Arts / Harmony rules for The Manhattan Transfer

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The Manhattan Transfer, from left, Alan Paul, Cheryl Bentyne, Trist Curless and Janis Siegel. Photo: John Abbott

ALAN Paul has been singing with The Manhattan Transfer from the start – almost.

“CityNews” caught up with Paul by phone to Los Angeles as he prepared to join fellow artists Cheryl Bentyne, Trist Curless and Janis Siegel in a tour of Australia, including Canberra on March 1, when they’ll be performing hits such as “Birdland”, “Route 66” and “The Boy From New York City”.

He’s been with the sophisticated, multi-Grammy-winning ensemble for 46 years, but as he explains, he wasn’t exactly there first.

“Back in 1968, Tim Hauser had another group called The Manhattan Transfer,” he says. “They were together for four years and put out an album on Capitol and then broke up.”

By 1972 Paul and fellow singers, Siegel and Laurel Masse, were approached by Hauser with an idea for “a different kind of harmony”. It wouldn’t be quite what the earlier group had been doing but, “there was some history with the name, so we went for that”.

When they first got together, Paul says “the sound was definitely close harmony, which means parts written in exact parallel to the melody, as close as possible, chord for chord… that was the sound everyone was used to from the big bands.”

“But as we progressed, we found ways of opening up so that term ‘close harmony’ was no longer really applicable. Sometimes, for instance, we might record four-part harmony but then add extras to make it five or six parts, and sometimes we’d take the best of the chords and give those to the lead singer.”

Paul came to the group after having enjoyed a charmed life in the theatre. He’d played one of Fagin’s street boys in “Oliver!” then graduated to a part in the first Broadway production of “Grease”.

He plainly relishes the theatrical side of what The Manhattan Transfer does when it has fun with the audience, as in the  old 1938 number, “That Cat is High”. Even the video clip of its most famous hit, “Chanson d’Amour”, is full of mischief.

“The songs are not all serious,” he says. “We are crazy people, we all have our sense of humour and that comes out on the road a lot.

“Many people don’t realise that we’ve been on the road for 45 years; we’ve been together for 46 years and there is never a period when we didn’t work, so you just gotta have a laugh.

“We have been through the ups and downs but we are family. We’ve gone through illness and death, we’ve carried the emotion that comes out in the performances.”

He says that right from the beginning the group was always eclectic.

“We come from different backgrounds, but Manhattan Transfer gave us freedom to explore harmonies,” he says.

“Then when we signed with Ahmet Ertegun at Atlantic Records he allowed us to do our own thing, but it’s hard to pin down what we are. We are not just jazz, we like to sing R&B, too, and pop, rock ‘n’ roll and swing.”

When he first started out he studied vaudeville at an acting studio in New York that used old material from artists such as Eddie Cantor and Al Jolson.

“A lot of singers today study at university – it’s like they don’t have that street sensibility,” he says.

“Many of the greatest actors never studied, it’s nature to them…it’s like, so committed – that’s what we are.”


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