One of the most highly acclaimed vocal groups of all time, The Manhattan Transfer, will make its Scranton Jazz Festival debut this weekend with an 8 p.m. performance Saturday, Aug. 8.
Since forming in the early 1970s, the quartet has always authentically embraced a variety of musical styles – everything from boogie woogie and bop to R&B and pop – while creating a sound all its own.
“We have a very wide repertoire,” founding member Alan Paul said in a telephone interview. “For a show like this, we will incorporate a lot of vocalese, which is a style of singing that takes an instrumental, and lyrics are written and we sing that.”
Paul, who had been a child actor and part of the original cast of “Oliver!” on Broadway, was performing the roles of Teen Angel and Johnny Casino in the original production of “Grease” when he teamed up with Tim Hauser, Janis Siegel and Laurel Masse to form The Manhattan Transfer in 1972.
Paul said the group rehearsed constantly for about six months then started performing in former folk-music clubs in New York City.
“This was right after Vietnam and no one wanted to hear that (protest music) anymore,” he said. “There was a recession and people wanted to get out and party. There was drag and outrageous stuff, and we came out of that.”
Although it was different, Paul said the group was not exactly successful when it first started.
“At the very beginning, we were sort of an underground group,” he said. “It took us a long time to get a record deal, about two and a half years. Every record company that came to see us said we were really good but they didn’t know what to do with us.
“Then Ahmet Ertegun from Atlantic Records came to see us and he got us. He saw the potential and he signed us.”
The Manhattan Transfer’s self-titled debut album came out in 1975 (an earlier incarnation of the group that featured only Hauser from the latter group put out an album called “Jukin’” in 1971) and the second single, a remake of the Friendly Brothers’ gospel classic “Operator,” gave the group its first national hit.
The success of “Operator” led to a summer replacement comedy-variety show on CBS, and the group was off and running. Masse was injured in a car accident in 1978 and decided not to rejoin the group when it relocated to California later that year, and she was replaced by Cheryl Bentyne.
The quartet of Hauser, Paul, Siegel and Bentyne has been together ever since.
Bentyne’s first album with the group, 1979’s “Extensions,” proved to be one of its most successful, featuring the disco hit “Twilight Zone/Twilight Zone” and a cover of Weather Report’s “Birdland,” that went on to win two Grammy awards and become the group’s signature song.
The group hit No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1981 with a remake of the Ad Libs’ 1965 hit “Boy from New York City.” Also in 1981, the group became the first ever to win Grammys in both pop and jazz categories in the same year when they were awarded Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal for “Boy from New York City” and Best Jazz Performance, Duo or Group for “Until I Met You (Corner Pocket).”
The group’s 1985 album “Vocalese” was nominated for 12 Grammy awards (winning two), second only to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” as the most nominated single album ever at the time. The quartet was awarded the “Best Vocal Group” honors in the annual DownBeat and Playboy jazz polls for 10 consecutive years and was inducted to the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 1998.
Paul credits Ertegun and the flexibility to evolve and change he afforded them as the keys to the group’s lasting success.
“A lot of groups didn’t have that freedom, but we were so fortunate.”