NEW YORK (Reuters) - Forty years ago, Tim Hauser put together a sophisticated little singing group he hoped would make a few hits.
The Manhattan Transfer went on to top music charts in Europe, dominate the U.S. jazz vocal scene for four decades, win Grammys in pop and jazz categories and even equal Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” album for Grammy nominations.
Hauser is still stunned by the success he and fellow singers, Alan Paul, Janis Siegel and Cheryl Bentyne have achieved around the world.
“I wanted to make a couple of hit records and work in the United States,” Hauser told Reuters in a recent interview.
Asked whether he imagined his group would still be making music 40 years later, he said: “No, I never thought that way.
“When you’re young, you’re thinking about what’s right in front of you — sex and drugs and rock ‘n roll! You don’t think of career and family.”
But that is how Bentyne describes the group, as family. “My daughter and Janis’ son came on tour with us as babies,” she recalled. “And right now she is in L.A. with Tim’s family.”
Like many families, each member of Manhattan Transfer has a voice — and a vote — in what songs they will sing and record, where they will tour, or who will handle lyrics or arrangements for each song. But like many musical acts, they often have differences of opinion.
“Creative differences? We thrive on creative differences,” Hauser laughed. “We can’t agree on anything. It takes us forever to agree. (But) There are certain guidelines that have to transcend personal feelings.
“I think underneath all of (that) we all genuinely like each other. And we all understand that what we do collectively is greater than what we do individually.”
Right now, Hauser operates as de-facto manager of the vocal quartet, which just released its first new album in five years — “The Chick Corea Songbook.” (Four Quarters Entertainment)
The record was inspired by the work of jazz great Chick Corea and features vocal interpretations of many of his popular compositions, including “Spain” and “500 Miles High.”
“We just made this great album and nobody managed us,” said Hauser. “We all know the numbers, there’s no magic, this isn’t brain surgery.”
Manhattan Transfer — the name harks back to a 1925 novel by John Dos Passos — has won 10 Grammys and has been nominated for 17. In 1981 they were the first group to win Grammys in both the jazz and pop categories — for “Boy from New York City,” (pop) amd “Corner Pocket” (jazz)
Four years later, the group’s album tribute to Jon Hendricks, “Vocalese,” earned 12 nominations, the same as Jackson’s “Thriller.” It won two Grammys.
But although it highlights their versatility, their range in music styles has also hurt the group, Paul said.
“It was a problem for record stores because they didn’t know where to put us — jazz or pop. It was very confusing. Some stores put us in both, but some didn’t like to do that.”
After early hits like “Operator,” “Birdland” and “Chanson d’Amour,” the group wanted to expand into more innovative music, but the purist jazz fans didn’t approve.
Then in 1978, Bentyne replaced Laurel Masse who had been injured in a crash and the group made “Extensions,” an album that included the radio hit, “Twilight Zone/Twilight Tone.”
“When Cheryl joined the group and we changed...Europe completely closed their door on us,” said Paul.
“They hated the change. They wanted us to stay the way that we were. They wanted us to be a nostalgia group, stay in our tuxedos and our tails...”
“We came out (on stage) in space suits designed by Jean-Paul Gaultier!” chimed in Bentyne.
“They (European fans) could not accept it. It took us years, up until the ‘Vocalese’ album — which was a full jazz album — that opened up the door again,” said Paul.
Asked if it was like fans booing Bob Dylan when he went electric, Alan said: “Exactly, absolutely.”
Bentyne explained what the group was trying to do. “Art cannot get stale — then it’s not art anymore, then it’s just repetition. Art is being bold and taking a chance. If you don’t get out on that ledge once in a while, there’s no point.”
Manhattan Transfer is out on that ledge again with the Chick Corea project, which should please jazz fans in Europe.
But what of the dwindling jazz enthusiasts at home?
“I think Europeans look at American jazz as an art form,” said Siegel. “They honor it and they cherish it and they respond to it in a way that many Americans don’t. It’s sad.”
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte