:
Oh, my God, yes. Heís a master, so just being around him, sitting in a room with him, eating dinner with him, youíre learning stuff. He lived - Iím not sure if he still has his apartment, because during 911, he had to move, I think - but he had a place down in Battery Park and Iím in the Village, and when my son was little, I would just take the stroller and go down there and visit them in the afternoon and just hang out. I wanted my son to be around him, certainly. Jonís still active, heís around. Heís 92, 93 maybe. Heís a master. And the latest, greatest thrill is, our most recent Vocalese is a version of Lee Morganís ďSidewinder.Ē And Jon wrote the lyrics. And Jon came over to my house to help me figure out the solo, how to sing it, because, itís funny, he writes these things and itís almost like automatic writing. Sometimes he doesnít quite know how it fits into the music. So together we go through it and discover how the lyric marries with the music. And itís great.

PCC:
Is it a great gratification being able to introduce the public to new sounds, little known songs, inventive arrangements, inventive styles?

SIEGEL:
Oh, yes. Absolutely. Thatís the biggest thrill of all. If I may just talk about Tim for a minute, thatís really what he was interested in, which was making everybody feel the thrill that he felt, listening to this wonderful music. He was a collector. I mean, a big collector. A serious collector of 45s and 78s and, of course, eventually, vinyl and CDs. He was a serious doo-wop collector, too. But he just was wildly enthusiastic about the music and I think he started the Manhattan Transfer just to sort of let everybody share the joy.

PCC:
It must have been exciting when he brought in a new song that you hadnít previously known about.

SIEGEL:
Oh, yeah. And there was a lot that I didnít know at first, because I wasnít really a part of the doo-wop era. Iím a little younger than that. I was more of a hippie in the 60s. And I listened to Crosby Stills & Nash and Laura Nyro and Joni Mitchell. That was my thing. But Tim introduced me to that whole world of group harmony singing, that you still hear on the streets in New York City.

PCC:
With Timís passing, does it feel like his spirit is still present, when the group is performing ?

SIEGEL:
Absolutely. Yeah. Oh, heís with us all the way. Heís in every song. Yeah, we definitely feel his presence. Always.

PCC:
It must be great to be carrying on his musical vision.

SIEGEL:
Absolutely. And thatís a responsibility that we donít take lightly.

PCC:
And Cheryl is back? Her health is permitting her to perform again [She took time off for Hodgkinís lymphoma treatment]?

SIEGEL:
Cheryl is back. Yes, with full force.

PCC:
Doing the CBS TV show, did that take the group to another level?

SIEGEL:
Absolutely. It was a major network TV show on CBS that was on Sunday nights. The family hour, unfortunately, probably not the best thing for us, to be on at seven oíclock on a Sunday night or whenever it was. We wanted the show to have a more hip appeal. And we tried with all our might to do that and we had some amazing things, like we had the American television premiere of Bob Marley and the Wailers. We did all kinds of wacky and surreal kind of interpretations of the music. And our show did really, really well in the ratings on both coasts, and in the middle, absolutely nothing. So if we were on maybe later at night or another night of the week, it might have helped us. But what an experience it was, to have to deal with the network censors and get a show ready in a couple of days and learn all that music.

PCC:
Is there talk of another Manhattan Transfer album now?

SIEGEL:
Absolutely. Well, there has to be. There must be, because we need to forge a new identity. And the way to do that is to create the music together.

PCC:
Youíre starting to go through new material?

SIEGEL:
Thatís starting this week, in California, I think, where everyone else lives [laughs]. Weíve had conversations. Thereís a couple of things in the works. Weíre itching to get going. Itís not so easy to make a record these days, you know. Weíre not on a label. And labels - there are absolutely no risk-takers anymore, because the finances are so tenuous. And where do you sell the records? And thatís one thing we have to our advantage is that we are a touring group, primarily. We sing live - and thatís where most people sell their records these days, if youíre not Britney Spears or Justin Timberlake or Justin Bieber or Lady Gaga.

PCC:
Youíve recorded some impressive solo albums. Was that important to you, to be able to stretch creatively and have your own projects, where it was all about your vision, rather than an entire groupís?

SIEGEL:
Yes, itís always been a priority for me, after the group. And I think itís an important element, honestly, in the longevity, is that each of us has the ability to go out and explore other things, other ways of working, other partners in creativity and bring that energy back to the group experience. Itís a very different thing, touring by yourself and making all the decisions and having to carry something all by yourself. So, yeah, itís been amazing and Iíve worked with some amazing musicians, like Fred Hersch and Gil Goldstein and amazing Latin musicians. Now I have a Brazilian project that Iím in the middle of recording, which has been fascinating and wonderful.

PCC:
Is that classic Brazilian tunes or new material?

SIEGEL:
Itís a little bit of both. We have a version of ďLa Vie En Rose,Ē which is certainly not a Brazilian tune, but it marries perfectly with that style. We have one thing that I wrote a lyric to. Nanny Assis did, too. We put a jazz standard in there. I do a lot of singing in Portuguese.

PCC:
Generally, what are your criteria for choosing material?

SIEGEL:
I think itís a combination. At this juncture in my life, a song has to move me on a few levels. Its used to be where I didnít care about the words at all. I could sing novelty songs. I could sing pop songs that didnít matter, really. Now, especially in the solo work, I look at something I can relate toÖ or bring something to, bring another point of view to. Usually the way it happens is the music gets me first. And Iím very big on rhythm, as well.

PCC:
Working with Bobby McFerrin quite a bit over the years, what most impressed you about his artistry?

SIEGEL:
Weíll, heís a genius, first of all. I mean, singing with him was like a master class, again. And it was thrilling. It was two hours of improvised, a cappella music. So actually, it was very relaxing in a way [laughs, because there was no way you could prepare, except to be open. That was the only thing. You had to make sure that you werenít uptight, that you were primed and ready to go with whatever was going to go down that evening. You never knew what was going to happen. There was no repertoire, in other words, no parts you had to learn, no words you had to learn.

PCC:
You just had to be ready and open.

SIEGEL:
Thatís all you had to do. And you had to listen.

PCC:
How has your vocalizing evolved over the years? Has your philosophy of music changed?

SIEGEL:
Not really. It occurred to me very early in my career that if I was going to have a long and fulfilling time with music, I had to treat myself as if I was an athlete. But not be denying myself. My instrument is in my body. So I have to keep my body healthy and energetic and flowing and working, every part of me. But also it has to be balanced with having a real life, too, because everything informs the music. Having a child, having children, has been one of the greatest things for my music. It gives you a taste of unconditional love, for instance. Youíve got to live your life, too.

PCC:
Youíve got nine Grammys so far?

SIEGEL:
Nine or ten. I could go count them, if you like [laughs].

PCC:
[Laughs] So they are handy then?

SIEGEL:
No, I donít think thatís a good thing, either - your view in your home of awards and accolades and metal and all that stuff. I keep them away.

PCC:
Because thatís the wrong place to focus?

SIEGEL:
I think so. Itís nice, donít get me wrong. Itís very nice. But the focus should be on your craft and moving forward, not looking backwards.

PCC:
The Transfer, you must constantly hear how much the group has meant, not only to fans, but to musicians youíve influenced.

SIEGEL:
Thatís amazingly, amazingly gratifying, yes. Again, it was Timís dream. And certainly we do everything that we can to promote that, from doing master classes and teaching, and inviting young groups to come sing for us backstage at concerts. That just happened in Georgia and we heard an amazing vocal group. And it is very fulfilling, hearing that.

PCC:
Are there still goals you hope to fulfill?

SIEGEL:
Yes. The answerís yes. Absolutely. Thank goodness. If that was gone, I think weíd pack it in. But yes, thereís many more things we want to do. And certainly Iím very curious to see how our newest member, Trist Curless folds into this group. I want to feel his influence. Heís an amazing musician, comes from a different place. You know, heís not an urban guy, necessarily. Heís from Wyoming. And heís a younger guy. Heís got different influences. And I know that heís going to bring some different energy to the group. And Iím really looking forward to that.

PCC:
Sounds like an exciting future awaits Manhattan Transfer.

SIEGEL:
Yeah, weíre not ready to pack it in yet [laughs].

For more info, visit www.janissiegel.com and manhattantransfer.net