Manhattan Transfer: Musical legacy is longevity

When you talk about longevity in the music business spanning a nearly 40-year time frame, Manhattan Transfer may not be the first artist or group that comes to mind. 

But they deserve to have that kind of recognition. The four-member harmony group first started performing in New York City in 1974, were signed to their first contract with Atlantic Records a year later, and scored their first national hit on the second release from their debut album, a song called Operator.

Tim Hauser started the group back then, recruiting the two female voices for the quartet, Laurel Masse and Janis Siegel when they were taxi fares for him during his cab driving days. 

They became a foursome with the addition of Alan Paul, who was co-starring at that time in the original Broadway production of Grease.

Today, the only change in the group’s line-up was when Masse left in 1978 after being injured in a car accident, replaced by Cheryl Bentyne. 

Hauser says he has a hard time understanding sometimes how a group who sing contemporary American music songs with a jazz influence are still going strong today. 

“It’s quite an achievement for us, “said Hauser this week in an interview with the Capital News from his home in Los Angeles. 

“Our North American audience kind of comes and goes through the years as music popularity trends come and go,” Hauser said. 

“But we have a solid base in Europe and Asia, and in Japan. We tour in those countries twice a year.”

In Canada, Hauser says Manhattan Transfer has been a performing staple over the years at jazz festivals in Montreal, where they received a lifetime achievement award, and Toronto. 

“I don’t think we played Kelowna before but we’ve played Vancouver and Victoria in the past.”

Hauser says their popularity overseas relates to their musical jazz roots, combined with how European and Asian audiences love jazz music. 

“I’ve always been curious about the jazz influence. I have read other jazz musicians say that it is the freedom of expression in that form of music that attracts people.”

Hauser says his dream was to create a four-part a cappella harmony group that was able to interpret songs in different musical styles, not just be solely stuck in the jazz mode. 

“My thought was at that time you would see harmony group singers who would specialize in a certain musical style, and they never ventured outside of that. I wanted to incorporate different music and singing styles, and I always, from the start, had the idea that it would be a four-part harmony group.”

The other suggestion from Paul, added Hauser, was the idea of the group always appearing dressed in elegant gowns and tuxedos. “Nobody else was doing that at the time,” he said. 

From the record success, Manhattan Transfer were fixtures on the variety show circuit in the 1970s, eventually getting the opportunity to host their own comedy-variety show in 1975 on Sunday nights. 

Their show was a challenge for censors who had issues with some of their more risqué song lyrics, such as Well Well Well, My Cat Fell In The Well, while the writing staff wanted to appeal to the family audience who normally tuned into The Wonderful World of Disney at that hour. 

One distinct footnote from their short TV variety show history was their program played host to the first U.S. television appearance of Bob Marley and the Wailers. 

In the years since, Grammy awards and hit records have followed, but Hauser acknowledges some frustration at times at the one-hit wonders who were more popular in their time than Manhattan Transfer but had no lasting power. 

“I understand that at times over the years we fell between the cracks, and we weren’t selling enormous quantities of records,” he said. 

“But then you look at other musical groups who weren’t as talented as us perhaps but who made enormous amounts of money for a brief reign of popularity, and you say to yourself that’s not right. 

“But I guess on the other hand, they haven’t lasted as long as us. 

“We’re still doing this and many of those bands are forgotten about 20 years later.”

Kelowna fans can be reminded why Manhattan Transfer has survived all these years when the group performs in concert Sunday, Feb. 27, 8 p.m., at Kelowna Community Theatre. 

Tickets are available at or call 250-762-5050.